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Mountain West commissioner on adding Pac-12 schools: 'Everything is still on the table'

Eric Prisbellby:Eric Prisbell08/10/23


Two months ago, commissioner Gloria Nevarez oversaw a Mountain West Conference seemingly on the verge of being picked apart by a century-old league looking to expand after securing a major media rights deal.

But in the zany world of college athletics, life comes at everyone fast. Fortunes change overnight. Roles shift or even flip.

Now the Mountain West is the aggressor, pursuing adding what’s left of the crumbled Pac-12 Conference, mulling a possible merger if it’s advantageous, and looking unified in keeping its existing membership intact. Well, that’s the state of play this morning, with market conditions subject to change and stakeholders confronting a new normal of fluidity that makes sense only in this topsy-turvy college sports enterprise.

In an exclusive interview with On3, Nevarez discussed her league’s expansion strategy, the broader direction of college athletics, the NCAA’s efforts to reform the NIL space and more. The Mountain West is interested in adding anywhere from one to four of the remaining Pac-12 schools – Oregon State, Washington State, Stanford and California – as the realignment wheel continues to spin. Interestingly, the ACC’s pursuit of Stanford and Cal hit “significant roadblocks” on Thursday.

(The interview has been lightly edited for clarity and context.)

Q: You’re looking to expand. Is there a “right” number of schools to add from the Pac-12, or anywhere between one and four?

NEVAREZ: “I think anywhere from one to four. We’re actually pretty good where we are. But, obviously, you want to be capitalistic in this environment. And so both any opportunities that result from the movement in the Pac-12, but also, we have had on the docket, we actually pushed forward a membership subcommittee meeting to continue to explore the next phase, next-generation schools in case we lost schools during this round.”

Q: And those would include what type of schools – Group of Five?

NEVAREZ: “We have a variety of factors that we can look at. But we did a rank order prioritization, and a lot of it has to do with fit and strength, adding football excellence, because, as we can see in this current environment, that’s the driver behind the success of a lot of programs in sports. And then really every school is so unique, it’s kind of a cast a wide net and then start filtering through what might be a possibility.”

Q: With regard to the Pac-12, moving to add one or more of those schools is one path forward. A merger with what remains of the league is something else entirely. Is a potential merger with the Pac-12 on the table?

NEVAREZ: “It’s not off the table, but we have a lot of questions. It is like buying a house. You wouldn’t buy a house without a complete inspection. So there’s just a lot of questions, and they’re the type of questions that I think the Pac-12 or the remaining schools in the Pac-12 need to have time to figure out. Then also questions for us about assets and liabilities and fit and what’s really there. But certainly – absolutely everything’s still on the table.”

Q: How important is it to retain the conference name – the Mountain West Conference?

NEVAREZ: “Both brands are really strong. And let me just say it breaks my heart. This is a 108-year-old league. I went to law school at Cal. I worked in the conference office. I’m still a little bit shocked and a little bit crushed. People could argue brand strength, but I think it has an incredible brand. So that to me is an asset. But again, it’s part of the greater calculation of assets and liabilities and what is there and what isn’t.”

Q: I’m still trying to figure out how a merger – rather than merely adding Pac-12 schools – would benefit the Mountain West. Is that answer clear to you at this point, or are you still mulling over what it could entail?

NEVAREZ: “I’m still mulling it over myself. But it’s hard to think of that league in parts and pieces versus a whole. We have a really strong brand. I love our geography, and schools are in a lot of places where they are the only show in town. Large, public, a lot of land grant institutions. We have a lot of commonality in that kind of first-generation, world-expanding opportunity at our schools. 

“There’s a lot of similarities with how the Pac-12 sees itself and is aligned. Going back to – I still can’t believe it. Think about all the good things the Pac-12 did. Their student-athlete health summit. That was incredible. They took all their medical thinking and research and put it all together to work on athletic issues. And they had this incredible data collection project, innovative, really powerful. They had an independent sales arm. So many good things.”

Q: Nobody wanted to see the Pac-12 implode. If you had your preference, would the ideal scenario be adding Pac-12 schools instead of a merger?

NEVAREZ: “I’m not at that point where I’m rank ordering yet. There’s still lots to be learned about a merger. It interests me a lot. But I’m proceeding with eyes wide open and need a lot more information. So I’m not yet at the point where I can put one above the other.”

Q: Say everything worked out ideally for the Mountain West: You add multiple Pac-12 schools. Do you see a path forward for an expanded MWC toward potential Autonomous 5 status? Is there an opportunity there because of the current depleted condition of the Power 5 conference, the Pac-12?

NEVAREZ: “That’s an interesting question because there are three different categories. Autonomy, CFP (College Football Playoff), and FBS. Autonomy is just the ability to vote on different language. The real key piece here, where the revenue is – it is CFP status. And the CFP is a separate corporation governed by the Board. And the Board has, like many corporations, the power to take away and give units. So it would really be up to the Board. Certainly, we would work through the process and make our arguments. But the way the votes are weighted right now, it would be an uphill battle.”

Q: Would you be disappointed if the Mountain West did not add at least one Pac-12 school?

NEVAREZ: “I don’t know if disappointed is the word. It would feel like a missed opportunity for sure. These are four schools used to receiving $30 million a year. We are not in that stratosphere. But I certainly think we could provide an excellent landing place for those in need.”

Q: How confident are you that San Diego State and others will remain in the Mountain West?

NEVAREZ: “I’m confident that we are in sync and united today. I’m certainly not naive to think the market could not change again. This thing is so fluid … I really do believe where we stand today we are strongly together and it makes sense for us to stay together.”

Q: Big picture, all the realignment moves we’ve seen the last few weeks were driven by media rights dollars. That’s reality. But are these moves, broadly speaking, in the best interest of the overall college sports enterprise?

NEVAREZ: “So tough to say. I’ve been on campus and I know the pressures of being on campus and having the resources to compete at the highest level. And right now, those are being provided in large part by media dollars. And so, on the one hand, you can hear the student-athletes expressing their concerns out there about the toll the travel will take. 

“But, on the other hand, the resources that are being gained are the things that keep sports sponsored, people employed and resources at a high level for student-athletes. So, I’m not one to judge. But also there’s innate tension there I think that folks are feeling.”

Q: What is a commissioner’s role like these days? Much like a college coach, recruiting and retention are critical. But not recruiting and retaining athletes, but rather schools for their leagues. What’s it like navigating that?

NEVAREZ: “A lot of people ask me what is it like being a commissioner. And one of the things people find surprising is we have very little legitimate authority. There are very few things that I can just autonomously go out there and say, ‘This is what we are going to do.’ Ninety-nine percent of what we do is building consensus, finding a way through that is best for the league and trying to wrangle everyone toward a common position or lead them into what I think is right for the group.

“So that is a lot of different constituents and a lot of different agendas. And their first priority is always their own school, and you have to remember that. So modern commissioning – it used to be about governance and officiating, and level playing fields – and now it’s about media rights, membership, marketing and brand. It has really been an interesting evolvement.”

Q: Let me pivot to NIL. The NCAA, of course, is working on formalizing a new NIL policy centered on transparency and consumer protection measures. Is that enough? Or would you endorse the NCAA working on a broader, more comprehensive so-called Plan B in case efforts toward a federal NIL bill fall short?

NEVAREZ: “I’m actually very much aligned with new NCAA President Charlie Baker‘s NIL plan, his strategy for it. And I think there does need to be congressional intervention, at least to help us level-set state laws to help us be able to enact national NCAA policy without the constant threat of litigation and restraint of trade. 

“I do believe strongly that student-athletes shouldn’t be deemed employees. I’ve heard from a lot of student-athletes, and it’s not what they want. And I would like to see a way for campuses to get more involved, to help stop pay-for-play, but also to help provide protections for student-athletes. I’ve heard a ton of stories about signing away rights into perpetuity, or deals that didn’t come to fruition.”

Q: Many industry leaders told me the employee model would be a net negative for student-athletes and schools. But it is possible to implement a revenue-sharing model without ushering in an employee model. A revenue-sharing model in which student-athletes would receive a slice of the TV media rights revenue. Do you believe it is time to at least explore – just explore – what that type of revenue-sharing model would entail?

NEVAREZ: “Yeah, I’m absolutely for exploring innovative models that help us balance the system. And then I read a lot of student-athletes’ statements about these most recent moves by schools about the lack of revenue sharing. So, again, I think it’s something we should explore.”

Q: Under such a revenue-sharing model, what are the Title IX implications?

NEVAREZ: “Anything that goes through a campus is subject to Title IX. And it’s incumbent upon that campus to do whatever they do in accordance with Title IX. That’s what’s imbalanced about the current NIL situation because it’s outside the school. It’s not subject to Title IX. So I would think that’s a little bit more why I believe NIL should come into the campus because then it would be subject to all those controls and regulations.”

Q: I’m in Texas, where there is a new, school-friendly NIL law. There are others in Oklahoma, Arkansas, Missouri and New York. They conflict with NCAA guidance. And the NCAA is hesitant to enforce its own policies because it is vulnerable to legal challenges. How can that conflict between new state laws and the NCAA be reconciled?

NEVAREZ: “I saw the memo from the NCAA saying the NCAA rules on this are the rules on this. If you have a state law that’s different, the NCAA rule stands, because it’s not a right that you need to compete in the NCAA. You can compete in the NAIA or whatever, which would be a completely different proposition.”

Q: A different subject: Data deals. It’s a complicated, evolving space. The Big 12 will soon announce a data deal. The MAC has a highly publicized one with Genius Sports. How much has the Mountain West explored this space?

NEVAREZ: “We are deep in it. We are up to the eyeballs. We’ve talked to all the vendors and are researching. It’s such an evolving space. When you go to market for media rights, everyone’s bidding on your media rights. And there are some different ways to couch it, but, by and large, they pay us. They license the rights, whereas this space is so different. Vendor A offers something that sounds like, ‘We’ll buy your rights for data for the purpose of entertainment.’  Another [says], ‘We’ll use it for gambling.’ It’s just so different. 

“We’re really trying to get our arms around, ‘Ok, where do we fit? What pieces and parts do we want? And can we monetize that in the market?’ So, we’re optimistic. We actually have quite a few states in our league that do have legalized sports wagering. But we also really need to balance the integrity piece, making sure that the integrity of our games, contests and protecting our student-athletes from undue influences, that we have controls around that in place as well.”

Q: Are concerns regarding sports gambling implications heightened on the heels of the Alabama baseball scandal and the investigations involving dozens of student-athletes at Iowa and Iowa State?

NEVAREZ: “It used to be, you know, ‘Oh, Nevada, legalized gambling, Vegas, Reno, both of which are in our league.’ But now you can gamble anywhere. While there are states that prohibit it, it’s really a national, if not international thing that we can’t ignore, and need to continue to monitor from an integrity piece and then make sure that our data is being used – owned by us, controlled by us and being used the way we feel best.”

Q: Political poll questions always ask are you satisfied with the direction of the country. So are you satisfied with the overall direction of the college sports enterprise?

NEVAREZ: “That is a tough question because I am not one who shies away from change. I embrace it. I think it’s good. I think enterprises need to go through it, but even the change that’s happening right now is pushing my boundaries of comfort.”

Q: Can you say definitively, as of today, that the Mountain West will not dissolve?

NEVAREZ: “Yes. Yes, I can say that definitively today, right now at whatever time it is … It is such a dynamic, fluid environment. And to one of your earlier questions, you just can’t take that for granted. That is now part of the job, trying to really anticipate that, keeping in touch with your membership and being in tune with how the dominoes are falling around the country.”