WAC football gets new ESPN contract, new shot at bowls

Updated: July 29, 2004, 11:49 PM ET
Associated Press

RENO, Nev. -- Western Athletic Conference football teams will enjoy more television exposure and better access to the postseason under a new ESPN contract and changes in the Bowl Championship Series, the WAC's commissioner said Thursday.

Commissioner Karl Benson also acknowledged that the U.S. Justice Department has contacted the WAC as part of a preliminary investigation into ESPN's business practices but wouldn't say what the investigators wanted.

"All I can say is that we have been contacted by the Department of Justice and would expect if asked we would have to cooperate in the investigation," he said.

The new six-year ESPN contract is worth significantly more money than the WAC's previous deal and will put WAC teams on TV a minimum of six times this year and eight times per season after that, Commissioner Karl Benson said.

"That's nearly double the previous arrangement," he told reporters at the league's annual media day. He declined to specify the terms, saying only that the money is a "significant percentage increase."

"We think we've been a valuable property to ESPN. Our ratings have indicated we can compete from a ratings standpoint with other conferences," Benson said.

He predicted the WAC would get more TV games than the 8-game minimum later in the contract good through the 2009-10 season.

"As we continue to establish ourselves as good TV teams, we think that will go into double digits," he said.

Plans to expand the BCS to include a fifth game in 2006 also gives the WAC a great new opportunity to win its way into one of the traditional bowls, he said.

"That change is significant. Given the past three year history of the WAC, it is very likely we will have a team there in 2006," he said.

"Our champion the last three years (Boise State 2002-03 and Louisiana Tech 2001) has been able to get into the polls and establish credibility for the WAC and then been able to carry that success over into bowl games," Benson said.

The BCS will play five games at the current four sites starting in the 2006 season, with the bowl that hosts the national championship game also holding an earlier postseason game.

Under the new model, the championship game will still rotate between the Sugar, Fiesta, Orange and Rose bowls, but it will be played about a week after the other four games.

Benson said the interest of the WAC has been to try to "break down the barrier" between NCAA's six biggest conferences and the next four or five.

"The WAC was one of the original entities that challenged the system and created the access that now exists. ... This will begin a new era for Division I-A football, which in the past has been BCS vs. non-BCS," he said.

Benson said a key provision in the new guidelines is the so-called "16-qualifier rule," which says if one of the champions of the six biggest conferences is ranked lower than 16th in the BCS ratings, then other teams will have a shot at a BCS slot.

"So if the Pac 10 champ is ranked 18, then the next team in the Top 16 goes ahead of them," he said.

Purdue was ranked 20th as the Big Ten champion in 1998 and Stanford was in the 20s in 1999, Benson said.

If the new rules had been in place, four non-BCS league schools would have qualified over the past six years -- Tulane, Marshall, Texas Christian and Miami, he said.

In regard to the federal probe of ESPN, Benson referred to previous published reports that the investigation was into "business practices of ESPN."

The New York Times reported in June that the Justice Department's antitrust division had opened an inquiry into how ESPN acquires and uses its college football and basketball programming.

The newspaper said the probe could include a review of how ESPN uses football and basketball as leverage with conferences, and how it schedules football games at nontraditional times such as Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday nights to give colleges national exposure.

None of the TV games in the WAC's new contract is guaranteed to be played on Saturdays. Many will be on Friday night and up to two per year will be played on either Tuesday or Wednesday, Benson said.

The WAC's first choice is to play games on Saturdays "but the power of ESPN weighed against not having those games on ESPN," Benson said.

"It's hard to turn away from ESPN," he said.

Benson made it clear later in the news conference he was not being critical of ESPN. He said the network owns the rights and can set its own schedule.

Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press

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