At Mountain West Conference (MWC) Media Days last week, commissioner Gloria Nevarez addressed the elephant in the room. After a month of stress by fans and media over a series of letters sent between SDSU and the MWC, whose only practical result was an extension of the June 30th deadline, the commissioner ended all drama.
“As it relates to San Diego State, I am proud to report that earlier this week, we came to a resolution, and San Diego State will continue to be a member in good standing to the 23-24 season,” Nevarez said.
Absent from Nevarez’s words was any mention of SDSU in the MWC beyond 2024. When pressed about why she narrowed her remarks to include only this academic year, Nevarez sounded incredulous that a follow-up was asked.
The reason she did not mention the Aztecs remaining in the conference in 2024-2025 is obvious. If extended an invitation by the Pac-12, there is no monetary reason to stay in the MWC beyond this year.
Doubling of the Exit Fee
The end of “Lettergate” officially triggered the doubling of the exit fee that the Aztecs must pay should they leave the MWC in 2024. That amount, at most, is about $17 million more than it would be if it left in 2025. Even paying that greater amount, SDSU might lose money if it turns down the opportunity to switch conferences.
When Utah, a former MWC school, entered the Pac-12, it received a 50% share of conference revenue the first year in the conference and a 75% share the second year before earning an equal distribution in year three. Assuming SDSU matches Utah’s distribution schedule and the Pac-12 media deal is roughly the same as the Big XII’s, the Aztecs should be in line for a payment from its new home in excess of $15 million in 2024.
In this conservative scenario, SDSU would still lose $8.6 million ($2 million from the extra exit fee and $6.6 million from the MWC revenue distribution) by joining the Pac-12 when only exit fees and television distribution are considered.
Following its first year in the Pac-12, the University of Utah’s Center for Public Policy and Administration conducted a study to measure the economic impact of Utah’s conference move. It found that in addition to the TV revenue, Utah made an additional $2.3 million from out-of-town fans. The Center found that 1,056 more out-of-state fans per game came to Salt Lake City in 2011 compared to 2010, when Utah was still a member of the MWC.
Pac-12 fan bases travel better than their MWC counterparts. In years prior, most Pac-12 fans had two chances to come to Southern California for a vacation centered around their team’s football game. With SDSU the only member in the conference in the region, San Diego figures to be a hot destination for fans to travel to a road game in 2024.
Even if SDSU only matches what Utah had in 2011, it would gain about $3.1 million (inflation-adjusted) in revenue from out-of-town fans alone, dropping the number gained by staying in the MWC in 2024 to $5.5 million.
Out-of-town visitors are just one of many new revenue streams that would open up to SDSU as a Pac-12 member. Add in the attendance boost from local fans, potential increases in advertisement money, and donations from alumni to compete in the Pac-12, and the scales start tipping in favor of leaving the MWC for the 2024 season.
Negotiating the Exit Fee
SDSU AD JD Wicker has said in the past that the university cannot pay the $34 million exit fee. The good news for the Aztecs is they likely won’t have to.
“Exit fees are there for a reason, but they’re also highly negotiable and can be overcome, regardless of what it says in writing or in the by-laws of the conference,” retired Fox Sports Networks President Bob Thompson explained on Episode 79 of The SDSU Podcast. “So, I don’t look at any of these dates as a huge issue. Certainly, if you play it right down the middle per the terms of the by-laws or the Grant of Rights, whatever the governing agreement is for the Mountain West Conference is, it’s pretty simple, but even if all the circumstances don’t fall in line the way you wish, it’s still possible to move on.”
Thompson pointed to a recent precedent to prove his insight. When Oklahoma and Texas left the Big XII, the exit fee, according to the agreement the universities signed, should have been two years of conference revenue. In 2023, the Big XII revenue with OU and UT included would have been $37 million for each team. The exit fee should have been $147 million combined for both schools. Texas and Oklahoma agreed to pay $100 million, a 32% reduction of that total.
If SDSU negotiated the same deal upon leaving the MWC, the school would owe $23 million. This possibility further incentivizes the school to depart in 2024.
Moving past the June 30th deadline ensured there will be no windfall for the Aztecs should they enter the Pac-12 next year, but there are no substantial savings if they stay put. SDSU is a non-profit entity, so finishing the year flush with cash is not a possibility in either scenario.
Pac-12 Media Deal
The clock continues to tick on the Pac-12 to finally sign its media rights deal. If the conference goes into the upcoming season without knowing who will be keeping its lights on in 2024, it will be approaching lame-duck status. The impending end of the current deal will begin to erode the profits of the one it is currently negotiating.
That timetable of wrapping up this process by the end of August with a formal invitation soon afterward should give SDSU enough time to upgrade its infrastructure, add staff, and make all the needed preparations to join the Conference of Champions next year. Delays past that might make it impossible to do the legwork for the change.
There are reasons why the Aztecs will not be in the Pac-12 in 2024, but money should not be one of them.
My earliest sport’s memory involve tailgating at the Murph, running down the circular exit ramps, and seeing the Padres, Chargers and Aztecs play. As a second generation Aztec, I am passionate about all things SDSU. Other interests include raising my four children, being a great husband and teaching high school.