Reading the tea leaves on SDSU’s letter to the Mountain West

President Adela de la Torre (center left in the red shirt) cheers on SDSU as they enter the practice at the Final Four. (Don De Mars/EVT)

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SDSU’s fans erupted after Lamont Butler’s buzzer-beater against FAU. (Don De Mars / EVT)

Just over a week ago, ESPN’s Pete Thamel added the latest twist and turn in the ongoing saga of SDSU’s conference realignment. Thamel reported on a letter from SDSU president Adela de la Torre to her Mountain West counterparts asking for a month extension on the June 30th deadline to trigger a doubling of the exit fee the university must pay for leaving the conference.

The MW interpreted the move as a notice of SDSU’s withdrawals, provoking the Jewel of the California State University System to quickly reply that they were simply asking for the extension, nothing more. This suggestion was not accepted by the MW, who is still treating the Aztecs as if they are exiting.

“As there has been a large amount of discussion about conference realignment nationally, we continue to do our due diligence to identify the best opportunity and fit in the interest of both our university and our student-athletes,” SDSU Athletic Director JD Wicker told EVT in a statement when asked about the letter.

Did the entity that in the last five years won the ballot initiative over Soccer City, secured the funding for and built a world-class stadium on time and on budget while a global pandemic raged, attracted professional rugby, women’s soccer, Monster Jam, and will soon have Major League Soccer as a tenant, suddenly forget how to negotiate? Not likely.

What, then, should we make of these developments?

In decoding the signs, it is important to remember the decision-makers in the MW and at SDSU are making political decisions. As profit is the aim of business decisions and progress is the result of technical decisions, the most important consideration in political decisions is optics. The best political decisions reflect positively on the people who make them, regardless of the outcome.

Adela de la Torre (center left) cheers on SDSU men’s basketball at the Final Four. (Don de Mars/EVT)

SDSU and the Mountain West have made a perfect political calculation.

Judging by the rancor of the fans of SDSU’s MW rivals on social media, there was no way the MW could grant SDSU’s request for a 30-day extension. Doing so would have been political suicide for new commissioner Gloria Nevarez and the ADs and presidents across the conference.

Just like everyone else in the world, de la Torre knew this before she sent the request. She had a different outcome in mind. She initiated a process by which the MW could grant SDSU an extension without having to say so publicly.

Here is how that plays out.

If SDSU is invited to the Pac-12 as expected but after this upcoming week, it will notify the MW that it agrees with the conference’s interpretation of the original letter. Should the Aztecs fail to land an invite, the MW will accept SDSU’s version. In either result, everyone involved will save face. It is a textbook political decision.

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Why would the MW be willing to work with SDSU in facilitating its move to a new conference?

College football’s landscape is far from settled. Another wave of conference realignment is coming in the next 5-15 years. No university wants to burn bridges with SDSU because the Aztecs are going to be in a better position to influence the future shape of collegiate athletics on the west coast moving forward.

It is in SDSU’s interest to avoid paying an extra $17 million in exit fees, but when that sum is divided among the remaining 11 teams, it is only an extra $1.5 million for each school. It would require years of litigation to recoup that paltry amount, and that would erode the proceeds even further.

The MW knew this before it sent its reply that reportedly denied SDSU’s request for an extra month while paradoxically also accepting the Aztecs’ resignation. How the conference could deny an extension while also saying SDSU informed them of leaving is impossible, but those details do not matter as much as the optics that they were tough on SDSU.

Reading the tea leaves on SDSU’s letter to the Mountain West suggests little more than savvy political moves from the groups involved. The past twelve months have been long on intrigue but short on substance. This recent development is more of the same.

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