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BYU, U. need to explore options

Brigham Young University and the University of Utah need to seriously explore alternatives to the Western Athletic Conference.

It doesn't make sense for BYU, long the WAC's flagship school, or for Utah, which has made significant strides recently and is expanding its football stadium, to be in a situation that limits growth and opportunities.For the first time, BYU's athletic budget finished in the red last year - this despite the fact the football team finished with a 14-1 season record, ranked No. 5 nationally and went to the Cotton Bowl.

That's because last year was the first year the WAC operated under its new television contract. It is far less appealing than the previous agreement with the College Football Association. The CFA was disbanded in 1996 after the South-eastern Conference and other leagues cut their own TV deals.

That was a near fatal blow to the WAC. Under the CFA agreement, BYU received around $700,000 annually in TV revenue. Even weak football schools like UTEP, which never appeared on regional telecasts, received close to $500,000. This past year BYU, despite its high-profile season, received a paltry $216,000 from the WAC TV package, nearly a 70 percent reduction.

The outlook is similarly pessimistic when new WAC TV contracts are renegotiated in a year or two.

That's because the conference is not dealing from a position of strength. It was a dubious decision in 1994 to expand to 16 schools instead of 12. As one WAC athletic director told the Deseret News at that time, "There aren't even two strong teams out there. Why would we want to add a bunch of weak teams to the conference?"

His comment is as valid now as it was then. Only one of the six new teams, Rice, has a winning record. Last year, the first year for the expanded WAC, only one of the six teams, Rice again, had a winning record.

Not only have the new schools not added prestige to the WAC, they've reduced the amount of revenue each school receives. The WAC pie used to be divided 10 ways. Now it's divided by 16. The 16-team format has also resulted in a scheduling nightmare. Gone are the rivalries with Air Force, Wyoming and Colorado State.

Of course, wanting to leave the WAC and being able to are two different things. It may be awhile before the opportunity to do so presents itself. The Big 10 (which is really the Big 11) reportedly is looking to add a 12th team. If that happens there will be a domino effect in other conferences.

BYU and Utah need to be ready to make a decisive move should another round of conference realignments take place.