HOUSTON (AP) — The joy around the Mountain West Conference is palpable, stretching from the league office to each of its member schools.
After numerous near-misses, San Diego State gave the conference its first Final Four team by beating Creighton in the NCAA Tournament last weekend.
“There’s so much excitement, especially in the Mountain West office, because we’re so good in basketball and to finally break through and get this far is just amazing,” Mountain West Commissioner Gloria Nevarez said. “Couldn’t be happier for San Diego State. We’re super excited.”
They should be.
Getting a team through to the Final Four is a major boost for mid-major conferences — financially, promotionally, for visibility on a national scale, event attendance and recruiting.
The financial windfall comes from what the NCAA calls “units,” a tally of wins, automatic qualifiers and at-large bids that determine how much conferences are paid. Each distribution year is assigned a value for a single unit, which is paid to the conferences over the next six years.
The deeper a team goes in the bracket, the more units they accumulate. In other words, more money — well into the millions.
Larger conferences already have large coffers and distribute the money entirely to their member schools. Smaller conferences use some of the money to cover expenses and distribute the rest to the schools.
The additional money allows mid-major conferences to be bolder on the promotional front and upgrade league tournaments. Schools often use the influx of money to upgrade facilities, increase campus video production, even on an extra charter flight here or there.
With each unit at $2 million for this year’s NCAA Tournament, the Mountain West Conference will pull in an additional $16 million, thanks in large part to San Diego State’s run to the Final Four. Florida Atlantic, which will play the Aztecs in Saturday’s national semifinals, earned $10 million for Conference-USA.
“Not that the Missouri Valley, Mountain West or leagues below those expect to get to the Final Four, but it’s just found money and a great boost to your reputation, your swagger, not to mention financially,” said Greg Elgin, the Missouri Valley Conference’s commissioner from 1988 to 2021. “Everything is better when you have that kind of success.”
The Missouri Valley Conference had two big financial bumps in a five-year span: Wichita State’s run to the 2013 Final Four and Loyola Chicago’s run with fan favorite Sister Jean in 2018.
Many of the conference’s schools used the money to increase video production of sports across campus.
When the Missouri Valley Conference first started its digital platform, it produced about 430 events — some simply a shot of the arena video board coupled with the radio feed.
The influx of money from the two deep March Madness runs also includes a production stipend, which allows schools to invest more in on-campus production, often with students manning the equipment. Now the Missouri Valley produces about 950 events across all sports.
“It was a game changer for our membership because in the past they didn’t have the wherewithal to do a lot of Olympic sports,” said Jack Watkins, Missouri Valley Conference associate commissioner for media.
The biggest boon came from the Valley’s TV deals.
Before Wichita State’s run, the conference had a deal for a regular-season package of four men’s basketball games on ESPN2, six on ESPNU and a sub license with CBS to broadcast the conference tournament title game.
After the Shockers went to the Final Four and opened the next season 35-0, CBS bought the rights from ESPN to show eight regular-season games on the CBS Sports Network and the semifinals of the conference tournament — Arch Madness — which had previously been shown on regional sports networks.
Following Loyola Chicago’s 2018 Final Four run, CBS told the MVC it was picking up a four-year option on its sub-license with ESPN, extending what originally had been a five-year deal.
“When somebody is doing a sub license, you have to prove yourself all the time,” Watkins said. “There was a recognition by CBS that, OK, second Final Four school in a five-year span, and they picked up our option for the last four years.”
These deep March runs spread all types of wealth.
Attendance at the conference tournaments typically increases. So do applications at individual schools. Recruiting in all sports gets a boost.
Name recognition gives programs opportunities previously out of their reach, like multi-team events and off-shore tournaments like the Maui Invitational and Battle 4 Atlantis.
“This is the biggest national stage in college basketball and across a lot of other sports,” Nevarez said. “For us to have a team in this moment on this stage, you can’t buy this kind of advertising.”
No wonder everyone in the league is so happy.