Canzano: Gonzaga in search of a bidding war
Does a big men's basketball brand move the expansion needle?
Last year, Gonzaga University’s athletic department contracted with a high-profile consulting firm, I’ve learned.
To help the Bulldogs quantify their media-rights value and guide the university’s strategy as it explored possible alternatives to the West Coast Conference. But to really make a move work, Gonzaga still needs one important thing.
A bidding war.
In the WCC, Gonzaga enjoys a clear path to the NCAA Tournament. It has a unique media-rights agreement with ESPN for men’s basketball. And the school doesn’t have to equally share the postseason revenue it earns with other conference members.
Gonzaga isn’t yet ready to leave the WCC. But the Bulldogs are apparently kicking the tires. As coach Mark Few told me earlier this season: “So far what we’ve been doing has been working pretty good also, but the landscape is changing and we’re aware of that.”
Gonzaga has won 10 straight regular-season conference titles. It currently trails Saint Mary’s by one game in the men’s basketball standings. The regular-season champion in the conference gets the luxury of a double-bye in the conference tournament. The teams play on Saturday in Spokane.
Meanwhile, the Zags athletic department is positioning itself for the football-driven conference-expansion game being played off the court. But the private university in Spokane doesn’t have a football team. Gonzaga ceased playing the sport in 1941, abandoned the stadium, and the university later built the Foley Center Library on the site.
Earlier this month, I asked Big 12 commissioner Brett Yormark whether he thought college basketball was undervalued vs. football. Yormark said: “I just think it has been undervalued and it has been bundled with football. I think at some point in time that value proposition needs to change.”
Yormark subsequently hinted at some “big” things his conference was working on to help monetize the sport. Industry experts will tell you that men’s basketball typically accounts for 15-20 cents of every media-rights dollar. That traditional wisdom is about to be challenged, however, by Gonzaga and its consultant.
• Over the last three men’s basketball seasons, Gonzaga has averaged 657,000 television viewers per game. The typical Pac-12 team averages about 200,000 viewers for both non-conference and conference games.
• Gonzaga has earned more NCAA Tournament “units” than any program in the country in the last five seasons. Over the last decade Few’s program has averaged 3.5 units per tournament.
• Each unit was worth $338,000 last year. They are paid out on a rolling basis for six consecutive years. The Zags generate an average of roughly $7.1 million a year in postseason revenue.
• Unlike the College Football Playoff payouts, only a portion of the NCAA Tournament revenue goes directly to the teams that earn it. The bulk of the revenue is allocated to the NCAA for scholarships, financial aid, and putting on championship events in other sports. There’s a movement in play to rework that formula and expand the tournament field. If that happens, industry sources expect the value of the NCAA Tournament units to increase by a multiple of 5x or 6x.
Is Gonzaga better off staying in the WCC?
Depends who you ask. Late late year, I posed the question to outgoing WCC commissioner Gloria Nevarez. She told me: “Gonzaga has shown that they can vie for a national title from the WCC.”
Nevarez left the WCC in November and is now commissioner of the Mountain West Conference. Gonzaga still appears restless. Or at least it’s weighing whether a move to the Pac-12 or Big 12 or some other conference makes sense.
“If you’re the Pac-12,” said one media-industry source, “I think you’re crazy not to look at a brand that would drive value.”
Gonzaga’s athletic department did not respond to a message seeking a comment. The consulting firm declined comment. But I’m told by a well-placed source that Gonzaga doesn’t want to make a “basketball-only” move. The school doesn’t want to leave its non-revenue generating sports operating as independents. Any potential move, at least for now, appears to be an all-or-nothing proposition.
Yormark and the Big 12 appear interested. The Pac-12 feels lukewarm on Gonzaga, however. That bidding war hasn’t materialized. Perhaps because the Pac-12 is focused on expanding with a line of possible football additions.
The Pac-12 should look hard at Gonzaga. Not just because the Big 12 is, but because the school is located within the conference’s footprint and offers a way to replace UCLA’s brand and success in men’s hoops.
As former Zags’ great Dan Dickau told me on Wednesday morning: “Gonzaga is on CBS and ESPN more times than just about anybody in the country except maybe Duke and Kansas.”
Along those lines, ESPN’s College GameDay announced it will bring its two-hour show Saturday morning to the McCarthey Athletic Center for the game between No. 12 Gonzaga and No. 15 Saint Mary’s.
Spokane is media market No. 73. It has only 422,000 television households. But on Saturday it will be the center of the college basketball universe.
Dickau isn’t endorsing a hurried move to a new conference. Nobody at Gonzaga is. He said he likes the WCC just fine, but appreciates that his old school is exploring some fresh options.
He said: “You don’t want to get left behind.”
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In my lifetime Gonzaga went from a team I never heard of growing up (in Medford), ...to a Cinderella sweet sixteener, ...to literally be the best and most popular team to have not won a title.
However, will they become Duke? Or Georgetown? I don't think this is more thank tire kicking at this point.
Wilner summed it up well in his piece on Gonzaga. The big questions you have to ask are how long will Few still be there (he's 60), and can they remain a brand name program once he's gone? It's a gamble given what it would cost to get them. I'm not sure I blame the Pac for passing if it really is a bidding war.