Mountain West commissioner visits UNM as realignment hits college sports

Installed as the second commissioner in Mountain West Conference history on New Year’s Day, Gloria Nevarez sat courtside for Friday’s game in The Pit after getting a chance to tour UNM facilities, learn a little about Lobos athletics — and talk about the future of the MWC.

“I really am excited about the Mountain West because we are good, you know?” she said. “It ain’t broke, right? This is an additive experience for me, and I feel our brand needs to be the umbrella brand behind our schools and to help amplify our message across the Rockies.”

Nevarez left her post as commissioner of the West Coast Conference to replace Craig Thompson, the only leader the Mountain West had ever known. He was there when the league was founded 24 years ago, guiding it through exponential periods of growth and hardship.

The conference was unable to hold onto charter members Brigham Young and Utah, losing the latter to the Pac-12. It lost TCU to the Big 12, countering those setbacks by pilfering the Western Athletic Conference for its top teams.

The sheer geography of the region that encompasses the MWC is helping prevent further losses — for now.

“For a lot of years, the Rockies have been a little bit insular for us, kind of that barrier,” Nevarez said. “I still think it’s a great thing for us in that we are very like institutions in the region.”

UCLA and USC recently put that way of thinking to the test when they announced their intention to join the Big Ten, leaving behind a Pac-12 that appears to be on the verge of two huge scenarios: Total collapse or open for business for marquee Western-based schools outside the league.

To that end, San Diego State and Boise State are always targets, and Nevarez is aiming to do whatever she can to keep things in tact.

Her approach is to bind the schools in the MWC and make things as attractive as possible for every university still in the league. That means being proactive with the new multimedia and broadcast rights deal up for renewal in three years. She said the league will start negotiating a new deal by 2025.

The Pac-12 is in the midst of renegotiating its TV deal with its highest profile teams headed east, giving the Mountain West a blueprint for how to tackle the issue when it comes up.

The big question is how to handle streaming rights, an untapped and potentially huge money maker. No conference has truly mastered that platform, although the natural first step seems to be an in-house productions staff that can take a league’s message online while turning a profit.

“I don’t think any one entity has knocked it out of the park and monetized the streaming rights,” Nevarez said.

Watching how the Pac-12 handles it with its ongoing negotiation will be something of a roadmap to leagues across the country, particularly one as regionally close as the MWC — and one that consistently stands close (or equal to) the Power Five league in several sports.

“We’re in a very interesting position because we have a very strong digital network that we fully own,” Nevarez said.

As fun as the current basketball experience can be for the MWC — at the moment five teams sit inside the top 36 of the NET ratings — Nevarez knows the way forward is on the football field.

That’s what made this week’s trip so unique; UNM is one of the rare schools where its basketball team has the potential of outpacing its football team at the turnstiles.

The Lobo football team averaged just 14,966 fans this past season; the basketball team is threatening to topple that figure now that coach Richard Pitino has revived the state’s love affair with Lobos hoops. Friday’s crowd eclipsed that number, the second time this year it has done so.

“Well, just being here in the Western region we all know what the fans here bring to basketball,” Nevarez said.