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Realignment, Relegation & Everything on the Table in the Mountain West Conference

As MWC Commissioner, Gloria Nevarez must navigate realignment and more during the most turbulent period in the modern history of the NCAA — here’s how she’s doing it.

If anyone knows about college sports out west, it’s Gloria Nevarez. She was an administrator at the Pac-12 Conference before becoming commissioner of the West Coast Conference, making her the first Hispanic-American to lead a D-I league. Since January, she’s been in charge of the Mountain West, helping guide the conference through one of the wildest periods in the history of college athletics.

And there’s no reason to think the madness is over.

While the Pac-12 is all but finished as a conference after a century of existence, Oregon State and Washington State still need a home. The Mountain West makes sense as a landing spot. At the same time, the MWC needs to do everything it can to gain positioning to compete for championships in football — and a report surfaced this week that the league could expand and then entertain a promotion/relegation model similar to international soccer by which an upper tier of the league would exist under the power conference umbrella (whatever that will mean in the year 2024 and beyond).

As college sports continue to undergo seismic changes at every level, Boardroom caught up with Nevarez to discuss a wide range of issues, from realignment to NIL and media rights.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

RUSSELL STEINBERG: You’re in a position now where you’ve got a pretty strong league, particularly in football and men’s basketball. In the big picture, it does seem like the Mountain West is in a good spot as it stands now, realignment madness aside.

GLORIA NEVAREZ: You know, we still have our geographic footprint. Our membership, our board put out a statement talking about how aligned we are and I think that’s what’s really been the thing that’s kind of kept us strong through this.

RS: It’s a part of your job, of course, to always keep an eye out on the landscape and know what other institutions might offer. Without even considering [Oregon State and Washington State specifically], just kind of big picture, if you look at a school, what values or what qualities are you looking for?

GN: As soon as I started the job in January, we immediately created a small working group — three presidents, three ADs — to begin regularly, as you described, staying in front of the issue and looking at the environment. And when I started, it was in the news that San Diego State was likely going to be picked up by the Pac-12 or the Big 12. And so at that time, we were scrubbing the universe. If we lose one school, if we lose two schools, if there’s Armageddon, and each time, that priority rank order would change a little bit depending on what the environment was. Were we adding for strength? Were we adding for strength in numbers? It’s a really constantly evolving whiteboard.

RS: What would those priorities be now? Is it market, is it athletic strength, academic strength, or some combination of all of it?

GN: Yeah, I think at the top of our list is mission core value alignment. But we had put a pause on our membership working group for a little bit during the Pac-12 issues because the board was dealing with that directly. Now that we have a little bit more clarity on where Stanford is gonna go, we’re reconvening that group to answer that exact question.

I was convening the whole board regularly to keep them up to speed on what was going on. Now that it’s settled down a bit, we’ve reconvened the working group to deal with our next year to 3 to 5 years and how we should be looking at membership given this current environment.

If I’d have to characterize it, it’s a lot of sorting of fact from fiction. Our group has been really good, letting me know when they hear certain things, pointing me in the right direction to do the due diligence to find out if there’s anything real behind the rumors or not.

RS: I saw the buzz over the whole promotion/relegation possibility. Every time realignment heats up, all sorts of crazy scenarios float out there, but what do you make of that one? Could it really work in college sports?

GN: It was funny because I credit Craig Pintens at Loyola Marymount for the first time putting it in front of me when I was at the West Coast Conference because we lost our [automatic qualifier] in softball and he had penciled out a whole western region in softball, promotion and relegation. So, it’s been around obviously because of European soccer, but it’s been talked about in all these different versions around college athletics.

I’m interested in anything that makes us stronger. It certainly is innovative. I haven’t yet had a chance to really dig in and apply it to what we do every day. But we’re looking at everything going forward.

RS: You’re the commissioner of what I guess we’d call a Group of 5 conference–

GN: FBS, one of the nine FBS leagues.

RS: There you go. The whole structure is kind of changing anyway, but what sort of challenges do you face as a commissioner in your league that perhaps the largest conferences don’t necessarily have to worry about?

GN: I feel the Mountain West is in a really good position. We know who we are. Certainly, our size, scope, budgets, and revenue aren’t at the level of the [ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, SEC], but there is access to the College Football Playoff and whether it stays at six and six or changes to five and seven, that’s TBD. But I still think the Mountain West is really well positioned among the nine leagues to be in that Playoff, which would mean a lot to us and help really elevate and continue to elevate what we’ve been trying to do.

You know, it’s interesting that we’re celebrating our 25th season. So we are, relatively speaking, one of the younger leagues. I mean, the Pac-12 is 108 years old.

RS: It’s a relatively young league but it’s one that’s been very competitive, particularly in football. What does allow your programs to succeed even without the gigantic media rights deals that the other conferences have?

GN: You know what I really love? The commonality within the Mountain West. Large public institutions that provide really good access to education and really serve their communities. And you’ll notice a lot of our schools are the only show in town. It feels a little bit more midwestern in scope with regard to kind of scrappy, roll-up-your-sleeves tenacity, work ethic, first-generation type of cultures that we have on our campuses. I think that “gonna make it off the strength of our backs, not anything that was given or assumed” just seems to be that piece that drives our schools.

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RS: Being public universities, being the only show in town, and that commonality — are those priorities that you would look for in potential future members? If so, why is it important that they share these qualities?

GN: It’s not a requirement and I wouldn’t want to box us in to limit our future in any way, but certainly, those characteristics are what describe us now and are gonna be important when assessing fit and alignment within the league. But I wouldn’t draw a line under any single requirement or characteristic because the collegiate environment is so different.

There aren’t four types of schools. Every school is unique in its own way. One good example is Air Force, right? I mean, they don’t look like what I described as far as large and public, but they certainly share those mission core values and characteristics.

RS: So when you do look around and you see what has changed in the last however many weeks, are there any lessons as a commissioner that you could take from what’s happened to the Pac-12, as well as what other conferences have done to strengthen themselves?

GN: You know, it used to be such an anomaly to work this much on membership and composition of the league, and now it’s our everyday. In fact, my first day on the job at the West Coast Conference as their commissioner, the issue of the day was the fact that Mountain West was courting Gonzaga. My first day at the Mountain West, the Pac-12 and the Big 12 were courting San Diego State, so it’s just something that has become an everyday matter, one that we have to stay in front of, one that we constantly have to keep our ear to the ground and not ignore rumors and hearsay as, ‘oh, that’s crazy talk’ because you know what? It’s not crazy talk anymore.

I mean, if you had told me six months ago [that] there would be no Pac-12, I would have called you crazy, and then here we are.

RS: The MWC has media deals with CBS Sports and FOX. What’s the status of those agreements and how are you looking to strengthen your position on television?

GN: We have deals with them until 2026, so that we’ll go to market in sometime in ’24 or ’25. I’m very happy with our current partnerships. They’ve been strong and I think realignment aside, we would still be working on elevating our profile, strengthening our brand.

We’ve just completed a strategic plan. A final draft was reviewed by and approved by the presidents. We’re gonna roll that out soon. We’re doing a very comprehensive brand analysis and really working on the strength of our Mountain West Network.

RS: Realignment isn’t the only thing making a massive impact on the state of college sports. Coaches say to me that it’s all about NIL now, and that means so much more in recruiting than, say, facilities or exposure. At the administrative level, I’m wondering what sort of impact the NIL landscape has on your job.

GN: [NCAA President] Charlie Baker at the national office has really kind of defined the platform behind our ask of Congress. And I think there was a huge athletic director conference this week in DC and a lot of folks met with their representatives and went up the hill to discuss NIL. So for me, it’s more of a high-level policy issue. Certainly, our coaches and administrators are working in and around trying to create robust NIL opportunities, but I think we’re all still hoping we can put the genie back in the bottle about pay-for-play.

Right now, many would categorize name, image, likeness as thinly veiled pay-for-play. Even though the bylaws say you’re not supposed to, there are stories galore about how perhaps that’s how it’s being used. So, trying to get some kind of congressional help to level set the state laws because they’re all different right now to allow the NCAA to then enforce its policies across all the states without being subject to all the litigation that would occur.

RS: We’re getting into the fall, which means it’s almost my favorite time of year: basketball season. You’re coming off a year in which San Diego State’s men’s team went to the national championship game. We know what that can do for a conference financially, we know what it could do in terms of exposure. What sort of impact does it have on the league overall?

GN: Oh, my goodness. One, it was really, really fun and it couldn’t have happened to a better group of coaches and players. It was just such a pleasure watching them go through the tournament. But secondly, that type of exposure on that platform is incredible. I mean, their athletic director, JD Wicker, really did a great job of quantifying the exposure and getting the data that that run resulted in as far as eyeballs, donations, excitement, all that stuff.

It really is a very special thing. Not many teams get a chance to experience that, but I thought San Diego State did a really good job of capturing it as well and taking advantage of the opportunity.

RS: A run to the title game means a lot more in terms of tournament revenue for your conference. Something frequently discussed is potentially adding a similar sort of “unit” system to the women’s side — is that something you’ve thought at all about? How a system like that might change how women’s college sports operate?

GN: Yes, and I’m really interested to see how the NCAA media rights negotiations come out. We’ve heard they’re going to market both with a big joint package of all the championships, but also the opportunity to bid on championships in their separate verticals, which I think would have a lot of direction for conference offices on how we think about our championships and verticals as well. And certainly, the unit in men’s basketball back in the day was a result of the new CBS contract at the time, and the thinking was, well, we invest that money back into the product and next time the contract comes up, we’ll be able to continue this upward trajectory. I think for the original rationale, it seem to have worked. You’ve got a lot of schools that invest in men’s basketball that might not have been on that trajectory.

RS: How do you feel about where your schools are now, just in terms of investing in women’s sports?

GN: I think we’re in a really good position. Certainly, every school that I’ve ever worked at in every league, you always feel the pressure — it’s competitive — to have more, to do more. From my experience at West Coast Conference schools to Mountain West, to Pac-12, you’re always trying to do better and more, but I feel really good about where the Mountain West is with the resources we have, we are very, very competitive across the board.

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About The Author
Russell Steinberg
Russell Steinberg
Russell Steinberg is an editor and writer at Boardroom. He came to the brand in 2021 with a decade of experience in sports journalism, primarily covering college basketball at SB Nation as a writer, reporter, and blog manager. In a previous life, he worked as a social media strategist and copywriter, handling accounts ranging from sports retail to luxury hotels and financial technology. Though he has mastered the subtweet, he kindly requests you @ him next time.