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WSU Men's Basketball

Commentary: Can WSU remain relevant in clumsily evolving college athletics?

David Riley, right, listens while interim athletic director Anne McCoy speaks at an April press conference where he was introduced as the Washington State University head men’s basketball coach.  (Geoff Crimmins/For The Spokesman-Review)
By Mike Vorel Seattle Times

College sports is submerged in uncertainty.

Or, perhaps, the more optimistic term is “opportunity.”

It all depends on your perspective.

Anne McCoy – the interim athletic director at Washington State – is providing plenty during her recent press swing. She’s doing so during a tumultuous period both for her institution and the entire industry, as college athletics braces for unprecedented upheaval … and the Cougs search for stability.

Both nationally and locally, the outstanding issues include:

• The Cougs’ complicated conference affiliation, following a mass exodus from the Pac-12 that will become official this summer. WSU and Oregon State will both serve as affiliate members of the Mountain West and West Coast conferences for a two-year term, after which WSU will have to stake a more permanent path.

• The aftermath of House v. NCAA and two related antitrust cases, which would introduce a revolutionary revenue-sharing model – in which schools could directly pay their athletes for the first time in history – as early as 2025.

• WSU’s search for lasting leadership at two of its most prominent positions, with Pat Chun’s replacement as athletic director still undecided and president Kirk Schulz set to retire in 2025.

Amid it all, it’s likely difficult for Coug fans to see a light at the end of an ever-expanding tunnel. As the Big Ten and SEC absorb their enemies, and the gap between “haves” and “have-nots” grows ever greater, will WSU athletics remain nationally relevant?

And can the inescapable uncertainty yield opportunity?

“I guess I would say I understand the worry and concern [from Coug fans],” McCoy said. “But at the end of the day, I would make the argument we’re almost more relevant right now [than before]. Because in a lot of ways, Oregon State and Washington State are all anybody can talk about – our future and where we’re going to land and what’s going to happen. We have such a unique opportunity right now to really be on the forefront, to really evaluate and be a little patient.

“What I would also say to Coug fans, though, is there has never been a more important time, when we need our Cougs. Whether it be supporters who just want to tune in and watch a game, people who have never seen a Washington State game but they’re curious, whether it be donors or fans coming to the games. Because we can’t afford to be pushed back into not being considered a viable, national, exciting brand.”

The best way to be considered a national brand, beyond winning championships?

Play games on national television.

Despite their corroding conference, WSU will do just that, with the “Pac-2” schools striking a football television deal with The CW and FOX Sports. McCoy acknowledged that “exposure, quite frankly, was tremendously important – to continue to have the Pac-12 logos out there, to have the Beaver and Cougar logos out there and really have people be able to access that content. The distribution and exposure was the No. 1 priority with that, just as a way to still be out amongst our fans.”

If exposure is Priority No. 1, revenue should be No. 2. After all, the House v. NCAA settlement – which awaits the approval of California Senior District Judge Claudia Wilken – would institute a revenue cap of more than $20 million per year that each school could distribute to its athletes. Departments that are unable or unwilling to approach that number might struggle to recruit against more richly compensating competition.

When asked if it’s conceivable the Cougs could reach a $20 million player revenue cap, McCoy said: “I think that’s a more challenging proposition for most schools than they’re probably willing to admit right now, requiring a complete philosophical shift. … Once we have more details, more information, we’ll need to sit down as an athletics team and a university and decide, ‘Where do we want to be in that space? Is this the No. 1 priority, or the No. 6 priority because five other things are more important?’

“In a way it’s no different than many other expenses as they’ve come online. It’s determining where we want to be in that space and what makes the most sense for us.”

Of course, this seismic shift in college athletics’ economic model could invite unintended consequences. Specifically, it’s unclear whether said revenue would be split evenly between male and female athletes to comply with Title IX regulations, or if that money would be distributed proportionally based on how much revenue a sport brings in (with football and men’s basketball athletes earning more).

Moreover, athletic departments spending millions to pay players may suddenly lack resources to fund Olympic sports, or may shrink rosters to make the numbers work.

“I’m worried for the potential unintended impact,” McCoy said. “People are not necessarily able to predict, ‘If this happens, then that will happen.’ The thing I worry about are the things that weren’t considered as decisions were made, because I think there will be unintended consequences.”

When it comes to unintended consequences, the Cougs may be king. While their former Pac-12 partners boarded lifeboats, the Cougs paid the price. In the aftermath, McCoy called that result “sad in a lot of cases. But not being able at this point to change any of that, we have to look at it as tremendous opportunity.”

The Cougs, truly, are a crimson microcosm of a clumsily evolving industry. The tunnel has never looked longer, the light more faint.

But McCoy still sells the future.

“It’s a chance to be part of a future of re-imagining what college athletics should be, and continuing to compete on the west coast, quite frankly,” the longtime WSU administrator said, when asked for her recruiting pitch to prospective Cougs. “If you’re from the west, to have family and friends still be able to see you compete on a regular basis, whether it’s conference or nonconference, home or away, I think that’s really important.

“It’s a chance to be part of a great community that remains a great community. Washington State, to all those that love it, is a special place not because they were in the Pac-12 Conference, but because they’re Washington State University.”