To grab football TV cash, Rebels must win

Jim Livengood has been in this position before, which is to say when seats for the feast are handed out, his football program is relegated to the kiddies’ table.

It eats, or in this case collects extra cash, only after the big-boy teams are served.

“It reminds me of my days at Washington State,” Livengood said. “If we wanted to be on television and get exposure, we had to be playing (Southern California) or UCLA.

“I don’t think it will get to those days in the old Pac-10, where everything was done in the best interests of USC and UCLA. If it does, we’re done.”

Livengood now chases attention for UNLV football as the school’s athletic director, and such a pursuit includes a National Exposure Bonus System as part of the Mountain West Conference’s new television contract with ESPN.

Translation: A team is rewarded financially for appearing in games at member stadiums that are shown on a national basis.

Translation II: The thing from which Boise State could make millions of dollars more than any Mountain West school.

It’s basic math. Games broadcast on ESPN, ESPN2, ABC, NBC, CBS or Fox pay participating league teams $500,000 for a Saturday appearance and $300,000 for a game on any other day.

This week, the league announced seven such weekday games for the coming season. Boise State and San Jose State each received two and lead with $600,000 in bonus money; Air Force, Fresno State, Utah State, San Diego State and UNR all received one such game and are $300,000 richer.

UNLV will play Air Force on Nov. 21 on ESPNU, a channel whose reach isn’t enough to qualify for any bonus. Those games released Friday to be shown on CBS Sports Network also don’t include bonuses.

The Saturday games have not been announced, but you can be certain Boise State is in line for more payouts. The Broncos are guaranteed under the league’s contract with ESPN to receive a minimum of $900,000 in bonuses, with the likelihood of much more each year.

No other conference team owns a bonus guarantee.

It makes you wonder: We know all about the haves and have-nots of the Bowl Championship Series, but how big a similar gap has the Mountain West created for member teams with its television deal?

“A very fair question,” Livengood said. “The answer I would give is that it’s too early to tell. We need to let things play out for a few years and see how it goes. It’s the challenge for (fourth-year coach) Bobby Hauck and me and all of us to get better and improve our football program, and with that should come more opportunities for exposure.

“But I truly believe the conference is much better off now being back on ESPN. We will be talked about now on its family of networks. Our conference logo will be right up there with the others they show. This (television contract) isn’t perfect by any means, but it’s a whole lot better than what we had.”

Boise State was handed the financial keys to the Mountain West kingdom when it decided against jumping to the Big East and, given its national standing and credibility in football, it’s easy to understand why. The league is far better and more legitimate with the Broncos in it. That’s undeniable.

One obvious way to improve in football is to earn more money, so there is little choice for UNLV in such matters: Get better. Win. Force television folks to want your games by how you compete on the field.

It’s a tough spot and yet no one’s fault other than a Rebels program that hasn’t known a winning season since 2000.

On one hand, having your games shown on ESPN affords the sort of national attention that could only enhance things such as recruiting and perception. Your program suddenly means something to many.

On the other, at least in terms of those home games ESPN might want, allowing fans the option to watch from their couch could severely damage a struggling team’s goal of selling tickets.

“When it comes to the (ESPN bonuses), it is absolutely a financial thing for us,” Livengood said. “But we also have to get more people in Sam Boyd Stadium. Our attendance has to improve. The (bonuses) are a bump for your budget, no question. It will help everybody. It probably won’t help us greatly this year, but down the line it will as our program gets better.

“As we go into next season, I know what’s going to be said about our program’s need to improve. I know what’s going to be written. And you know what? It will all be fair and correct. We need to get better. We need to make the football experience for people who come see our games one where they like what they see and want to come back.”

Do that, and this bonus business takes care of itself.

Las Vegas Review-Journal sports columnist Ed Graney can be reached at egraney@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-4618. He can be heard from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Monday through Friday on “Gridlock,” ESPN 1100 and 98.9 FM. Follow him on Twitter: @edgraney.

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