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‘Crippling’ exit fee could keep UNLV from joining Pac-12, AD says

Updated August 8, 2023 - 6:38 pm

A major stumbling block to UNLV leaving the Mountain West for a reconstituted Pac-12 is the $34 million exit fee, UNLV athletic director Erick Harper said Monday.

“That’s crippling to a lot of institutions that would have to pay it,” Harper said. “By all means, I don’t want to pay $34 million.”

The conference bylaws state that schools leaving the Mountain West must pay three times the average yearly conference distribution if they give timely notice by June 30 of the prior year, roughly $17 million.

However, for a team to withdraw from the Mountain West in time for the 2024-25 season, when the Pac-12 loses eight members to the Big Ten and Big 12, the school will have to pay an exit fee double the timely notice fee, around $34 million.

As a conference, the Mountain West appears to have three choices: help rebuild the Pac-12, merge with the Pac-12 or absorb the remaining four Pac-12 schools.

Each option has its pros and cons, and Harper said a decision will involve discussions with other conference athletic directors, members of the Mountain West office and UNLV president Keith Whitfield, among others.

“This is not a decision made by me,” Harper said. “It’s collective. We also have the Board of Regents. So we all have to do our due diligence.”

Even though the Pac-12 only consists of four remaining institutions — Stanford, California, Oregon State and Washington State — it is still an autonomous five conference, known colloquially as a Power Five conference.

If the four schools remain committed to each other, they can decide to fill the rest of the conference with schools from outside the Power Five. San Diego Union-Tribune reporter Mark Zeigler, who has covered the Mountain West for years, said UNLV’s market in Las Vegas makes it an obvious choice for potential expansion.

The Rebels only had an outside shot at the Pac-12 when it was only considering one or two new members. Now, however, the century-old conference could take four or possibly even more Mountain West schools to rebuild itself.

One way to avoid paying the exit fee is to merge the two conferences. Nine votes by the 12 member schools can change the conference bylaws. If at least nine of the schools have a landing place, they’re more likely to agree to waiving or lowering the exit fee.

Merging with the Pac-12 has massive financial benefits. Besides the brand recognition, the move saves the College Football Playoff and NCAA Tournament distributions owed to both conferences.

Zeigler said a merger is far from a simple matter. Questions about the status of the Pac-12 network and Boise State’s TV carve-out, among other topics, will all need to be addressed in a process which may take months.

All of these talks about rebuilding or absorbing come with the assumption that all four Pac-12 schools want to stay together, which is far from a guarantee.

The Athletic, ESPN and the Associated Press all reported the Atlantic Coast Conference on Monday has entered early discussions to add Stanford and Cal. The Cardinal, in particular, are key to any merger or decision to rebuild the Pac-12, said Mercury News reporter Jon Wilner, who has covered the conference for years.

Wilner said his gut instinct tells him Stanford would prefer to join another Power Five conference, or potentially rebuild the Pac-12, instead of a complete merger with the Mountain West. Stanford and Cal’s academic reputations may also play into their hesitance to merge with the Mountain West.

“I just don’t see Stanford going into the Mountain West,” Wilner said.

If Stanford and Cal bail for the ACC or another conference, Oregon State and Washington State become likely candidates to join the Mountain West.

Columnist Ed Graney contributed to this report. Contact reporter Andy Yamashita at ayamashita@reviewjournal.com. Follow @ANYamashita on Twitter.

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