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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, July 11, 2008

WAC to get boost from ESPN

 •  UH kicks off football camps this weekend

By Ferd Lewis
Advertiser Staff Writer

All signs point to the Western Athletic Conference shortly announcing a significantly upgraded and expanded contract extension with ESPN.

Conference officials have been in negotiations with ESPN for several months and WAC members held a conference call yesterday apparently to approve a deal in principle.

The new agreement, when announced, is expected to run from 5 to 7 years and, on top of a several-fold increase in rights fees, include heavily expanded exposure for conference teams.

The WAC had been receiving $900,000 per year on a six-year deal set to run through the 2009-10 academic year. That figure was down from $1 million after Texas-El Paso and three other schools left for Conference USA in 2005. The new agreement is expected to be worth, on average, approximately $4 million per year to the conference.

The new deal comes after the WAC Board of Directors, composed of members' chief executive officers, turned down ESPN proposals each of the past two summers. Last July the board reportedly turned down a deal that would have been worth $3 million per year.

But as important as the money has been, WAC members have, especially in men's basketball, long sought additional exposure. Under the current contract, the WAC has been guaranteed only three games per season (two regular season games and the conference championship). The new deal is expected to more than triple the opportunities.

In football, the WAC has been guaranteed a minimum of eight games, though it has averaged about 10 the last couple years. The new deal could double those opportunities.

In addition, the WAC is expected to land exposure for women's sports, something it has been without.

Virginia Hinshaw, UH-Manoa Chancellor, and athletic director Jim Donovan both declined comment on the negotiations, referring questions to WAC commissioner Karl Benson. Benson refused comment other than to say, "negotiations have been on-going with ESPN."

Dave Brown, ESPN vice president of programming and acquisitions, was not immediately available for comment. Calls left for an ESPN spokesman were not returned.

Games would be spread across the various ESPN properties, ESPN, ESPN2 and ESPNU. The new package would likely include more midweek games in football but would not include UH without the Warriors' approval because of travel logistics.

The WAC had sought a deal more in line with the six-year, $48 million contract the Mountain West Conference signed with ESPN in 1999.

The new agreement should also end a period of contention between the WAC and ESPN. The two have clashed over ESPN's wish to show games on ESPNU without added rights fees and the WAC's reluctance to change some football dates.

Reach Ferd Lewis at flewis@honoluluadvertiser.com.