Fort Worth: Where the Mountain West begins.
After months of deliberating and number-crunching, Texas Christian University will accept an invitation next week to join the Mountain West Conference beginning in the 2005-06 school year, high-ranking university officials said.
TCU expects to receive a formal invitation as early as Monday, the sources said, adding that the school's athletic committee will recommend to trustees that the school leave Conference USA.
Such a move could bring the school millions of dollars more in TV revenue than it would make by staying in Conference USA. Also, although the Mountain West is not a Bowl Championship Series conference, adding TCU could put the league in position to replace the Big East, which is losing three of its strongest football schools.
The athletic committee, which has studied a possible move for months, is expected to make its recommendation to the board of trustees at the board's regularly scheduled meeting Jan. 30. The board can veto the move but is expected to approve it.
"I think there were a few board members who were initially neutral about making the move, but once they got all the details from the athletic committee back in November, they've been supportive of the change," a source said.
Another source confirmed that an invitation is imminent but cautioned that the final decision belongs to trustees.
"If and when an invitation comes from the Mountain West, it will be up to the board to process it," the source said.
Another high-ranking official said that the decision is a "foregone conclusion" and that the school plans to announce the move after the board meeting.
TCU athletic director Eric Hyman said, "Right now, it's inappropriate for me to comment."
The move would end months of speculation about TCU's athletic future and solidify a place for the Horned Frogs in a major conference. TCU would join Air Force, Brigham Young, Colorado State, New Mexico, San Diego State, Nevada-Las Vegas, Utah and Wyoming in a nine-team league.
The Mountain West could expand further to add a travel partner for TCU. One possibility is Boise State, which defeated TCU in the inaugural Fort Worth Bowl. TCU would be the only Mountain West school in the Central time zone.
TCU has been on the move since the Southwest Conference dissolved in 1995. The Mountain West would be TCU's fourth conference in 10 years. TCU joined the Western Athletic Conference in 1996 and left for Conference USA after the 2000-01 season.
This move will be costly.
TCU will pay an entrance fee to the Mountain West in "the neighborhood of $1 million," one of the sources said.
The university will also pay Conference USA a $400,000 exit fee despite giving the league two years' notice. But the conference can demand even more under its bylaws. The league is expected to seek extra compensation from TCU equal to any expected decrease in TV or other revenue caused by the school's departure.
TCU would become the eighth Conference USA member to announce plans to leave the league. Current members Cincinnati, DePaul, Marquette, Louisville and South Florida are leaving for the Big East, and Saint Louis and Charlotte plan to join the Atlantic 10. Louisville and Cincinnati have offered to offset the revenue loss by playing nonconference games against schools remaining in the league.
TCU also expects higher travel costs. But a source said the future financial benefits and long-term stability of the Mountain West appear more promising than staying in Conference USA.
The Mountain West Conference, like Conference USA, is not included in the Bowl Championship Series system that determines a national football champion. But by adding TCU, the Mountain West hopes to better position itself for possible inclusion in the BCS when the contract expires after the 2005-06 season.
For nearly two months, TCU's football team captured the attention of the nation as it became the first non-BCS school to crack the top six of the BCS rankings. Earning a top-six ranking or winning the championship of a BCS conference are the only avenues for guaranteed inclusion in a BCS bowl game and the millions of dollars that come with it.
The BCS consists of six conferences: the Big 12, Big Ten, Southeastern, Atlantic Coast, Pacific-10 and Big East. The Big East could be in danger of being excluded in the next contract after losing Miami, Virginia Tech and Boston College to the ACC.
If the BCS looks to replace the Big East, the Mountain West could be a leading contender, based on an argument that it will be more competitive, especially in football.
TCU officials are also concerned about the attendance of the schools recently added to Conference USA. Central Florida, Marshall, Southern Methodist, Tulsa and Rice have accepted invitations to join the conference. TCU compared football attendance figures of both leagues and found the Mountain West to be the more stable conference.
Based on 2003 home attendance figures, the average draw for TCU and the Mountain West schools was 34,248 per game; the average draw for TCU and the teams expected to make up Conference USA in 2005 was 26,393.
Only three schools in the Mountain West ranked worse than 70th in average attendance last season. Only two of Conference USA's expected members ranked better than 70th.
Brigham Young (61,501) and Utah (41,478) were the Mountain West's top draws. TCU would have ranked fourth, with an average of 36,155 -- 62nd in the NCAA.
Attendance can translate into TV revenue, another area in which the Mountain West is expected to surpass Conference USA.
Conference USA is in the third year of an eight-year, $80 million broadcasting deal with ESPN, but the TV network is expected to push for change because of realignment.
TCU officials have contacted ESPN and learned that Conference USA's next TV contract will be a "drop in the bucket" compared with its current deal.
The TCU officials said that Conference USA is considering a more regional package with Fox Sports, which would not appeal to TCU.
The Mountain West's seven-year, $48 million contract with ESPN will expire in 2006. The addition of TCU would put the league in prime position to negotiate a new contract.
Conference USA commissioner Britton Banowsky said he has not been informed by TCU of any decision to leave.
"Even as of this week, TCU continued to participate and was involved in our planning for the future with new members," Banowsky said. "Until notified otherwise, TCU is a member of Conference USA. In the event they decide to do something different, it certainly won't diminish our enthusiasm for the future of our league."
Louisiana Tech and North Texas have been mentioned as possible replacements for TCU in Conference USA.
Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson was unavailable for comment but said in a statement that any speculation of movement is "premature and nothing has been offered to any school."
During a teleconference this month, Thompson said that he hoped to resolve the Mountain West's expansion plans by the end of January.
New Mexico athletic director Rudy Davalos, whose school is a member of the league, said he hasn't heard a definitive answer but wasn't surprised to hear that an invitation would be extended.
"When these expansion conversations first started, the talk has always centered around TCU," he said.
The Bear may be dead but he still hates Tennessee. Roll Damn Tide