Mid-American Conference turns 50
with an eye on the future

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Click for photo by Chris Hondros

By Bill Estep

A visit to the Mid-American Conference offices in downtown Toledo can lead to the Hall of the Fame room. Plaques honoring the likes of Bo Schembechler, Ara Parseghian, Jack Lambert, Olympic medalists, and former Ohio University coaching greats Jim Snyder, Bill Hess, Bob Wren and Kermit Blosser cover the walls.

Off to the side, it seems appropriate that a turned-off television sits quietly. Because it's television - or more descriptively TV coverage - that many believe is the key to unlocking the conference's future growth.

As the Mid-American Conference (MAC) prepares to celebrate its 50th anniversary May 19-20 in Toledo, Ohio University Athletic Director Tom Boeh says the league may be nearing the crossroads in its efforts to maintain all-important Division I-A status in football and attract
more national attention.

"I'd say we're not at the crossroads right now, but we're approaching the intersection," says Boeh.

Conference Commissioner Jerry Ippoliti likes to talk about how the MAC has a rich history of combining athletics, academics and integrity. He says MAC schools were pioneers in women's athletics, offering scholarships for women before most conferences had even considered the idea. The MAC is one of the nation's oldest conferences; Ohio University is the only original member still with the conference.

But Ippoliti also is quick to admit he thought the conference was suffering from an identity crisis when he joined the league 21 months ago. It's an identity crisis that comes with rarely having your games shown on national TV. It's an identity crisis that comes with not having your football scores read on ESPN's "SportsCenter."

"We're always going to be in the Big Ten's shadows," Ippoliti says. "There's always going to be a Notre Dame and an Ohio State. That's never going to change. You have to understand that.

"But you have to give your alumni an opportunity to see their alma mater on television. What we have to do is get their school out there so they can see what quality of basketball or football program they have, and hopefully they'll come back to that institution and go to the events."

Boeh says, "National exposure is created by television. It's television - you can forget about everything else. It's an enormous thing for us to beat Miami on a Saturday on ESPN2, to see 11,000 to 12,000 at the game in the Convocation Center and play on a nationally televised game."

Boeh is bothered by the fact that many MAC alumni become Big Ten fans once they graduate and settle in the Midwest, although Ohio University alums - generally speaking a loyal group - may be an exception.

"What often happens with our alumni in the MAC is that they move to Chicago or Columbus and become Big Ten fans, and that's a problem. We lose contact because all you see is the Big Ten," Boeh says. "We need to make things accessible and we've got to get the word out that we're winning. We need to make the games available so they can be seen on television and heard on radio. It's awfully hard to be a fan of some place when you can't see them play."

Boeh argues that the MAC - with more than 1 million alumni, a strong academic reputation and rich history - should be able to put together a national TV package in basketball to rival that of the Western Athletic Conference (WAC). ESPN television, the national all-sports cable network, and its sister network, ESPN2, combined to telecast 22 WAC men's games live this basketball season as part of a new four-year agreement.

Another 11 WAC football games will be televised on ESPN this fall, along with two games on ABC TV. The WAC, run by former MAC Commissioner Karl Benson and Assistant Commissioner John McNamara, recently expanded to 16 universities. Average enrollment of the 10 current MAC schools is 20,500, compared with 19,500 in the WAC.

"I'd say our schools, our programs, our campuses as academic institutions, don't look that different from schools in the WAC," Boeh says. "But the WAC has a national television package. The WAC has been aggressive in marketing itself."

Ippoliti says his office is taking a "pro-active" approach in seeking national television opportunities and improving the MAC radio-TV package. "We've had a tendency for years to be a very conservative conference, to sit back, wait and react. And now this conference has to take a pro-active philosophy, to be prepared, to be ahead of the game."

The 1994-95 season marked the first time a MAC men's basketball game of the week package was broadcast by a national cable sports network, say league officials; only regional cable networks had aired the games before. Prime Sports Network carried 11 men's games this season, reaching 15 to 24 million viewers each week, according to the MAC office. (Average viewership on ESPN is estimated to be 45 million households, and ESPN2 has a viewership of 25 million.)

Another four men's games were nationally televised on ESPN2, and the traditional Saturday morning MAC Championship game from Toledo March 9 was again carried by ESPN. The Women's Sports and Entertainment Network, a national cable outfit, televised six women's basketball games, and a new 10-station radio network broadcast a top MAC men's game each week. The league office also produced a six-game football TV package last fall, aired by eight regional cable networks. Ippoliti says the MAC office spent $300,000 on its football and basketball broadcasts this year, the majority supported by a growing list of corporate sponsors.

The Prime Network format for the MAC men's basketball game of the week has been criticized for showing untimely games that cannot be seen in the Indianapolis, Muncie, Ind. - home of Ball State - or Athens markets. Another problem is that cable subscribers in some markets have to pay an additional fee to access Prime's 21 cable affiliates across the country.

But Ippoliti calls the MAC's radio-TV pact "a foundation that we can build on. When I came here, there wasn't what I would call any sort of solid foundation. . . . you've got to do a little crawling before you walk, and walk before you sprint." He claims to have been negotiating with ESPN and ESPN2 about airing nonconference football games next year involving MAC teams, but no regular game of the week pact appears imminent in either football or basketball.

Ohio University, with its 2-year-old Ohio Sports Network, and Ball State have taken broadcast matters into their own hands by creating their own regional TV networks.

"I think (the MAC office) is making an all-out effort to get as much on TV as possible," says Dick Schorr, the 28-year voice of the Ohio University Bobcats on radio. "I think they're fighting for it, and there was a time I couldn't say that."

Ippoliti left his mark on the MAC by pushing for expanding the league from 10 to 13 schools. Northern Illinois, a former league member from 1973 to 1986, and Marshall, a Division I-AA power in football and another former MAC player, will begin competing in the MAC in the fall of 1997. The University at Buffalo, State University of New York, a highly rated academic institution with a young I-AA football program, is tentatively expected to join the MAC in all sports except football in 1998 and begin competing for the football title in the 1999 season.

In January, the conference announced it was realigning into two divisions in football, men's and women's basketball, baseball, softball and volleyball. Winners of the six-team Western and Eastern divisions will square off in a first-ever MAC football championship game in 1997, the year the divisional lineup begins play. Ohio joins Akron, Kent, Miami, Bowling Green, Marshall and Buffalo in the Eastern Division; the University of Toledo is the lone Ohio school in a Western Division that includes the three Michigan schools - Central, Eastern and Western Michigan - Ball State and Northern Illinois.

League officials hope expansion into two major markets - Chicago and Buffalo - and the substantial market covering Marshall in Huntington and Charleston, W.Wa., will increase the MAC's visibility and TV marketability.

"A big problem we have in the conference right now is lack of metropolitan areas," says Ippoliti, a former head football coach and administrator at Northern Illinois and ex-commissioner of the Mid Continent Conference.

And, "When you look at the two areas that are very important to us - money and TV exposure - we think we'll make significant amounts of money on a football playoff and we'll have another opportunity for national exposure (a nationally televised game)," Ippoliti says.

The MAC's appearance in the Las Vegas Bowl - traditionally the first game of the football bowl season in mid-December - has been broadcast nationally by ESPN each year since its inception in 1992. But this year's game - a 40-37 victory by Toledo over the University of Nevada at Reno in the first overtime game played in Division I-A - drew only 11,000 fans, leading Ippoliti to admit that the conference is "exploring other (bowl) options." Toledo, which took 4,000 fans to Vegas, reportedly lost nearly $140,000 on the trip.

But the fact that the MAC is still in the bowl alliance and playing at the major-conference Division I-A level is news in itself. The league's biggest victory may have come off the field in January when the NCAA announced a dramatic change in its governance system.

The NCAA replaced its one-institution, one-vote system for its 902 member schools with an executive panel of 16 presidents which will act as the association's chief governing body. The new system is designed to streamline decision making and give greater say to the major conferences. Eight votes on the committee will represent conferences playing Division I-A football, and the MAC and its Vegas Bowl opponent, the Big West Conference, will share one vote.

Ippoliti says the MAC came close to losing its voting power and being bumped to Division I-AA - and hence second-class - status in football. Upon being hired in July 1994, Ippoliti says, MAC presidents gave him the edict of keeping the MAC at the big-time level in football.

Some believe the major football powers have been satisfied with the NCAA reorganization for the near future, but Boeh thinks the MAC still faces an uphill struggle to remain in Division I-A in football, especially if talk of a college football playoff continues to heat up over the next several years. "We're still in it, we're still a major player because we have a vote combined with the Big West," Boeh says. "But we're not in the position of the Big Ten or WAC or ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference) or even Conference USA, because they have a full vote.

"When you think about the money a football playoff could generate, it would not be unreasonable to suggest it won't be a long time before that becomes a reality in this country. That's when the fight will occur . . . over who will get in the football playoff. That's when the Mid-American Conference will reach the crossroads."

And then there is the issue of MAC football attendance - or lack of. Over the years, the conference has struggled to meet NCAA Division I-A attendance requirements. Last season, the MAC ranked 12th among Division I-A and I-AA conferences and independent schools in average attendance, drawing 14,963 a game. A year ago, the MAC office threatened to fine or possibly place on probation or suspend four schools - including Ohio University - if they didn't meet NCAA Division I-A attendance mandates (see related story on Page 3).

Veteran Toledo Blade sports writer Dave Hackenberg, in his 11th season of covering the MAC, wonders what all the fuss is about. He wonders why the MAC had to expand and why some are so preoccupied with TV time. He wonders what's wrong with the MAC the way it is: Ten large Midwestern universities in three states playing for conference championships in 21 sports each year.

"I come back to the question of what national recognition do you need or what is it that the MAC wants?" Hackenberg says. "I hate to sound negative, but the MAC has never been like the Big Ten or ACC and never will be in terms of national recognition."

Hackenberg calls the MAC's expansion plans "ludicrous." He believes Northern Illinois, Marshall and Buffalo will add little to the conference. "Northern Illinois was in the conference for a number of years and Chicago didn't care," he says. "And Buffalo is a pro town; it's never been a college market. . . . Northern Illinois dropped out of this league once because it wasn't big enough for them. Now, they come limping back with their tail between their legs. Marshall is Division I-AA (in football), although a good Division I-AA. And Buffalo has an awful I-AA (football) program. It'll take them 10 years to play competitively at the Division I-A level.

"The main criticism I hear is 'why even do it?'"

Both Hackenberg and Bobcat play-by-play man Schorr agree that the MAC has improved its national stature in the past few years, thanks primarily to what's happened on the men's basketball court. As examples of progress, they point to NCAA Sweet 16 berths for Ball State and Eastern Michigan; Gary Trent and the Bobcats' 1994 Preseason NIT victory; Miami's victory over the University of Arizona in the first round of the 1995 NCAA Tournament; and the fact that a record four schools advanced to post season play following the 1994-95 season. Not to be forgotten is Toledo's 11-0-1 finish as the 24th-ranked team in college football last season.

"This conference has proven year after year that it's better than people think it is," Schorr says. "One great thing about this conference is that it's a student-athlete conference in the true sense of the word. The schools are not farm teams for professional sports. The spirit of the kids is to go out and have fun, and not worry about making a million dollars in pro sports. Athletes in the MAC are students. There's a lot to be said for that."

Hackenberg also thinks there is a lot to be said for the fact that MAC schools are operating with much smaller athletic budgets than those in the Big Ten or other major conferences. Ohio University's total athletic budget this fiscal year is $5.5 million in 17 varsity sports, compared to $30.5 million in 32 sports at Ohio State. The football budget alone at Ohio State is $4.5 million.

But there's a group of faculty on the Athens campus who think spending $5.5 million is too much. Professor of Chemistry Paul Sullivan was chair of Faculty Senate when the group issued a report in 1991 recommending that Ohio University de-emphasize its football program and that the MAC drop from Division I-A to I-AA in football. The report claimed that the rising costs of athletics were draining operating funds away from academic areas.

"I think it's ludicrous the amount of money we spend on five home football games a year," Sullivan says now. "The question is whether we're ever going to compete for national attention in football. I think we'd be much wiser to down-grade football and put more money into basketball and build a nationally ranked basketball program."

Boeh says those kinds of comments are not unique to Ohio University. He says you'll hear them at every major university in the country.

"There are always going to be the detractors from athletics," Boeh says. "But I think athletic departments across the country are well positioned to provide real benefits for universities while working in concert with the academic missions of the campuses and remaining fiscally responsible."

Bill Estep is editor of Ohio University Today.

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