SPOKANE — When Gonzaga plays a weeknight basketball game at home, the Zags favor 6 p.m. starts, a simple standard but one that reflects several aspects of being a big-time basketball program.
Tipping at 6 gets them publicity on late-night ESPN highlights in the East. In medium-sized, Zag-centric Spokane, it’s a convenient enough start for people to leave jobs and get there on time, unlike many teeming West Coast cities where pro sports overwhelm the college scene.
But the commuting window is tight enough that many of those fans are apt to show up hungry, the better to bump concessions and keep the cash flowing into a profitable program.
“There’s method to our madness,” Gonzaga athletic director Mike Roth said.
Those are concepts mostly foreign to the rest of the West Coast Conference. As the league begins its tournament Thursday in Las Vegas and the Zags try to ensure a 16th straight appearance in the NCAA tournament, it’s worth asking:
Is the WCC closing the gap at all on Gonzaga, especially in the critical areas of salaries, facilities and resources? And if it isn’t, is there a better place for the Zags?
The first answer is at best a tentative maybe, and the second appears to be a no.
In what is widely regarded as a “bridge” year after a No. 1 ranking in 2013, the Zags still clinched a tie for the regular-season title two weeks before it ended. The league is deeper with capable teams — a respectable No. 9 nationally in the RPI computer — but Gonzaga again is the class of it.
Small wonder. Gonzaga takes charter flights to and from its games, it pays coach Mark Few more than other staffs make combined — USA Today reported his income at more than $1.5 million annually last year — and, save for 2012 addition BYU, it has the nicest, biggest arena with the most devoted fans.
What’s a league pursuer to do? Does a certain fatalism creep into the psyches of programs trailing Gonzaga?
“Not in my mind,” insists University of San Francisco AD Scott Sidwell, voicing “admiration” for Gonzaga. “A high tide lifts all the boats. If they’re helping raise the standard of what it should be, then that’s good for all of us. That’s why we compete — to find a way to get there.”
Dan Coonan, athletic director at Santa Clara, speaks similarly, saying, “I think 10 years ago, you could look at our conference and say a few schools might not be trying so hard. You cannot say that now.”
The league office has pushed for improvement. The move of the tournament to Vegas in 2009 bumped the profile, and so has a TV contract with several carriers, including the ESPN family, which aired 30-plus games involving WCC teams this season (17 featuring Gonzaga). In September, the WCC launched TheW.tv, a platform that streamed 68 games to tablets and mobile devices.
Then there’s a complicated “incentive” system in which schools can earn $50,000 or more from the WCC if they follow a formula of hosting games or playing at neutral sites while improving their RPI ranking. Ostensibly, the money can be used to draw teams for “guarantee” home games that are more winnable on campus.
USF is mulling improvements like practice courts and a weight room. Santa Clara is trying to increase revenue for its recruiting budget and to arrange more of those “guarantee” games.
Coonan concedes the progress is “incremental,” but adds, “We’re getting to a point where we’re pushing Gonzaga, not because Gonzaga is not what it used to be, but because the rest of the pack is slowly (closing the gap).”
That’s a matter of debate. Nobody knows the challenge like San Diego coach Bill Grier, a longtime assistant at Gonzaga before moving to USD in 2007.
“I don’t know how schools are going to close the gap on them,” Grier said. “What they’ve done, I don’t think anybody can replicate.
“We’ve taken some boosters on that trip (to Gonzaga), and they’re blown away. They have no idea what resources they have.”
There are people around Gonzaga who do eye-rolls at the fact that outside of GU, regular challenger Saint Mary’s and relative newcomer BYU, the rest of the WCC hasn’t upgraded enough to send an at-large team to the NCAA tournament since 2002.
Therein lies a paradox: Even as Gonzaga dominates the WCC, it would benefit the Zags if the league were stronger.
So is there a better alternative out there for Gonzaga? It doesn’t appear so.
Says Roth, “Many people have said, ‘With the quality of Gonzaga basketball, why aren’t you someplace else?’ Geographically, there’s not a lot of sense that’s going to be made there.”
Gonzaga dropped football in 1941, so its appeal to the Pac-12 or Mountain West is a non-starter.
“Those big five conferences aren’t going to bring in a non-football power to add to themselves,” Roth says. “I’ve been told that even in places that are basketball schools, not powerhouse football schools, that their football brings in significantly more revenue than basketball.
“ESPN values basketball, but financially, they don’t value it even remotely, not even in the same area code, as football. That’s the piece people don’t understand.”
Philosophically, Gonzaga was a fit for the Big East Catholic schools that stayed together when Syracuse, Pitt and Louisville departed. But it was a leap for them to add Creighton, halfway across the country in Omaha. Gonzaga is two time zones farther west.
So Roth is left with this boilerplate summary: “We will always continue to monitor the landscape.”
And apparently in the WCC, until further notice, Gonzaga will continue to rule.