The Las Vegas Bowl will increase its payout to $1 million and get the first choice of eligible Mountain West Conference teams to meet a Pac-10 Conference opponent from 2006 to 2009 under a contract extension announced Thursday, virtually eliminating the possibility that the Mountain West will send a team back to the unpopular Liberty Bowl in the foreseeable future.
"This is now the league's premier bowl game," said Tina Kunzer-Murphy, the executive director of the Las Vegas Bowl.
Until now, the Las Vegas Bowl has had the second choice of teams from the Mountain West.
And though the new deal will give it the first pick for its annual pre-Christmas matchup, it is not specifically required to choose the league champion - mostly so it can avoid having the same team several years in a row or missing out on hometown UNLV if the Rebels are eligible for a bowl game.
Nor will bowl officials be able to prevent a qualified team from playing in the Bowl Championship Series by choosing it for their game.
League commissioner Craig Thompson said the new contract stipulates that the bowl does not get its choice of Mountain West teams until after the BCS has made its selections.
"Absolutely, positively," he said.
That's important, because the Mountain West is hoping that with easier access to the BCS starting in 2006 - one of its teams must be ranked at least in the top 12 (and possibly as low as 16th) in the BCS rankings at the end of the regular season, rather than the top six - it will
regularly send its champion into that lucrative mix.
"Our goal is to have our champion in a BCS game every year," assistant commissioner Javan Hedlund said. "Then having the next team go to Las Vegas."
The Utah Utes became the first team from outside the power conferences to reach the BCS last season, going undefeated and beating Pittsburgh in the Fiesta Bowl. The breakthrough was worth about $14.4 million to the conference.
If a Mountain West champion does not reach the BCS, however, it probably will wind up in Las Vegas, playing either the fourth or fifth selection from the Pac-10.
The Las Vegas Bowl will share those selections with the Emerald Bowl in San Francisco, with Las Vegas getting the fourth selection in 2006 and 2008, and the fifth selection in 2007 and 2009. The Emerald Bowl will get the reverse.
With agreements in place to send eligible teams to the Emerald Bowl (this year only), the Fort Worth Bowl in Texas (starting in 2006) and the new Poinsettia Bowl in San Diego, the league is pleased to have its entire bowl lineup closer to its member schools, after years of sending its champion across the country to the Liberty Bowl.
Many fans, administrators and even players complained of the hassle and the cost of getting all the way to Memphis for the New Year's Eve game, especially with the unpredictable winter weather there and unfamiliar opponents from Conference USA.
And even though the new Las Vegas Bowl payout of at least $1 million is substantially lower than the nearly $1.4 million the Liberty Bowl paid last season, teams in the Mountain West might not suffer much financially because of lower expenses getting to the game and greater appeal to their ticket-buying fans.
"At the end of the day, our members determined that Las Vegas is really the destination of choice," Thompson said. "And you have to take care of and listen to the people who buy the tickets."
There is a slight chance the league sends a team to the Liberty Bowl this season, considering the Liberty Bowl has not filled the spot vacated when its contract with the Mountain West expired after last season.
Both sides have said they are willing to wait until November to see if something can be worked out, but the league will need at least four and possibly five bowl-eligible teams for them to consider accepting an invitation - should one even be forthcoming.
That's because the Mountain West needs to have enough eligible teams to fill its contracted bowl spots - in the Las Vegas, Emerald and Poinsettia bowls - before sending another to the Liberty Bowl.
What's more, if the Big 12 Conference does not field enough bowl-eligible teams to send its eighth choice to the Fort Worth Bowl (it happened the last two years), the Mountain West probably would place a higher priority on getting one of its teams into that game and trying to build it for the future "because we're going to be there for the next four years," Thompson said.
That game, held on the campus of TCU (which just joined the Mountain West), announced this week an agreement to invite a Mountain West team from 2006 to 2009.
The Mountain West now has nine teams with the addition of TCU, but it never has fielded more than four bowl-eligible teams. If its champion does not play in the Liberty Bowl this season, it likely will play in the Las Vegas Bowl instead - though the bowl is not required to choose the champion in that case, either.
Mountain West Conference bowl arrangements
Bowl game location opponent date
Las Vegas Bowl Las Vegas, Nev. Pac-10 No. 5 Dec. 22
Emerald Bowl San Francisco, Calif. Pac-10 No. 6 Dec. 23
Poinsettia Bowl San Diego, Calif. At-large Dec. 22
Las Vegas Bowl Las Vegas, Nev. Pac-10 No. 4/5 TBA
Poinsettia Bowl* San Diego, Calif. At-large TBA
Fort Worth Bowl Fort Worth, Texas TBA TBA