Six of the league's schools either upgraded their arenas this summer or amped up fundraising for future renovations in a bid to remain competitive when Hawaii returns to the Big West this season and San Diego State and Boise State arrive next fall.
Long Beach State and UC Santa Barbara refurbished their men's and women's locker rooms. Cal State Northridge installed an air conditioning system, video boards and a new floor and added custom wall graphics to its aging gym. And UC Riverside unveiled artist renderings and a site feasibility plan for a $70 million new arena that could open as soon as Nov. 2015.
"If we don't have a different facility, I don't want to say we have no shot to compete but it would make it really, really tough to make much progress," UC Riverside athletic director Brian Wickstrom said. "We know what San Diego State is bringing to the table facilities-wise and how far their budget will go. If you don't want to be left behind, you have to do things now to start competing and move up."
The urgency with which Big West schools have begun renovating their facilities is a direct result of their desire to either continue to compete for conference titles or to avoid being left in the dust. San Diego State, and to a lesser extent Hawaii and Boise State, have superior arenas and more money to spend on everything from coaching salaries, to scheduling, to recruiting budgets.
In the case of back-to-back Big West champion Long Beach State, the gap appears somewhat manageable. In the case of some of the other teams in the league, it's more like a chasm.
San Diego State plays in a jam-packed 12,000-seat arena, pays its head coach more than $800,000 per year and will take aim at a fourth consecutive NCAA tournament appearance this March. UC Riverside shares a 3,168-seat gym with intramural teams, spends about $350,000 a year on salaries for its entire coaching staff and has finished with a winning record only once since joining Division I 11 years ago.
It's possible the arrival of San Diego State strengthens the Big West as a whole by forcing the rest of the league to invest in basketball to be competitive the way the West Coast Conference did in response to Gonzaga's emergence. It's also possible some of the Big West's cash-strapped public schools can't afford to pour money into basketball the way private schools in the WCC have, relegating them to the bottom of the league year after year.
Artist rendering of UC Riverside's proposed new arena (photo via PE.com)"We're at a disadvantage because San Diego State's athletic budget is $35 million and ours is like $14 million and their facilities are better than anyone else in the conference," Long Beach State athletic director Vic Cegles said. "So that's a real concern. You hope that it uplifts everyone, but that's a real challenge at a time when the California schools are in such a difficult financial situation."
It was the increased prestige, TV revenue and exposure San Diego State, Hawaii and Boise State bring that persuaded the Big West take their non-football sports.
Since Utah State left for the WAC and Pacific descended into mediocrity seven years ago, the Big West hasn't produced a team formidable enough to win a game in the NCAA tournament. Now with San Diego State emerging as a West Coast power, Long Beach State on the rise, Boise State and Hawaii adding credibility and the rest of the league investing more in hoops, the Big West can realistically dream of putting multiple teams in the NCAA tournament the way it did in the early 90s when UNLV was a member.
"I think that's a real possibility," Cal State Northridge athletic director Rick Mazzuto said. "All of us need to continue to build our programs, but the fact is the vast majority of our institutions are in a talent-rich area for high school basketball. I don't know any reason we couldn't be a multi-bid league again. I see these additions as increasing everyone's opportunity to be successful in the sport."
If multiple NCAA bids seems unrealistic for a league that has typically finished among the bottom third in Division I in recent years, consider the ways the new arrivals will help.
Athletic directors in the Big West say the presence of San Diego State helped them land a TV contract with Fox Sports worth about double their previous deal, which means increased revenue for every school in the league. Recruiting and fundraising also has gotten easier since the announcement of the three new members coming aboard.
UC Riverside coach Jim Wooldridge landed perhaps the best recruiting class in program history partially because of the allure of someday opening the school's new arena and partially because of the newfound credibility of the league. The school also received its first-ever seven-figure donation in July from Amy Harrison, a former five-sport athlete at the school in the 1960s.
"We have great donors here that want to see us compete with San Diego State and Boise State," Wickstrom said. "They're calling up and asking, 'If we're going to have these teams in the league, what do we need to do?'"
The answer is the same as it is for other Big West members: Realize the bar has been raised to be competitive in the league.
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