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What Final Four trip means for Mountain West, Conference USA

San Diego State, Florida Atlantic register historic runs with first trips to Final Four

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NCAA Basketball: Final Four-City Views Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Not only does a Final Four run mean a school receives added publicity by playing on college basketball’s biggest stage, but its conference sees similar gains as well.

San Diego State is the first Mountain West team to ever reach the Final Four. Florida Atlantic is also in the Final Four for the first time and is the first Conference USA team to reach the sport’s biggest stage since Memphis lost in the title game in 2008. None of the conference’s current members have been to the final weekend.

“For us, it is a perception thing that’s the most important [with having FAU in the Final Four],” Conference USA Commissioner Judy MacLeod said. “We’ve worked really hard to build our basketball programs. Internally, we believed, and we saw that we were improving. Some of the biggest improvement has come from the middle and the bottom half of the league… It just validates everything we’ve been working towards. It’s absolutely fantastic.”

On top of FAU’s run to the Final Four, Conference USA has both teams in the NIT championship with UAB and North Texas squaring off Thursday night. Additionally, Charlotte won the CBI last week. CUSA is 17-1 this postseason.

San Diego State, meanwhile, is helping to rewrite the postseason narrative around the Mountain West. The conference had four teams in the NCAA Tournament in each of the last two years, and this year’s Aztecs are the only ones to win even a single game.

“One of our commentators on one of our games said, ‘you know what it takes to lose a game in the NCAA Tournament, getting into the NCAA Tournament,’” Mountain West Commissioner Gloria Nevarez said. “For me, that is the hardest hurdle. [After the first round], half the teams are going home. So, I don’t think not advancing out of the first round is a testament that we’ve not been strong by any means. Look at this year, there are four No. 1 seeds that are out of the field, and I wouldn’t take anything away from them.”

With San Diego State and Florida Atlantic meeting in the semifinals, we are guaranteed to have a mid-major playing for the national championship Monday night. This will mark the first time a mid-major plays for the title since Butler did in 2010 and 2011, save for Gonzaga’s two championship game appearances.

There is also a substantial monetary gain for these conferences from the runs put together by SDSU and FAU. The NCAA distributes a portion of its revenue from the Big Dance to each conference based on how many games the conference participated in. So, the more teams that get in and the further they advance, the more money the conference gets. The distribution, which will be paid over the next six years, is measured in what’s called a unit.

The Mountain West will receive seven units thanks to four teams in the field and the Aztecs winning four games. Conference USA will see four units as the Owls were the only team in the Tournament. No additional units are paid out based on the results at the Final Four.

According to MacLeod, each unit will be about $380,000. Therefore, the Mountain West anticipates seeing about $2 million each year from 2024-29, Nevarez estimated.

“That’s real dollars,” Nevarez said. “That’s a really nice infusion.”

When Loyola Chicago went to the 2018 Final Four, it brought in at least $8.45 million for the Missouri Valley Conference over the six years that followed, according to the AP. That’s over $2 million more than the Colonial Athletic Association received from George Mason’s improbable run to the 2006 Final Four.

A total of $216 million was paid from the NCAA to the 32 conferences back in 2018.

The conferences split the money among their member institutions. The Mountain West distributes it evenly among its 11 schools. Conference USA splits 75% of the money evenly among its schools. The remaining 25% is allocated based on performance. It uses a formula that rewards teams for playing tough schedules. One of the criteria in this formula is Quad-1 wins.

While the units will help the conferences and their members financially, the two commissioners echoed the sentiment that the opportunity to play on the sport’s biggest stage provides even greater impacts.

“Just being on that national stage from the western regions, sometimes I think we suffer from the late time zones from a media rights perspective,” Nevarez said. “Those late time slots provide us a lot of revenue through our media rights agreements, but I think they have a negative impact with regard to exposure. A lot of folks, media specifically on the East Coast, might not catch our games in full or might just be watching us in the highlights, in the clips, and not really have a full breadth of understanding of how talented we are. When you see this San Diego State team, while people are surprised they’re in the Final Four, when you watch them play, you’re not surprised. They are an amazingly athletic team and just talented.”

This year’s Final Four is a stark contrast from last year’s. In addition to San Diego State and Florida Atlantic, Miami is also making its first appearance on the big stage. UConn is the only school with Final Four experience and is there for the sixth time with four titles. Last year’s group had a combined 18 national championships and 60 Final Four appearances.

“It’s shown that good basketball is played in a lot of different places,” MacLeod said. “I recall multiple conversations I had with colleagues last year when it was basically what you would say four blue bloods, four programs that traditionally were in the Final Four, and there was some worry that this is what it’s always going to look like. Do others have a chance? I think this year’s has kind of turned it upside down.”