CASPER — Wyoming football is officially back.
So is the rest of the Mountain West.
After a week of various media reports, statements from university administrators and state officials, and rampant speculation, the Mountain West has become the third Football Bowl Subdivision conference to reverse course after postponing football and other fall sports indefinitely last month. The league announced Thursday night that UW and the conference’s other 11 football teams will play an eight-game, conference-only schedule beginning the week of Oct. 24 following a vote by the Mountain West Board of Directors, which is comprised of the universities’ presidents.
The Mountain West will release each team’s schedule at a later date, but the season will culminate with a championship game Dec. 19 — the same date many other leagues are also scheduled to finish. The final College Football Playoff rankings and bowl matchups will be announced Dec. 20, and completing its season before then makes the Mountain West eligible for the College Football Playoff or a potential New Year’s Six bowl. (The highest-ranked Group of Five conference champion gets an automatic New Year’s Six bid, assuming it’s not part of the College Football Playoff .)
The announcement comes more than a month after the league postponed all fall sports indefinitely Aug. 10. It also figures to soften the financial hit UW’s athletic department has been bracing for with no football, which helps fund the rest of the university’s sports with the annual revenue it generates.
UW athletic director Tom Burman told the Star-Tribune the athletic department was looking at a revenue loss of potentially more than $10 million had a season not been played at all. How much ticket revenue can still be salvaged is unclear since it isn’t known how many fans will be able to attend UW’s home games, though Burman said there will be fans at War Memorial Stadium. However, the Mountain West’s new television contract with FOX and CBS Sports is set to triple each school’s annual cut from the media rights deal.
The conference’s six-year, $270 million contract, which went into effect July 1, will net UW more than $3 million if the networks pay out the full amount despite the four-game reduction for each team — a significant increase from the $1.1 million each school received annually under the conference’s previous media rights deal.
An eight-game schedule was always the league’s preference, though a source told the Star-Tribune at the beginning of the week that the conference could delay the start of the season a week and play seven games starting Oct. 31. It depended on how soon the league could secure rapid-response testing for the novel coronavirus, which, as COVID-19 cases continue to increase in Mountain West states and nationally, was the ultimate linchpin to resuming football this fall.
On Sept. 16 — after the Big Ten cited the adoption of “significant medical protocols,” including daily antigen testing, as the primary reason for its decision to resume football — Mountain West Commissioner Craig Thompson said in a statement the league was working daily on a return-to-play plan for its sports programs, including “finalizing a plan for frequent, rapid response testing” amid the the coronavirus pandemic.
Some coaches, athletic directors and university presidents, including UW’s Ed Seidel, followed with statements of their own that suggested the league’s football teams could be back on the field sooner rather than later. Even Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon tweeted support for a safe return of Mountain West football.
“Stay tuned,” part of Gordon’s Sept. 18 tweet read.
Still, as of Tuesday, the Mountain West had not secured a partnership with a company for rapid testing capabilities, though The Associated Press, citing an anonymous source, reported the league was close to doing so.
The Big Ten and Pac-12, which announced a fall season just hours before the Mountain West, have both secured daily rapid testing, which would produce results in as little as 15 minutes that not only could help prevent team-wide outbreaks but also, at least in theory, eliminate the need for contact tracing. Positive tests and contact tracing have significantly affected rosters for numerous teams that are already playing as more than 20 FBS games have already been postponed or canceled this season because of coronavirus-related issues.
The Mountain West on Friday announced it has partnered with Quest Diagnostics to provide rapid testing for its member institutions, though it won’t be daily. Players, coaches, trainers and other on-field personnel will be administered antigen tests three times per week, and any players that test positive through point-of-contact testing will also be required to take a PCR (polymerase chain reaction) test to confirm the result.
An unrelated caveat: The Mountain West noted teams returning to the field are subject to approval from state, county and local officials, which is still a hurdle for some teams. San Diego State, San Jose State, Fresno State and New Mexico still aren’t able to hold full team practices because of public health orders in California and New Mexico preventing such gatherings.
Hawaii and New Mexico also have immediate 14-day quarantines in effect for out-of-state travelers, but people traveling to New Mexico can reportedly bypass the quarantine with valid documentation of a negative test result within 72 hours of travel. Hawaii also plans to waive a quarantine by mid-October for travelers that test negative before arriving on the island, so teams are expected to be able to play in those states.
UW doesn’t have any practice restrictions to worry about outside of social distancing and increased sanitation. Wyoming recently loosened restrictions on its public health orders to allow outdoor gatherings at venues of up to half capacity with a maximum crowd of 1,000.
Now the Cowboys will start preparing for a season they didn’t think they would get.