Contracts are typically signed on a piece of paper. The Nova Home Loans Arizona Bowl thought outside of the box to announce its new conference partners.
During a press conference held downtown Thursday, Mountain West Conference commissioner Craig Thompson and Mid-American Conference commissioner Jon Steinbrecher signed a black football helmet with a gold Sharpie. Arizona Bowl executive director Kym Adair and chairman Ali Farhang did the same.
And with the “official contract” signed, a new chapter of the Arizona Bowl — featuring a new conference and higher-finishing teams — was created.
“I’ll fill in the details later,” Farhang, an attorney, joked.
The new-look Arizona Bowl will feature “upper-echelon” teams from the MAC and the Mountain West as part of a six-year contract that begins in 2020. The MAC replaces the Sun Belt Conference, which has been a part of the game since its second year. The Dec. 31 game will feature one last showdown between the Mountain West and Sun Belt teams in Tucson.
The new matchups should bring better teams to Arizona Stadium. Over the first four years of the game, Arizona Bowl participants averaged 6.8 regular-season wins per team. Last year’s MAC and Mountain West runners-up won 10 regular-season games apiece.
“This was a bowl we were very interested in and targeted,” said Steinbrecher, the MAC commissioner.
“We worked very hard to build a relationship, and we feel very fortunate to be a part of this. I look forward to the next six years and beyond.”
The MAC consists of 12 teams — Akron, Bowling Green, Buffalo, Kent State, Miami (Ohio), Ohio, Ball State, Central Michigan, Eastern Michigan, Northern Illinois, Toledo and Western Michigan — from five states.
Outside of its midwestern and eastern footprint, the league may be best known for its midweek, nationally televised games. The resulting hashtag — #MACtion — has since been adopted by the conference, one that has produced NFL stars Ben Roethlisberger, Khalil Mack and Antonio Brown, among others.
The MAC currently does not have a pecking order for its bowl teams, preferring to place them in games depending on geography. The team’s five bowl partners range from the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise to the Makers Wanted Bahamas Bowl in Nassau.
Starting in 2020, the Arizona Bowl will choose among the top two or three teams from both the MAC and Mountain West. The actual picks will vary depending on whether any MAC or MWC teams are chosen for a “New Year’s Six” game or the College Football Playoff.
The Arizona Bowl could even end up pulling a team from outside the two leagues depending on the playoff machinations. The Arizona Bowl has an agreement with ESPN that allows the network to place one of the participating teams in a different bowl every other year starting in 2021; if it does, the Arizona Bowl could end up with a Power 5 Conference team.
“The dynamics in picking teams for bowls are very complicated, because there’s a lot of ‘If this (happens), then this (happens),’ ” Adair said. “But what I can say is we’re now in a position to pick among the top-tier teams in the conferences instead of waiting to see what teams we get.
“We’re in the sandbox now, and we’re playing. We’re going head-to-head with all of the big bowls and ESPN to get the best teams for Tucson, and we’re excited to get teams that haven’t been here to showcase themselves.”
The Mountain West has been a partner in the Arizona Bowl since its inception; the first-ever Arizona Bowl, played in 2015, featured two teams — Nevada and Colorado State — pitted against each other. The Mountain West currently sends its champion to the Las Vegas Bowl, with the Arizona Bowl generally landing a team in the middle of the conference pack. Last year’s participant, Nevada, finished tied for fourth in the league.
The Arizona Bowl’s status — and that of Tucson — will likely grow starting in 2020.
The Mountain West champion will play in a “New Year’s Six” bowl, if selected. If it isn’t, the as-yet-unnamed bowl game in Los Angeles will take the first pick, with the Arizona Bowl next. The resulting matchup “could be a blockbuster game,” said Thompson, the Mountain West commissioner.
“Maybe a nine-win team or a 10-win team and a Top 25 team,” Thompson said. “It’s going to be a real barn-burner of a game because of the teams we’re able to send down here.”