It’s good to be involved with San Diego State athletics these days. With the likes of UCF and Cincinnati bound for the Big 12, there are few programs left in the Group of 5 that seem like their trajectory is pointing in a more upward direction. They are the belle of the ball in this current realignment round, continuing with the Pac-12 and Big 12 in a cold war over the future of the sport.
As Big 12 leaders convened in West Virginia this week for their annual meetings, you can bet further expansion was at least discussed, and such talks likely involved the Aztecs.
The fact that people are becoming more familiar with the program is the result of well-executed plans.
Athletic director JD Wicker remembers walking through Times Square in 2017 shortly after announcing the plans for the now-built Snapdragon Stadium. He remembered seeing Heisman billboards for Oregon’s Joey Harrington. At the time, Oregon was a similar type of West Coast brand in the process of developing a national identity. The trip sparked the idea for Wicker to work with a local marketing agency, STN Digital, which eventually led to a partnership with DKC, a public relations firm based in Manhattan. The plan was to take SDSU national.
As the stadium neared completion last year, SDSU went on a marketing blitz with the hopes of getting its brand in front of key decision-makers in college sports as much as possible. The Aztecs bought ad space in USA Today and billboards across Indianapolis for the 2022 College Football Playoff national championship game. And then they reached the men’s Final Four this past March.
“We saw a 68% increase to our admissions page for the institution,” Wicker says. “Hundreds of percent increase to just the general SDSU page, the general SDSU athletics page. So that’s one of the great things about technology today, you’re sitting there watching the game and you’re like, ‘Oh, I’m going to go on my phone or my iPad and check out San Diego State.’ And we’re already one of the most applied-to schools as it is. I think we had 110,000 applicants this past year between undergrad and grad school, so it will be interesting to see what that number potentially rises to.”
It’s the classic story of athletics being the front porch for the rest of the university. The Final Four run provided a stage for the program that money couldn’t buy—well, at least with the money SDSU had. Wicker says a consultant told him the program earned an estimated $201 million worth of media exposure. With an MLS team becoming a year-round tennant starting in 2025 in addition to an NWSL team, Aztecs football, and the San Diego Legion Rugby team, Snapdragon Stadium has become a success story of a modern stadium with multiple uses, built on time and on budget. For Wicker, who recently won AD of the Year at the Sports Business Journal Awards, everything seems to be coming up SDSU at a very critical time in the school’s history. The multimillion-dollar question remains: Which conference will the Aztecs be in at this point in 2024 and ’25?
“We continue to have great conversations with people, and we’re waiting for the Pac-12 to finish their TV deal, and hopefully we’ll have an opportunity moving forward,” Wicker says.
For now, like the rest of the college sports world, SDSU will wait on the Pac-12 to complete a TV deal, which has been in negotiations for almost a year and has at various points seemed imminent, according to league athletic directors and presidents. The Big 12 also could unilaterally extend an invite to the Aztecs, but that option is a little hairy given that it would possibly dilute the revenue shares for the rest of the league, since SDSU would not be coming from a Power 5 league. This could create a scenario where the Big 12 adds SDSU but doesn’t give it a full share of revenue at the start to make the rest of the league whole.
For now, San Diego State, like the rest of us, will have to wait. But you can’t say the Aztecs haven’t put themselves in prime position for a call-up.