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CONFERENCE hopes TV contract boosts recruiting


TULSA, Okla. (AP) _ A new television contract with ESPN has Western Athletic Conference schools hoping for more national exposure to boost recruiting, despite the absence of a Saturday national football telecast this fall.

The 10-team WAC and the cable sports giant announced a three-year deal Thursday with at least four football telecasts annually on ESPN and ESPN2. Also included are regional coverage and pay-per-view rights. Financial terms were not disclosed.

Nationally televised WAC football games are scheduled for a Sunday, Thursday and two Fridays. Basketball coverage will include the conference championship and other select games.

Officials from WAC schools are counting on bigger audiences than those that tuned into Fox the past two seasons.

``We're starting at the bottom again to prove that the WAC can turn TV sets on,'' conference commissioner Karl Benson said Friday.

Success could mean better schedules and more exposure, he added.

The far-flung league, which extends from Louisiana to Hawaii, competes for recruits against the Big 12, PAC-10 and other major conferences armed with far greater television exposure.

The ESPN contract could help the WAC at least begin to partially bridge the public relations gulf, officials said.

Poll voters seemed to hardly notice Fresno State's basketball team after it reached the 20-win mark last season before bowing in the second round of the NCAAs, said Steve Weakland, an assistant athletic director.

Fresno's football team, the likely preseason conference favorite, will be on two of ESPN's telecasts this fall _ Sept. 2 against Oregon State and Oct. 26 at Hawaii in a Friday game that was rescheduled for TV.

Tulsa and WAC schools in Texas have declined to play on Friday nights, the traditional domain of high school football. A recent rules change from the NCAA eliminated restrictions on college games that start after 7 p.m. Fridays.

ESPN exposure could also include more WAC highlights on the cable network's popular sports news programs, Weakland said.

``When you're on ESPN and ESPN2, you're on across the world,'' he said. ``You're on throughout country on cable with every household.''

Fox regional sports coverage from San Francisco, which serves Fresno in California's central valley, sometimes pre-empted university games with bay area professional sports teams' last fall, he said. That effectively blacked out exposure in one of the university's key recruiting regions.

``With ESPN, that couldn't happen,'' Weakland said.

A Nov. 23 WAC matchup on ESPN2 has yet to be determined, but ESPN2 also will televise Texas Tech at Texas-El Paso on Sept. 13.

``Now we have a chance to tell kids we're recruiting that they have a chance to play and everybody in the country has a chance to watch them,'' UTEP football coach Gary Nord said.

Despite not getting a national ESPN football game this fall, the University of Tulsa expects to benefit.

``What high school athlete doesn't watch ESPN and what alumni of the university who's an athletic fan doesn't tune into ESPN sometimes?'' asked Tulsa sports information director Don Tomkalski.

Tulsa games will still be seen on local cable, he said.

This year, Boise State and Louisiana Tech join the WAC. Members also include Southern Methodist, Rice, San Jose State and New Mexico State.

Exposure could help Boise State with recruiting in the Pacific Northwest, California, Colorado and Arizona, said Max Corbet, the university's sports information director.
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