Collegiate athletics conferences are a fluid landscape, subject to change season by season. With major realignments occurring in the Football Bowl Subdivision, UM expects to see some changes trickle down into the Big Sky Conference.
“[The Big Sky conference] is way too big already,” UM head football coach Bobby Hauck said. “Everybody needs to play everybody every year. If you got more teams than allow that, you get too big of a league in FCS [Football Championship Subdivisinon] football.”
While UM has no plans in the immediate future to shift conferences, according to both the Big Sky Commissioner’s office and University of Montana president Seth Bodnar, current conference realignment trends in the FCS and FBS are beginning to show their effects at the University and throughout the Big Sky.
Hauck said having a large conference negatively affects individual teams by creating a weaker schedule and allowing the possibility of a conference to share champions. The Big Sky Conference did this in 2012, when it had 13 affiliates and shared the conference title between Eastern Washington, Montana State and Cal Poly.
Despite being an FBS conference, Hauck said he is confident the Grizzlies could hold their own in the Mountain West, though it is unlikely this would occur.
“It’s ultimately going to come down to the presidents. They’re going to be the ones making that decision,” Hauck said. “But I think generally speaking, most presidents are going to talk to their football coaches, because it’s their world.”
“When conference realignments take root, there is certainly a domino effect and we are seeing that now across the country,” Bodnar stated via email. “Ultimately, each institution has to decide what is best for that university or college.”
Beginning in July 2022, Southern Utah University will leave the Big Sky Conference for the Western Athletic Conference, dropping the Big Sky’s affiliate members from 11 to 10. The WAC dropped football as a sponsored sport in 2013, but will begin participating in the FCS next season.
On Nov. 7, it was announced that FCS powerhouse James Madison would be leaving UM’s subdivision to play in the FBS Sun Belt Conference. The University of Oklahoma and Texas are playing in their last season of the Big 12 Conference before transitioning to the nation’s best conference, the Southeastern Conference.
“Decisions made in Norman, Oklahoma and Austin, Texas trickle down to everybody, because it becomes a clamor all the way down,” said Kent Haslam, Director of Athletics at UM. “The SEC takes schools from the Big 12, the Big 12 takes schools from the American, the American takes schools from Conference USA. They’ll go to FCS schools if they think [the schools] can move up.”
With the resurgence of the WAC and the newly sponsored ASUN Conference in the FCS, the Big Sky and its affiliate universities may be affected financially, stemming from shifts in media exposure and postseason automatic and at-large playoff bids.
In the FCS postseason, automatic bids are granted to each conference champion, while at-large bids are selected by the FCS Playoff Selection Committee for schools that did not win their conference, but demonstrate enough talent to participate in the National Championship Tournament.
The now-limited number of at-large bids affects schools financially, as the postseason is a time when schools rake in money through television contracts.
“With the WAC sponsoring football, they’ll petition to get an automatic bid, and that will be decided by the NCAA [National Collegiate Athlect Association],” Haslam said. “That would move 12 autos to now 12 at-larges, versus 10 autos and 14 at-larges. So that certainly impacts the championship.”
“The Big Sky is actively monitoring the size of the FCS playoff field, the number of at-large opportunities available and its impact on our members’ ability to qualify for the postseason as more automatic qualifiers are potentially added,” Tyson Rodgers, Assistant Commissioner of the Big Sky Conference, stated in an email.
Rodgers said Big Sky Commissioner Tom Wistrcill has advocated to expand the field to ensure those opportunities are not diminished.
When the conference realignment fever hits the NCAA, it is done quickly and without much press coverage until the school makes a decision, as this creates an atmosphere where negotiations regarding television contracts and school income may become volatile, according to Haslam.
“Anytime you talk about conference realignment, you’ve really got to keep it quiet. It’s got to be done fast,” Haslam said. “It’s not publicized. It’s like what Texas and Oklahoma did. One minute they’re in the Big 12 and a few weeks later they’re gone.”
In an attempt to help gain notoriety in and around athletics in the Big Sky Conference, the league signed a deal with ESPN to broadcast games on ESPN+. In a football game this year between UM and Eastern Washington, ESPN boosted the game to be on ESPN2, one of its two trademark cable stations.
“This landmark agreement for the Big Sky and our membership rightfully aligns the nation’s preeminent FCS conference with the strongest media brand in sports,” said Big Sky Commissioner Tom Wistrcill in a June, 2021 press release.
Bodnar addressed the University’s process of consulting with its athletics department if the school was to change conferences.
“I can only speak for UM. Here, we always consult with the athletic director [Haslam] and other athletic department leaders on decisions of significant magnitude,” he stated in an email.
As of now, Bodnar said, there have been no official talks between UM and the Big Sky Conference regarding expansion or retraction.