PARK CITY, Utah — Doug Fullerton is willing to put the Big Sky Conference up against any league in the country.
Fullerton enters his 20th year as the Big Sky Conference’s commissioner this fall. He’s seen the Big Sky change, losing charter members like Idaho, Boise State and Nevada-Reno early one but adding Southern Utah and North Dakota as full members and UC Davis and Cal Poly as football affiliates. He’s seen the Vandals return to the league in all sports but football. And all around, the Big Sky has stood pat, as the rest of college athletics seems to be endlessly shifting.
“This is the time of year that everybody gets together and starts ramping up for football. Now we will see a bunch of articles coming out on what the best conference is. I think sometimes the criteria is if I can send everyone a check for $20 million, I am the best conference,” Fullerton said, taking a veiled shot at the lucrative television contracts that have spurred the massive reorganization of the most powerful conferences in the country. “But that’s not necessarily the greatest measure of anyone’s work. I think there is not a conference in America that does business any better, that cares any more and that performs any better for their institutions than the Big Sky.”
The reorganization of conferences throughout the country has pushed college athletics to the brink. The “Power 5” — the Southeastern Conference, the Atlantic Coast Conference, the Pacific 12, the Big Ten and the Big XII — have all founded independent television networks that reap huge dividends for all member schools. In January, the Power 5 approved “full cost of attendance”, meaning the institutions will provide a full cost of living stipend within each athletic scholarship. Tennessee will lead the way, providing nearly $6,000 yearly stipend for student athletes.
For years, schools have consistently provided living stipends within athletic scholarships but the stipends have not covered the full cost of attendance at the schools. With the new legislation in place, athletes in Power 5 conferences will not only cover full tuition, room and board and books costs but will also provide an additional living stipend of between $1,500 and $6,000 a year.
The decision is expected to perpetuate the fracture between the biggest five conferences in college athletes and middle of the road leagues that still play FBS football like Conference USA, the Mid-American Conference and the Mountain West.
Fullerton and others predict that the fracture will become seismic at some point, leaving the Big Sky in a power position because of the quality of its academic institutions — seven of the 12 full-time Big Sky members are among the top 100 research institutions in the country — and because of its geographic location. The Pac 12, with its lucrative television contract and premier schools like Stanford, Washington and Cal-Berkley will continue to have a strangle hold on anything west of the Rocky Mountains. But the Mountain West is filled with schools like Wyoming, Colorado State and Utah State, all that have athletic departments that look more similar to Montana State or Montana than to Alabama or Auburn.
“If anyone is looking at it, it seems the Big Sky controls everything in the West besides a few football playing football institutions,” Fullerton said. “It’s no secret that Idaho is with us for everything but football. I actually think in the long run that will be better for our league. There’s some schools like New Mexico State out here in the West that are similar, state institutions. We are not necessarily courting them at the time. We just let them know where we are. I think that we can have a conference that has some geographical sense and I think you should have one-minded institutions.”
The trickle down effect of the big TV contacts earned by the Power Five has reached the Big Sky. The Pac 12 used to be ROOT Sports’ primary football affiliate but with the creation of the Pac 12 Network, now the Big Sky is the prime football league shown by the regional network.
The Big Sky coverage has garnered ROOT Emmy awards each of the last two years. The league’s five-year contract with the network, which pays member schools a certain undisclosed percentage of the rights fee plus gives individual schools money based on appearances, expires following the 2017 football season.
“We’ve never had a conference as good as the Big Sky to work with,” said Mark Jorgeson, the president of ROOT. “It’s very collaborative. It’s not just us coming in and doing a game and leaving. We are working very closely with the entire conference and we appreciate that very much.”
ROOT is the home of the Seattle Mariners, Seattle Seahawks, Seattle Sounders FC, Portland Timbers, Gonzaga Bulldogs, Big Sky Conference and Mountain West. The network reaches 3.4 million households across five states, including Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Alaska, and delivers more than 350 live events each year – all of which are available in high definition.
Before the Western Athletic Conference disbanded, the league tried to lure away several Big Sky members, including the Montana schools. The Grizzlies and Bobcats debated making the jump to the FBS, but ultimately declined, a decision that looks smarter as each year passes. Boise State is the sterling example of making the jump. The Broncos have had a decade filled with success that included several trips to BCS Bowl games and national exposure. Idaho is on the other side of the coin. The Vandals qualified for the Division I-AA playoffs 11 times in 18 seasons. Since making the FBS jump, they have made it to two bowl games and have posted a 40-136 since 2000. Since the WAC got rid of football in 2012, Idaho is 3-33.
“This is a process and it will take a long time but this is where we (Big Sky schools) belong,” Fullerton said. “To chase FBS prematurely is foolish. If some of our schools would’ve chased FBS, where would they be today?”
“We are now closing the gap and that was our long-range goal. I couldn’t be more excited about the upside of the Big Sky.”
photo by Brooks Nuanez. All Rights Reserved.