Ogden • Big Sky Conference commissioner Doug Fullerton looks about at the sharks of big-time college football swimming around his league and is happy he's not going to be their next meal.
The Big Sky, a Football Championship Subdivision conference, has been an observer, not a player, as the major conferences have set about devouring one another leaving leagues like the Mountain West a shell of their former selves and the Western Athletic Conference clinging to life support.
Just the same, Fullerton is seeking to ensure that his conference, which includes Weber State and will soon include Southern Utah, not only survives the ongoing tumult, but also thrives. To that end, the Big Sky is embarking on a rebranding campaign that Fullerton predicts will make it a hotter property.
"If we look around, we can win this game," he said. "In three or four years, there will be three football-playing conferences left in the West the Pac-12, the Mountain West and us."
In July, the Big Sky will officially expand to 13 schools, adding SUU, North Dakota, UC Davis and Cal Poly, making an already-strong FCS conference even more muscular.
In tandem with that move, the conference has signed a five-year agreement with DirecTV Sports Network and its ROOT Sports regional sports networks. Which means Big Sky football will be seen every Saturday all across the West.
"Right now there is a unique opportunity for schools at this level," Montana athletic director Jim O'Day said. "The Big Sky Conference has an opportunity to showcase itself. We play football at a level that most fans like to see. The higher-level schools have a more professional situation. [FCS] allows people to see a truer brand of the college football experience. Expansion creates new opportunity."
The Big Sky's rebranding involves the most positive aspects of playing FCS football including geographic connection, rivalries and, most importantly, a championship playoff. What must be overcome is the lingering image of small-fry football played by also-ran athletes.
"We've changed. The membership has changed," said Weber State athletic director Jerry Bovee. "We're determined to show people that we've changed. Some people are still calling it I-AA. In their minds, it is a lesser program. It's not lesser, it's just not as deep."
Big Sky members also are realistic, though. Most conference members are located in the television outback. The few members in large metropolitan areas such as Weber State, Sacramento State and Portland State do not control their television markets.
"We don't have the television sets, so you need to understand in the modern day of athletics where you are and what you can be," Fullerton said. "Can you do any better or are you putting yourself at risk chasing something you can't catch?"
However, the deal with DirecTV gives the Big Sky a national outlet, something it typically receives only during the FCS playoffs.
"Our agreement ... solidifies our position as a major player in Division I football in the western United States,'' Fullerton said.
The Big Sky, he added, doesn't need to be a player at the highest level to be successful. There's no point in schools with athletic budgets between $10 million and $20 million trying to compete with the Bowl Championship Series behemoths and their $100 million budgets.
Fullerton predicts a fight for survival at the lower end of Division I the non-BCS conferences. He expects the WAC, for instance, to eventually morph into a basketball league.
"Is there a school in the WAC that's not trying to go somewhere else?" Fullerton said. "That's not a good sign."
In the end, it's all about staying competitive. And the best way to do that is to grow without losing your identity. The Big Sky's biggest selling point, Fullerton said, is its "sense of place."
"Our presidents understand the value of rivalry, which people seem to have forgotten," Fullerton said. "We've seen people throw that away, which is incredibly sad and in the long run harmful."
About the Big Sky
The Big Sky Conference is one of 14 conferences and 126 teams that are members of the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS), known as Division I-AA from 1978 to 2005. The schools in this subdivision compete in a 20-team playoff for the NCAA Division I Football Championship. Since 1980, seven Big Sky teams have won the FCS Championship, including Montana in 1995 and 2001. Eastern Washington won in 2010. Six other times, BSC schools have finished as runner-up. Montana has been involved in the championship game five times between 2001 and 2009.
The new-look Big Sky
• Cal Poly (San Luis Obispo, Calif.)
• Eastern Washington (Cheney, Wash.)
• Idaho State (Pocatello, Idaho)
• Montana (Missoula, Mont.)
• Montana State (Bozeman, Mont.)
• Northern Arizona (Flagstaff, Ariz.)
• Northern Colorado (Greeley, Colo.)
• North Dakota (Grand Forks, N.D.)
• Portland State (Portland, Ore.)
• Sacramento State (Sacramento, Calif.)
• Southern Utah (Cedar City)
• UC Davis (Davis, Calif.)
• Weber State (Ogden)