The Big Sky Conference on Monday announced changes to the schedules and championship formats of multiple sports in an effort to save the league’s institutions money during the coronavirus pandemic that has already caused financial problems throughout collegiate athletics.
Among the changes, which are in effect only for the 2020-21 academic year, are a shortened conference schedule for volleyball, smaller conference championship tournament fields for volleyball, softball and tennis, and the elimination of the conference tournament for soccer.
The vote, made by the Big Sky’s Presidents’ Council, also allows each member institution to decide when to resume practice and competition “in accordance with NCAA policies.” The NCAA prohibits countable athletically related activities (CARA) before June 1.
“As we prepare to enter a year that surely will be unlike any other, I applaud the foresight our leadership has shown in allowing our institutions to make their own decisions within NCAA rules about when it’s appropriate to resume practice and competition on their own campuses,” Big Sky Commissioner Tom Wistrcill said in a press release. “Everyone involved within our governance process — our student-athlete advisory committee, athletic directors, senior woman administrators, faculty athletics representatives, presidents, coaches, and conference staff — has risen to the challenge presented by these unprecedented circumstances. The Big Sky is well-positioned to move forward based on the practical and thoughtful adjustments our membership approved to control expenses while increasing their own flexibility.”
The following changes were announced Monday:
• Volleyball teams will play a 16-match regular-season conference schedule, down from 18 matches. Each school’s conference slate will feature eight opponents to be played on consecutive days at the same location — Idaho State would play at Northern Arizona on Friday and Saturday, for example, before hosting Montana State the next Friday and Saturday. Previously, teams would play two opponents two days apart (Thursday and Saturday) during alternating road trips and homestands. The top four teams will advance to the conference’s championship tournament, down from the top eight teams. The championship tournament will be held at Northern Colorado, which earned hosting rights by winning the 2019 regular season.
• Women’s soccer will stage its usual nine-game regular season, at the end of which the team with the most points (or, if necessary, the team that earns the tiebreaker) will be designated as the Big Sky’s automatic qualifier to advance to the NCAA Tournament. Previously, the top six teams qualified for the conference’s championship tournament.
• For the second consecutive year, Idaho State will serve as the site for the 2021 indoor track and field championships, allowing more schools to bus their teams to this event. Weber State, which was scheduled to host the 2020 outdoor track and field championships, will retain its turn in the rotation and host the 2021 event.
• Softball will play its normal 18-game regular-season conference schedule, after which a four-team conference championship will be staged at Weber State, which was the 2019 (and thus is still the defending) champion. Previously, the top six teams qualified for the championship tournament.
• Both men’s and women’s tennis will compete in a divisional schedule format, with each team’s conference schedule consisting of one match against each of the other teams in its division. The top two teams from each of the two divisions advance to a four-team conference championship at a single site to be determined. Previously, the top six teams qualified for the championship tournament.
• The annual football kickoff event held the last two years in Spokane, Washington, will be conducted remotely this summer as a virtual event. More information will be announced in the coming weeks to the media and fans about how to participate and watch.
Idaho State Athletic Director Pauline Thiros said the Big Sky’s changes were approached on a sport-by-sport basis, which the league’s athletic directors and coaches favored over down-the-line cuts that other conferences have made.
Thiros added that each institution may still construct its non-conference schedules at its own discretion. The Big Sky’s changes only affect conference competitions and tournaments.
“We pulled every sport and looked at their season, what they normally do,” Thiros said. “We modeled probably two or three different types of schedules for each sport to try to figure out how to get them either the most opponents, the travel schedule that was going to cost the least amount of money to execute, to make adjustments that weren’t going to put student-athletes in jeopardy of not having enough time to recover between competitions, things like that.”
Thiros said conversations regarding any pending changes to the football, basketball, golf and cross country schedules are ongoing. Policies regarding spectators attending games are to be determined, she added.