Big Sky Conference officials think vibrant, upbeat Andrea Williams is the ideal person to lead the sprawling nine-state league through the dramatic changes that college athletics is experiencing.
“We were hoping to get somebody who had experience at all levels,” Southern Utah President Scott Wyatt said during a teleconference on Tuesday in which Williams was welcomed as the Big Sky’s sixth commissioner and the first woman to lead the conference in its 53-year existence.
“She is someone who had great experience as a student-athlete, who could bring in a new vision and new ideas from other parts of the country and other levels and somebody who could, frankly, inspire us,” said Wyatt, who headed the committee that selected Williams from among more than 40 candidates. “We were all inspired by Andrea.”
Williams, 41, will begin work in Ogden, Utah, on July 1. She has spent the past 10 years with the Big Ten Conference, where she is the associate commissioner overseeing football and basketball.
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The former volleyball and basketball player at Texas A&M will be the first African American woman to oversee an NCAA Division I conference.
She will replace Doug Fullerton, who is retiring after a 20-year tenure in which the Football Championship Subdivision conference expanded from eight to 14 schools. Sacramento State is a member, and UC Davis an affiliate member in football.
But the changes that occurred in college sports during Fullerton’s watch may pale in comparison to what awaits Williams and the conference in the coming years. The Big Sky is one of 32 D-I conferences battling for a piece of the revenue pie that is more and more being consumed by the football-dominated Power Five conferences, which includes the Big Ten.
But Williams doesn’t feel she’s leaving a have for a have not.
“I’m definitely intrigued by the Big Sky, the institutions,” Williams told the Bee on Wednesday. “I’m looking forward to learning the traditions, the rivalries and the cultures. I know the culture at Sac State will be different than Weber State’s.”
She said her top priorities will be to build a vision and strategic plan for the conference while maintaining the core values and integrity. She also will look at improving its broadcasting reach to try to attract those unfamiliar with the conference by looking at new technologies such as live streaming through YouTube or Facebook for those who view sports primarily on their smartphones and tablets.
She welcomed the news that Idaho will join the conference in football in 2018. The Vandals, already in the Big Sky in other sports, decided to drop from the Football Bowl Subdivision to the Big Sky after learning they would be booted from the Sun Belt Conference after the 2017 season. New Mexico State, another future Sun Belt refugee, also may make overtures to join the Big Sky.
Williams said any expansion beyond Idaho, which will put the conference at 14 football teams, will be based on what the Big Sky school presidents, athletic directors and other “stakeholders” think will be best.
The combined revenue produced in 2014-15 by Big Ten schools Michigan and Ohio State alone was nearly $28 million more than that of all 14 Big Sky schools. And while Big Ten schools get most of their money from ticket sales, television rights and licensing fees, UCD and Sac State – and many other Big Sky schools – depend heavily on student fees and school funds to support their athletic programs.
But Williams sees college athletics, big and small, battling the same issue of rising costs and declining attendance. FBS football is in the midst of a five-year attendance decline.
“Whether you are an Ohio State, Florida State or UC Davis, everyone is trying to find ways to cut costs and expenses and generate more revenue,” Williams said. “Everyone is trying to be more strategic in how they spend their money. You have to be creative ... and winning certainly helps.”