RENO, Nev. — Nevada and Fresno State have agreed to play one more season in the Western Athletic Conference before transferring to the Mountain West Conference in 2012 and will pay significantly less to make the move than the WAC had demanded, the league said Thursday.
The two schools wanted to make the change next year, but WAC officials filed a lawsuit that said they failed to provide proper notice to leave the league and would owe the WAC a $5 million departure fee.
WAC Commissioner Karl Benson announced Thursday they reached an agreement that allows the schools to make the jump effective June 30, 2012, for a buyout of $900,000 each. That means both of their football and basketball seasons will begin in the Mountain West with the 2012 season.
Benson said the fee was considerably less than what the WAC felt was warranted but the league decided to settle the dispute now rather than risk being tied up in court for several more months.
He told reporters during a teleconference Thursday morning that the league can now move forward with scheduling for 2012.
Benson described the negotiations only as "businesslike" and declined to characterize the deal in terms of winners or losers.
"I don't think I'm prepared to say if it was a good deal or a bad deal," he said. "It's time for all parties to move on."
Nevada and Fresno State announced in July that they had accepted invitations to follow fellow WAC member Boise State to the Mountain West. Boise starts play there next season and both Nevada and Fresno State had indicated they wanted to do the same.
Benson earlier lashed out at Nevada and Fresno State for being "selfish" in deciding to abandon the league to seek their fortunes elsewhere. He characterized the two schools at the time as partners in crime who — practically overnight — caused the WAC to go "from having a secure and prosperous future to once again not knowing what the future will hold."
Benson said Thursday that the premature loss of the two could have left the WAC with only six schools, jeopardizing bowl ties and automatic bids to NCAA tournaments.
"To have allowed Fresno state or Nevada to leave early would have put the WAC at a tremendous disadvantage," Benson said. "There was substantial financial risk."
Benson said the three driving financial factors were the league's contract with ESPN for football games, potential BCS money and NCAA basketball tournament revenue. Especially in the case of ESPN, he said they believed the WAC would bring in more money with the two schools still in the league in 2011.
"It was critical to the WAC that we continue to be an eight-team league in 2011-12," he said. "It was something we just could not afford to move off of. It was paramount."
Benson said he expects decisions over the next month regarding the addition of up to five new schools to the league in the coming years. He said the WAC is determined to field at least eight teams for football each season. He said they are not considering any schools beyond those already discussed — Montana, Denver, Seattle, Texas State and Texas-San Antonio.
"We have a feel about all five schools and what they have to offer," he said. "Now we have to determine what our final structure will look like."
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Besides the $900,000, Nevada and Fresno State will forfeit whatever would have been their share of league money for the 2011-12 season, Benson said. Boise State is forfeiting an estimated $750,000 at the close of the 2010-11 season before it leaves, but will keep its share of whatever BCS bowl money it should generate this year, he said.
Nevada athletic director Cary Groth said the Wolf Pack preferred to make the leap to the Mountain West in the fall of 2011 because lame duck conference members do no one any good.
Benson said Thursday he didn't think that would be a problem.
"This is a lame duck year right now and I certainly haven't seen any issues thus far," he said. "It's part of the process of changing conferences. It can't happen immediately, overnight. There is a reason we establish notification dates."