NEW YORK — Navy is headed to the Big East, giving up more than 130 years of football independence to join a conference that is in the middle of a massive overhaul.
The Big East announced Tuesday that the U.S. Naval Academy has accepted an invitation to join the league for football only, starting in 2015. The conference has now added six new members in the last seven weeks after losing three members and having another school renege on a future commitment in the fall.
"Stability in the Big East was a very important aspect in our discussions with the commissioner," Vice Admiral Michael Miller, superintendent of the U.S. Naval Academy, said during a teleconference. "What we see is a very bright future for the conference."
Navy has been playing football since 1879 without conference affiliation, but academy officials said they believe independence will be too difficult to maintain as other powerful leagues grow. Athletic Director Chet Gladchuk said scheduling games late in the season, landing desirable television deals and securing bowl bids will become a problem for Navy.
"Opportunities to exist as independents into the future are clearly in jeopardy," he said.
Gladchuk said Navy and the Big East have been talking about the Midshipmen joining the league for a decade, but those talks got serious about a year ago — before the Big East was beset by defections.
"It's a marriage our membership has longed for for many, many years," Big East Commissioner John Marinatto said.
Navy football has been thriving over the last decade. The Midshipmen played in eight straight bowl games before slipping to 5-7 this season and have won a record 10 straight games against rival Army. But Navy's schedule will get tougher playing in the Big East, while keeping its rivalry games against Army, Air Force and Notre Dame.
"We have a definite challenge ahead of us," coach Ken Niumatalolo said. "I feel like there's drift happening between the haves and havenots (in major college football), and I want to be with the haves."
Gladchuk said the Big East will allow Navy to maintain its annual rivalries with Army, Air Force and Notre Dame, and that the Army-Navy game will still be the season finale for both teams, regardless of when a future Big East championship game is played.
"The Army-Navy game remains on that second Saturday in December," he said.
Gladchuk also said that Navy's television deals with CBS and CBS Sports Network had to be accommodated by the Big East.
"Partnership with CBS was one of the reasons this agreement took a little time to finalize," he said.
CBS owns the TV rights to the Army-Navy game and Navy's home games against Notre Dame through 2018. Navy has a separate deal with CBS Sports Network for the TV rights to its other home games that runs through 2017.
"We have a great relationship with the academies, and our deals will be grandfathered for the length of our contracts" said Mike Aresco, executive vice president for programming at CBS Sports.
The Big East's current TV deals run through the 2013 football season. The league is hoping to land a new deal similar to the long-term, billion dollars contracts signed last year by the Atlantic Coast Conference and the Pac-12. The Big East needs to know its lineup beyond 2013 before it can negotiate with a television network.
In December, the Big East added Boise State and San Diego State as football-only members and SMU, Houston and Central Florida in all sports. Those schools will join in 2013.
"That Navy would give up 100 years of football independence speaks to the long-term viability of the Big East," Marinatto said.
The Big East is trying to build a 12-team football conference with an eastern and western division and a league championship game. The conference is losing Pittsburgh and Syracuse to the Atlantic Coast Conference and West Virginia to the Big 12, but it's unclear when.
West Virginia filed a lawsuit against the Big East so it can join the Big 12 in 2012. The Big East sued West Virginia to make the school abide by the league's 27-month notification period, which would keep the Mountaineers in the conference through the 2013-14 school year.
Marinatto said adding Navy does not affect those lawsuits, though as part of a previous agreement between Big East presidents, the addition of the service academy causes the withdrawal fee for current members of the conference to double to $10 million.
A Rhode Island judge has ordered West Virginia and the Big East to enter nonbinding mediation to resolve their competing lawsuits.
Pitt, Syracuse and the ACC have said they will not challenge the Big East bylaws, though West Virginia's situation could change that.
TCU was slated to join the Big East next season, but backed out when it was invited to the Big 12.