Atlantic Sun, WAC teams pairing up to attempt move to FBS, sources say

The remaining football members of the Atlantic Sun and WAC have agreed to align to form the foundation of a 10-member football-only conference, sources told ESPN, with the intention of becoming the 11th FBS conference.

Sources said the founding documents for the league state the group intends to move "from what is currently known as FCS football to what is currently known as FBS football at the earliest practicable date."

The schools that have signed on to join the league are WAC football members Stephen F. Austin, Abilene Christian, Utah Tech, Southern Utah and Tarleton State and Atlantic Sun football members Austin Peay, Eastern Kentucky, Central Arkansas and North Alabama.

UT Rio Grande Valley, which recently announced it is starting a program, is also expected to join in 2025, in that program's first season, as the league's 10th member.

The goal is for the conference to start playing in 2024 with nine members. Ambiguity looms around the process to becoming an FBS league, however. All the schools that play in the FCS will also need to go through a formal transition process.

The schools have signed a "multi-party term sheet agreement" to commit to the new league. Sources familiar with the agreement said the schools "desire to form a partnership for the development and operation of a football-only conference."

The league hasn't picked a name but has narrowed the options. In the founding documents, it's referred to as "ASUN-WAC Football," which won't be the name moving forward.

The programs from the two conferences are familiar with each other after partnering in 2021 and 2022 to gain automatic qualification for the FCS playoff.

The reasoning for the new league is, according to sources, "greater certainty in scheduling and recruiting" and a clear pathway to the highest levels of college football. Also, the schools expect increased revenue through a more lucrative broadcast contract and increased guarantee-game revenue because the games would count toward bowl eligibility if they became an FBS league.

The agreement includes the goal to "immediately explore expansion opportunities," sources said. League officials have begun early conversations with at least four other high-profile FCS football programs, sources said.

Multiple presidents from the league informed NCAA officials of the schools' collective interest in forming a new FBS league, sources said. The meeting happened within the past month.

The process of becoming the 11th FBS league is not certain because there is currently a moratorium in NCAA Division I on single-sport conferences. Ending that moratorium would require a vote from the NCAA Division I board of directors or a creative solution for league affiliation.

Sources with knowledge of the agreement are optimistic of a pathway.

"We feel very confident in talking to NCAA officials that they'd support this," a source said. "There's no grounds for them to stand on to deny it."

One obstacle is that current NCAA legislation doesn't contemplate the scenario of a new FBS league being formed. There is not a known mechanism in place for the NCAA to approve or deny a new FBS league.

It's a topic the NCAA Division I Transformation Committee is discussing generally and could offer general guidance on, but that's not a certainty.

It has been more than two decades since a new FBS league was added when the Mountain West began operating in 1999.

Generally, for FCS schools to jump to the FBS, there is a two-year transition period, which includes NCAA Division I board of directors approval. According to the NCAA handbook, "Before a [FCS] institution may apply for reclassification for the [FBS] the institution must receive a bona fide invitation for membership from a [FBS] conference or a conference that previously met the definition of a FBS conference."

As for the CFP, there have been no discussions on how that would eventually work, although there is a plan to engage in the near future.

One of the manifestations of the new league's formation has already appeared publicly. Austin Peay outlined a plan to jump to the FBS by 2025 during a recent board of trustees meeting.