The Big Sky Conference, its membership depleted, is looking at Cal State Northridge and two other American West Conference schools among candidates for expansion.
Doug Fullerton, who in May will take over as Big Sky commissioner, said Tuesday that Big Sky school presidents have asked him to start gathering information on the athletic programs at Northridge, Cal State Sacramento, Southern Utah and Division II Portland State.
Expansion, he said, is expected to be a major topic when the presidents convene for the annual conference meeting, May 21-23, in Ogden, Utah.
Northridge improved its position last week with passage of a student fee referendum that is expected to pump an additional $1.2 million annually into the school's athletic program beginning next year.
"That's a very good sign," Fullerton said of the Northridge vote. "Those are the kinds of things we were waiting to see."
Sacramento students are scheduled to vote on a similar referendum in April.
"We've reached the point where we really have a very, very good conference," Fullerton said. "So we need a commitment from the people coming to compete at a high level."
The Big Sky Conference last fall was the top-ranked Division I-AA football conference in the nation. In basketball, the conference is rated 13th among 33 Division I alliances in the nation.
Big Sky Conference officials briefly considered Northridge and Sacramento for expansion three years ago, but during visits to the campuses were turned off by the impoverished state of athletic venues at both schools.
"The basketball arenas are less than modern and their football stadiums were not nearly the same caliber as those in our league," said Ron Stephenson, the Big Sky's out-going commissioner. "That was the big concern at the time. It might not be as big a concern now."
The Big Sky is down to six members, the minimum required by the NCAA to guarantee a conference basketball champion an automatic berth in the NCAA tournament.
"There is a feeling among the league members that that is a little too narrow a margin," Fullerton said. "At least one (other school) and maybe more will be considered in a serious manner because I just don't think they like sitting out on a limb like that."
Athletic Director Bob Hiegert said Northridge is interested in joining the Big Sky and is committed to upgrading its athletic venues.
Both of Northridge's basketball teams, along with women's volleyball, football, men's and women's indoor and outdoor track, men's and women's cross country, golf, women's tennis, and perhaps women's soccer and men's and women's swimming would find homes in the Big Sky Conference.
Northridge's baseball and softball teams probably would remain affiliated with the Western Athletic Conference, Hiegert said, and the men's volleyball and men's soccer programs would stay in the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation.
Geographically and because of its top-flight football program, Portland State would be the strongest expansion candidate if the school was further along in its overall athletic development.
However, Portland State is at least three years away from meeting NCAA requirements for upgrading to Division I status. The school does not have a basketball team.
"That's why I think people like the American West Conference schools that already are Division I," Fullerton said. "We need somebody that gives us instant stability."