SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — Josh Fenton is as excited about the Summit League as he’s ever been. 

Entering his second year as commissioner, Fenton acknowledged the future of NCAA Division I sports in the United States is in a constant state of change. Just last week, the Summit League experienced that kind of rapid change with Western Illinois announcing its departure from the conference starting July 1. 

“Forty-plus years as a member of the league, a great contributing member and certainly will be missed,” Fenton told KELOLAND News. “I think the best days for the Summit League are definitely ahead, our future is very bright. We have nine member institutions that are committed to the league and committed to Division I athletics at a high level.” 

Fenton said there will be discussions about conference membership and what “potential opportunities” could look like. 

“We think we’ve got a great story to tell and to sell,” Fenton said. “We’re certainly not the first conference and won’t be the last to have membership changes, whether it be a member exit or a new member coming in.” 

The Leathernecks will join the Tennessee-based Ohio Valley Conference for all athletic programs. Western Illinois, along with Cleveland State, Eastern Illinois, Green Bay, Missouri State, Northern Iowa, University of Illinois-Chicago and Valparaiso founded the Association of Mid-Continent Universities which then became the Mid-Continent Conference and then rebranded to the Summit League in 2007. 

In the short term, Fenton said the timing of Western Illinois announcement impacts fall sports schedules and may change the format of some postseason tournaments. Fenton said universities and colleges make decisions based on what’s best for their student athletes and that makes it important for the Summit League to stay focused on providing experiences for those student athletes.  

“There’s no doubt there are a lot of changes across the greater landscape of college athletics,” Fenton said. “The economics have changed drastically, especially at the highest levels, maybe not so much in the mid-major world that we live in. We’ve got to find a way together, as an industry, to continue to remain in a place where we can continue to operate together.” 

Along with the nine member schools – Denver, University of Missouri-Kansas City, North Dakota, North Dakota State, Omaha, Oral Roberts, St. Thomas, South Dakota and South Dakota State – the Summit League also has six affiliate members for baseball, men’s tennis, men’s soccer and men’s swimming and diving. 

Fenton said affiliate members help the Summit League meet some minimum requirements for automatic qualification into national tournaments, but they also show the Summit League is a good option.   

“We think we’ve got great experiences to provide our student athletes in the Summit League,” Fenton said. “I think the nine members that are still members of the league would indicate that. The future is very bright and we look forward to stronger days ahead.” 

FBS football clouds future of NCAA sports 

The Summit League doesn’t offer the sport of college football and four of the nine member schools don’t offer the sport of football. 

Western Illinois did offer football at the FCS-level and competed in the Missouri Valley Football Conference, which has other Summit League members North Dakota, North Dakota State, South Dakota and South Dakota State. St. Thomas competes in the Pioneer Football League. 

Fenton said college football at the FBS-level is driving much of the conference changes with NCAA college sports. 

“Whether it be media rights agreements or certainly the expansion of the College Football Playoff and a new media rights agreement with the expansion of the College Football Playoff,” Fenton said. “It becomes a part of our Division I intercollegiate athletic world.” 

Just this week, Sports Illustrated reported about the Pac-12 and Big 12 conference officials meeting in a hotel resort discussing league expansions after USC and UCLA left the Pac-12 for the Big 10 and Texas and Oklahoma left the Big 12 for the SEC. 

“The big next issue is, can we keep the perception of college athletics as involving all of us?” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said in the Sports Illustrated story. “Or, does the Big Ten and SEC become college athletics in terms of popular perception, and, if they do, how does that influence shape the future of college athletics?”

Back in South Dakota, Fenton said the Summit League needs to be aware, communicate and advocate with member schools. 

“How do we position our institutions in our league in the greater landscape of Division I athletics, knowing that there’s a portion of Division I that are playing football in a little different stratosphere,” Fenton said. “Football is certainly a part of it for some of our schools, but it’s not driving the narrative for the Summit League. We have great Division I experiences at the Summit League.”