Burnaby, B.C. -
Simon Fraser University will begin play in the NCAA Division II in the fall of 2010, one year earlier than originally planned, in a move that will save the school money while offering athletes a unique opportunity, athletic director David Murphy said Tuesday.
"We have the ability to provide a great Canadian education and we can also combine that with an NCAA athletic experience," Murphy told a news conference.
"No one else can do that."
SFU is the first non-U.S. member of the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The school's varsity teams will become the 10th member of the NCAA's Division II Great Northwest Athletic Conference.
Richard Hannan, the conference's commissioner, said SFU was a logical choice.
The conference has institutions in five states, including Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana and Alaska.
"They are a prestigious, quality institution, academically and athletically, " said Hannan. "Geographically they are a great location for us.
"We needed another member. We need to get to 10, then hopefully we can get to 12."
SFU currently has 19 teams competing in the small-college National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics in the U.S. and Canadian Interuniversity Sports.
Murphy said joining the NCAA will save SFU money in travel and membership fees.
It costs about $500 to belong to the NCAA, while CIS fees are "quite a bit more," he said.
"The savings in memberships will be over $40,000."
SFU currently plays in the CIS's Canada West conference, where they sometimes must travel as far as Winipeg for games - a trip of about 1,870 kilometers by air.
Another major difference is the NCAA pays to travel to any championship. In the CIS and NAIA, individual schools pay the travel costs.
Under CIS rules, scholarships can only cover tuition and school fees. An NCAA scholarship covers tuition, room and board, which could give SFU an edge when recruiting athletes.
Originally, SFU had planned to compete in the CIS next season and move on the NCAA in 2011-12.
That plan was changed when Canada West, the CIS conference which SFU is a member, announced the university's athletic programs had been placed on probation for the 2009-10 season. The move doesn't affect sports teams this season, but left in doubt the school's status for next year.
"It certainly made us look at things differently," Murphy said.
Sean Burke, the captain of the SFU basketball team, said playing in the NCAA gives athletes more exposure than the CIS.
"I don't think one league is better than the other," said Burke.
"I do think the NCAA is a more prestigious league and there is more opportunity that can come out of it."
Marg McGregor, the CIS's chief executive officer, said SFU's departure isn't a threat to Canadian university sport.
"CIS is disappointed that SFU has decided to join the NCAA, but they have indicated they want to return to their American roots so we wish their student athletes well," McGregor said in an email to The Canadian Press.
"CIS has viewed the NCAA's decision to open their membership to Canadian schools as a catalyst for positive change within CIS. We have approved an aggressive plan to make CIS better and ensure we deliver value to CIS member universities."
McGregor also dismissed fears SFU's NCAA membership could drain top athletes away from other Canadian university programs.
"Competition in the marketplace is a good thing and CIS has a unique offering of a quality Canadian athletic and academic experience," she said. "We will focus our efforts on building on our strengths."
Earlier this year the University of British Columbia, located in Vancouver, decided to wait until at least next year before deciding if it will the NCAA Division II.
David Farrar, UBC's vice-president academic, said there was insufficient information to allow the university to determine NCAA suitability before a June 2009 window for application.
Hannan said he isn't aware of any other Canadian universities interested in joining the GNAC.
"Should any of them be interested, we would react to that as the time comes," he said.
Under NCAA rules, SFU must complete one year of provisional status before being accepted as a full-time member. That means SFU might not be eligible for post-season play until the fall of 2012.
Hannan has asked the NCAA for a waiver to allow SFU to compete for championships next year. If the waiver is not approved, SFU can still be part of the GNAC regular season, then compete for a championship in the NAIA.
Most of SFU's varsity programs have played in the NAIA since the school's inception in 1965.