The College of Charleston's Board of Trustees voted Friday to begin negotiations with the Colonial Athletic Association for full membership.
Charleston didn't vote to leave the Southern Conference, its present home, only to talk to CAA officials about costs and concerns in leaving one conference for another. A membership vote would come at an undetermined future date.
"Obviously, we're thrilled that they have an interest in the CAA," Commissioner Tom Yeager said, "and we look forward to working with President (George) Benson to address any issues and bring the process to a conclusion as quickly as we can."
Among Charleston officials' concerns are the costs affiliated with departing the Southern Conference and joining the CAA. The SoCon exit fee is $600,000 with one year's notice, and $300,000 with two years' notice. In addition, travel costs for the Cougars' athletic teams would increase in the CAA over the more tightly-bunched Southern.
Yeager would not disclose the CAA's entry fee and said it's actually "a floating figure that's tied to equity and different things."
The CAA could work with Charleston to defray costs. The league has several million dollars in NCAA basketball tournament money to work with as a result of the departures of VCU last summer and ODU after the current year. Both earned NCAA money after multiple appearances, including VCU's Final Four run in 2011.
The NCAA pays out tournament money incrementally. CAA bylaws stipulate that money earned from tournament appearances remains with the conference, should schools leave for other leagues.
"We have strategies that we've shared with everybody," Yeager said, "but we're not going to get into details until we talk with Charleston."
Travel costs are a primary concern for Charleston, given that it would be the CAA's southernmost school after Georgia State departs. A study commissioned by the C of C's Board of Trustees in advance of Friday's vote estimated that travel costs for the Cougars' athletic teams would rise to nearly $1.8 million in the CAA, $587,000 greater than in the Southern Conference.
According to a running report in the Charleston Post and Courier, that estimated increase also was based on the CAA expanding to include a southern tier of schools. Once Davidson officials announced this week that they intended to remain in the Southern Conference, some C of C officials worried that travel costs would increase further.
Yeager said that the CAA has never subsidized travel costs for any of its outlying members.
"I don't think there's any dispute that the travel lines will change for Charleston," Yeager said. But he pointed out that airfares and airlines differ from various airports and cities. A flight from Richmond to Boston, he said for example, might be more expensive than one from Charleston to Boston.
Nearly all CAA schools, with the exception of James Madison, are near sizeable airports, Yeager said.
"Because of the airports in major metropolitan areas, sometimes those airfares aren't as onerous as they sound," Yeager said. "But you still can't move Charleston any closer to Philadelphia. That's just a fact."
Yeager said that Charleston, or any school that comes into the league, becomes a full, revenue-sharing member from day one. He said that a financial windfall is unlikely, though the extra NCAA money, as well as recalibrating the revenue-sharing from 12 schools down to 10 will mean more money to each school.
He mentioned Charleston's quality athletic program benefiting the CAA, and the conference's geographic footprint and television package providing greater exposure to the Cougars' program and school.
Yeager said there is no timetable for how quickly discussions will take place, but the aim is still to add a school for the 2013-14 academic year. C of C athletic director Joe Hull told Charleston-area media that he imagined discussions will move forward quickly.
"We'd like to move as quickly as we can, but we recognize that they have some Southern Conference obligations," Yeager said. "When you get into these things, the conference from where the school's leaving desires to move on, and the school and the new conference want to focus on their partnership and moving forward. It's in everybody's best interest to move as quickly as possible."