I’ve always been a supporter of intercollegiate athletics under the right circumstances. Intercollegiate athletics offers opportunities for students to continue in their sport, and sometimes try a new one. They may also help to bond a campus community as well as town and gown.
Four professors at Eastern Washington University recently questioned the value of intercollegiate athletics on their campus—and they wrote a report about it. The authors of this report, who received no help from the athletic department, offered six possible alternatives, including the termination of the entire intercollegiate athletic program.
Eastern Washington is a Division I school, competing in the Big Sky Conference in 12 sports, including football. Intercollegiate athletics costs the university between $12 and $14 million per year. At the same time the university faces a $3.5 million budget shortfall for academics. Eastern Washington is considering plans to consolidate seven colleges into four. But the school has made no plans to eliminate majors, minors or certificates currently offered to students.
To better understand the issues, I read the report. But I also had to look at data on Eastern Washington University that did not appear there, and get answers to some questions.
The decisions about funding intercollegiate athletics at Eastern Washington revolve around its commitment to football. The report made interesting points:
I see a commuter school with a football problem.
If someone was to ask me: if Eastern Washington dropped football, would the community miss it? The answer is probably yes, for the community outside of the students.
The community is willing to support a winning team, and their team wins consistently. A local businessman is also willing to donate $5 million to upgrade the football stadium. The very same community also supports Gonzaga’s successful men’s and women’s basketball programs, as I wrote in a previous post. Gonzaga doesn’t play football. So it looks like one school has fall’s sports entertainment, the other two cover winter and spring. But Eastern Washington must play the 12 sports it plays to remain in the Big Sky Conference.
There are five ways that a university can build up an athletic program, outside of student fees and public subsidies: fundraising, broadcast fees through the conference, ticket sales, sponsorships and licensing. But Eastern Washington raised less than $1.8 million from these sources to help cover the athletic budget, according to the report. I cannot see a path where the university can close the gap to sustain all 12 sports at the Division I level.
If there’s a willingness to support a football team, and develop local rivalries to hype, the most attractive scenarios in the report would be to drop to Division II or the NAIA. In either case the school could play fewer scholarship sports, and continue to dedicate the lions share of its athletic budget to football. If the will is not there, Eastern Washington should drop football, too.
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