Can a Public University Drop Scholarship Intercollegiate Athletics?
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.
- Is this school a residential or commuter campus? Only five percent of Eastern Washington’s student body comes from outside Washington State. Less than a fifth of the students live on campus. These numbers tell me that it’s a commuter school. Big Future, the College Board’s search site, agrees on their profile of the school. The four-year grad rate is a horrible 24 percent. Less than half of the freshmen who arrived in 2012 finished in six years. But this also needed to be put in perspective. Tuition and fees for a full-time resident student are less than $7,500. If a school is inexpensive and commuter focused, it is easier for students to drop to part-time status and work more hours to cover college costs. These students have less time to watch or compete in intercollegiate athletics.
- Is this school successful in intercollegiate athletics? In football, the most expensive sport by far, I would have to say yes. Since joining the Big Sky Conference in 1985, the Eagles have won ten conference titles. Eastern Washington was the national champion in the Division 1 Football Championship Subdivision in 2010. The Eagles nipped Delaware to win the title 20-19 after going through a round of playoff games. There’s a football rivalry vs. Montana, the Governor’s Cup, that dates back to 1938. Eastern Washington has also had successes in men’s and women’s basketball, but football is the most important sport to evaluate.
- Do the football games draw fans? Apparently yes, if they’re winning. In 2010 when Eastern Washington was national champion, the Eagles averaged just under 6,500 fans per home game, according to the NCAA. That did not put them in the top 30 schools that could play for the same title. But the next season the Eagles averaged just under 9,000 fans per home game in a stadium that seats just under 12,000. Attendance surpassed 9,400 per home game in 2013, 2014, 2015, and surpassed 10,000 in 2017. The Eagles cracked the top 30 in attendance in each those years. The average dropped to 7,900 the following season. While the Eagles went 7-4 they did not qualify for the playoffs.
The decisions about funding intercollegiate athletics at Eastern Washington revolve around its commitment to football. The report made interesting points:
- Travel costs to Big Sky Conference rivals are high. The team has to fly all over the Pacific Northwest. It does not have an in-state rival within the conference.
- Aside from the Governor’s Cup, there are no major rivalries to hype up. Playing in the Big Sky Conference is not like playing in the Big Ten where there’s drama on campus every week during a good season.
- If Eastern Washington dropped to Division II or the NAIA for football, where there would still be scholarships, they would have more rivalries in state. The question is: would anyone on campus or in the community care? I can’t answer that. Only the people on campus and in/around Spokane can.
- The school has seen enrollments trend downward. There are fewer students to pay student fees to support any ambitions that the school has towards intercollegiate athletics. When resident tuition and fees are less than $7,500, and the students are not engaged, it’s difficult to ask the students to pay more in fees to support scholarship athletics.
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.