March Madness Twitter was abuzz last month as the Eastern Washington University men’s basketball team nearly made history.
In just their third NCAA Tournament appearance, the Eagles, listed as a 10½-point underdog in their March 20 game against three-time champion Kansas, led the Jayhawks at halftime and were up by as many as 10 points in the second half. Kansas pulled away late to win 93-84, even as EWU’s Tanner and Jacob Groves scored a combined 58 points.
It was nearly the first time since 2016 a No. 14 seed upset a No. 3 (although the Abilene Christian Wildcats accomplished the feat hours later over No. 3 Texas). Through it all, EWU’s grit and the “Groves Bros,” from their game to their celebrity resemblances, helped fuel a nationwide Twitter trend.
“America is learning how much fun this Eastern Washington team is,” Brenna Greene, sports director for KREM 2 News, tweeted that day. “Welcome to the Inland Northwest, where it’s not just Gonzaga y’all.”
With EWU up by eight at the half, KHQ Director of Special Projects Dave Cotton tweeted “can’t put a price tag on this type of national exposure.”
“Any administrator suggesting that Eastern Washington move down to Division II or III should be forced to watch this game,” he wrote.
Dropping EWU to a lower NCAA competitive division was one of the options presented in February as the university explores ways to stabilize its athletics department, which has racked up an accumulated budget deficit of approximately $5.5 million since the 2014 fiscal year.
In the 2019 fiscal year, approximately $9.8 million (or 53%) of the athletics department’s $18.4 million in revenues came from unrestricted university subsidies. Another approximately $1.5 million (8%) was tallied as the costs of services provided by the university. Around $2.25 million (12%) was student fees.
That’s according to the university-commissioned report from The PICTOR Group consulting firm, which evaluated the athletics department’s finances in presenting four possible pathways to move forward: Remaining an NCAA Division 1 Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) program, staying Division I without football, moving to Division II or moving to Division III.
EWU spokesman Dave Meany said the university doesn’t know how a divisional change or dropping football would impact overall athletics staffing, although he noted “obviously dropping a sport would have staffing impacts.”
While cutting football or dropping to a lower division could lower costs, The PICTOR Group and proponents for the preservation of EWU athletics have warned administrators to look beyond the numbers. In particular, they point to the exposure that Division 1 athletics can bring to a university.
Others, meanwhile, look to academic program cuts in recent years and question whether the benefits of an upper-division athletics program are worth the cost.
As EWU administrators consider how to best move forward with university athletics, they follow in the footsteps of other colleges and universities nationwide that have contended with similar financial difficulties.
Contextualizing a divisional change
The NCAA was divided into three divisions in 1973. EWU has competed in Division I athletics since 1984, joining the Big Sky Conference in 1987, according to the PICTOR report.
Universities that compete in lower divisions have fewer expenses compared to their Division I peers, but also decreased NCAA revenue shares. The NCAA distributes $590 million in revenue to Division I programs compared to $7 million for Division II and $3 million for Division III, according to the PICTOR report.
Few institutions have transitioned from Division I to Division II since 1973, according to the NCAA.
Savannah State University, a public historically black college and university (HBCU) in Georgia, decided to return to Division II in 2017 due to financial concerns. Savannah State, which competed in Division I athletics since 2010, tallied a $2.5 million to $3 million deficit in the three years prior to the program’s return to Division II, Athletic Director Opio Mashariki said.
“At this time financially, not just Savannah State, but most athletic programs in the country are struggling with the finances of operating athletics,” former Savannah State University President Cheryl Dozier told the Savannah Morning News in 2017. “Therefore, we have to make the decision that’s in the best interest of the institution, as well as our athletic program.”
Moving from Division I to Division II is a minimum two-year process, according to the NCAA. Savannah State, which officially submitted its transfer application in February 2018, announced last July that the transition was complete.
The Tigers now compete in the Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference (SIAC). During the transition, Mashariki said the athletics department took the opportunity to re-evaluate ways to reduce costs, such as budgeting mechanisms for teams on the road.
Mashariki said the athletics department narrowed the deficit from $3 million to $1.5 million in 2019. He said the deficit decreased even further in 2020 to $950,000.
“Once we started competing in the SIAC, from a travel perspective for us being able to play regional (opponents), that impacted our budget tremendously because now we weren’t traveling as far or as often as we were in Division I,” Mashariki said. “We would travel up and down the (East Coast); sometimes, some of our bus rides were 10 to 15 hours or so. Once we got into the SIAC in the East Division that we’re on, the furthest school that we play is about four hours away in Atlanta, Georgia. We would have to play some West schools, but not as often because of the way of that divisional breakdown.”
A key with making the transition work was messaging – especially with students and coaches keen on competing in Division I, Mashariki said.
The athletics director said the department doesn’t like to use terms like “going backward” or “going down” to refer to the Division II transition. Savannah State also leveraged the notion of a Division II return as an opportunity to rekindle old rivalries.
“We always want to generate revenue streams and we always look to the NCAA and our conference for any revenue that they want to impart on the university,” Mashariki said. “However, we had to control what we could control, which is getting ourselves in a position that we’re living within our means.”
Fall enrollment at Savannah State University in the past decade peaked at 4,955 students; that number was down to 3,488 students last fall.
Over the course of the 2019-20 school year, which was during the athletics department’s transition to Division II, Savannah State announced layoffs for 56 staff members, according to the Savannah Morning News.
Beyond Savannah State, other institutions referenced in The PICTOR Group’s report include:
• Winston-Salem State University in North Carolina, a 5,200-student public HBCU that embarked in 2005 on the process to go from Division II to Division I. The athletics budget racked up a $6 million deficit over the next four years, however, so Winston-Salem administrators decided to remain in Division II, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education.
• Centenary College of Louisiana, a small private institution, transitioned from Division I to Division III in 2011.
• Birmingham-Southern College, a private college with approximately 1,300 students in Alabama, reclassified from Division I to Division III in 2006.
EWU, a public university, recorded a headcount of 12,351 for the fall 2020 quarter.
Football in focus
The Eagles have competed in the NCAA Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) since moving to Division I. The team made six playoff appearances in the past decade, winning the FCS championship in 2010 and returning to the title game in 2019.
All 21 teams that have won the FCS championship since 1978 still exist and compete in Division I .
The University of Idaho previously competed for the NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision, the highest tier of competitive collegiate football, until voluntarily reclassifying in 2016 to the FCS level. The change took effect in 2018, with UI retaining its Division I classification as a Big Sky Conference member.
Meanwhile, a neighboring institution in Washington doesn’t have a football team since dropping the program in 2009 due to financial constraints.
A Division II program that last played in the Great Northwest Atlantic Conference, Western Washington University Vikings tallied a 383-380-34 win-loss-tie record over 98 seasons, including a 6-5 finish during their last season in 2008.
University officials announced the program’s end in January 2009, citing “rapidly” increasing expenditures – partially due to increased travel costs and field rentals – and “a relatively flat growth in gift and donation dollars.”
In announcing the decision, the university said dropping the football program would “ensure the excellence of all University intercollegiate sports.”
“We are facing a dire financial crisis now and the university wasn’t prepared to continue to bail us out and absorb our budget cuts and our foundation issues,” Lynda Goodrich, the university’s athletic director at the time, told the Associated Press in 2009.
Nearly a decade later, WWU’s athletics department recorded an approximately $250,000 deficit in 2018, according to the Western Front. The college fields more than a dozen varsity teams, including those in basketball, soccer, golf and track and field.
Approximately 47% of the department’s budget in 2017 was funded by student fees, up from approximately 31% in 2008 due to relatively flat increases in state aid, WWU Athletics Director Steve Card told the student newspaper.
Enrollment, meanwhile, reached a record high in fall 2019 at 16,153 students that quarter, up from 16,121 during the previous year, according to the university. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, enrollment dipped to 15,194 students in fall 2020.
The Associated Press reported WWU’s enrollment at 14,979 students in fall 2010, which was noted as a record high for the school.
Western Washington University administrators did not return requests for comment. Members of the university’s athletics department deferred comment to the college administration.
Robin Ross, the last coach for Vikings football, said he felt the move was “a short-term answer to their budget issue at that time.”
“I think it’s devastating to a university,” said Ross, who is now the linebackers coach for the Hamilton Tiger-Cats in the Canadian Football League. “Every university is going to go through tough budget times. The natural one to look at is football because it’s the most popular sport in this country and everybody’s kind of grounded around that. There are expenses, but there is the potential to make revenue out of it where all these other sports really don’t have any revenue potential as far as growth.”
Ross said people in the Bellingham community to this day sometimes stop him to ask why the university dropped football.
The 66-year-old’s final game with the Vikings was a win in the 2008 Dixie Rotary Bowl. He has stated repeatedly how he was blindsided by the decision; he expected to discuss recruiting during a meeting in early 2009 with then-President Bruce Shepard only to learn the program was cut in an attempt to address the athletics budget deficit.
Speaking specifically to football, Ross said having a program can help with student diversity and athletics fundraising. He said he believes the way the program was dropped “probably created more (problems) because it left a bad taste for, I think, all of the boosters and the community.”
“There’s a lot of people in this community who really felt like the university just tuned them out, didn’t even ask if they wanted a program or anything,” Ross said. “At least at Eastern, I’ve seen the warning signs are out there about where they’re headed. At least they’re giving them a chance to address it.”
EWU Interim President David May has said he is committed to gathering public feedback ahead of making his recommendation later this month. The EWU Board of Trustees could then make the final decision by June.
Considering the intangibles
Eastern Washington’s football team closed the regular season Saturday at home against the University of Idaho, heading into the game 2-0 on their signature red turf at Roos Field for the truncated 2021 season.
Their second win, a 62-10 rout against the Cal Poly Mustangs, reflected the COVID-19 fan experience. Spectators, contained to the home team’s side of the bleachers, were spaced out by lengths of blue tape marked “Do Not Sit.” Prerecorded marching band tunes blared through the field speakers. Intermissions included the “Air High-Five Cam” and “Mask Cam.”
The red field, the successes of former EWU players who have gone pro, team pride and gridiron memories – those and more all shape EWU’s brand, according to the PICTOR Group report. Playing at a Division I level elevates that brand to a national audience.
The PICTOR report could not quantify the impact such exposure has on the university itself, however.
Cary Groth, CEO of The PICTOR Group, said she could only speak from experience in concluding that a successful athletics program does help with enrollment, fundraising and “other valuable assets to the university.”
“Does that happen at Eastern Washington? I say yes, it does,” Groth told trustees during a report presentation in late February, “but we don’t have quantifiable data for you.”
The university’s Office of Marketing and Communications tried after the Eagles’ 2019 FCS playoff run, estimating the generated buzz provided EWU with $3.3 million worth of advertising value. Meany, director of communications and media relations, said he calculated the number based on daily snapshots EWU receives from a media monitoring report.
The PICTOR report, meanwhile, interviewed more than 60 individuals as part of the group’s evaluation.
Authors said they heard Division I status “helps to distinguish Eastern from Central or Western Washington University and has put the university on the map outside the region.”
“Without Division I status, EWU would lose its edge and visibility in the state,” the report wrote. “However, it was also commented that if the program were to drop to the Division II level the impact would only be slightly negative, provided the program remained competitive in that division.”
David Syphers, associate professor of physics and astronomy, is among those who believe the costs of Division I play outweigh any revenues or benefits.
“It just doesn’t seem like it adds a whole lot – and I’m certainly not saying it adds nothing,” said Syphers, who lambasted the PICTOR report as biased and nonsubstantive. “I do think there’s some benefits to athletics, but that kind of entertainment aspect of athletics and community aspect of athletics just seems like it’s incredibly overfunded compared to other areas of the university that also do things like that.”
Syphers’ conclusion is partly based on a report he and a group of other faculty members authored last year, which concluded athletics has no positive impact on student enrollment, retention or recruitment.
Among other data, the report points to pre- and post-2010 enrollment statistics, finding that university enrollment trended similarly to levels at WWU, Central Washington University and Gonzaga even after EWU football won the title.
Asked about the data, Groth said she doesn’t believe the trend can be directly attributed to athletics “without knowing all of the other factors involved.”
“A lot of people think plays and music are fun both as spectators and as participants, and instead of sending $10M a year to Theatre or Music we’re actually proposing cutting some of those programs,” Syphers said in a statement. “The real question is, at what level can we afford to support athletics? Can we afford to support athletics at all?”