The Disastrous state of ECU Athletics

Recent developments could cause trouble for East Carolina University Athletics.

Humans have certain stages in life.  You’re born and go through the infant state, then you’re a toddler, then you’re a child, then you reach puberty, then you turn into a young adult, then you get older, become a senior, and die.

Sports programs also go through different states, defined by the success they have.  UCLA Men’s Basketball had its glory days in the 1960s and 1970s, winning 10 National Championships.  Alabama Football had glory days between 2009-2019, where they won 5 National Championships.  On the other hand, teams like the Chicago Cubs had been in rebuilding state for over 100 years, before winning a World Series in 2016.  Rutgers Men’s Basketball hasn’t qualified for the NCAA Tournament since 1991 – they are in a bad state.

East Carolina University (ECU) and their athletics program is currently in the Disastrous State.

Why?

On May 21, 2020 the ECU Athletic Department announced changes to their sports programs.  The school decided that their men’s tennis, women’s tennis, men’s swimming and diving, and women’s swimming and diving programs would no longer continue so the university can save money during the COVID-19 Pandemic.  The men’s swimming and diving team was the first team ever in ECU history to win a national championship in 1957.  In total, 68 student-athletes and 9 coaches will see their ECU Athletic careers end with this announcement.

With this move, ECU now only has 16 sports programs.  In order to remain a Division 1 school, the NCAA requires schools to have at least 16 sports; meaning ECU is now at the minimum number required to maintain D-1 eligibility.

The athletes who are still fortunate enough to have their sports program continue at ECU, will also be hurt from this announcement.  The school announced it will limit summer school for their student-athletes to save money.  In other words, a school is telling its student-athletes that it can’t afford for them to go to class.  Many student-athletes who use this time in the summer to catch up on credits and ensure eligibility for their upcoming season, may not have the opportunity to do so.

The school also announced it is suspending professional development programs and conferences for student athletes for at least one year.  That is very unfortunate for the large number of collegiate athletes who will not continue playing their sport after college.  These programs and conferences are used by people to learn new skills in their career field, make connections with employers, and gain experience in the real job market.

Instead of saving money by only paying two beer companies instead of four to sell at their sporting events, ECU is saving money by telling their athletes they can’t go to class in the summer and they can’t go to conferences to help them get a job.  Think about that for a second.  Are they really trying to, “support,” their student-athletes during this time like they said in this announcement?  The answer seems obvious.

How did it get to this point?

For ECU, the question has to be asked about how it got to this point.  How did the university reach a point where they had to cut 4 athletic programs?  How did the university get to a point where it is telling its athletes it has to save money, so you can’t go to class in the summer and learn?  Why doesn’t ECU have enough money to be able to survive these tough times? Where did the money go?

In May of 2020, the Athletics Fiscal Sustainability Working Group (AFSWG) released a report about ECU Athletics.  The report revealed a shocking conclusion:  ECU Athletics is not fiscally sustainable.  The group released this report before the COVID-19 pandemic, meaning the university cannot only blame the virus for their difficulties.  While the virus surely didn’t help their situation, and probably made it worse, it is not the only reason that ECU is having problems.

Within the AFSWG report, there were general themes that their expenses were too high and needed to be cut and that the revenues were not reaching their expected levels and needed to increase.  According to the report, a majority (44%) of the revenue for ECU Athletics comes from student fees.  Former ECU Chancellor Cecil Staton, said enrollment in the Fall 2018 semester was down, and they expected the 2019-2020 enrollment to be down as well.  As enrollment goes down, the revenue the university receives from the state goes down and the student fees go down, meaning the athletic revenue goes down.

The AFSWG also recommended that ECU’s athletic facilities be enhanced.  Specifically, the report references Minges Coliseum, the location of the basketball teams for ECU.  The report recommends that the athletic department spends a lot of money to add premium seating to Minges, which currently has a capacity of around 8,000 people.

In 2016, the attendance numbers for ECU Men’s Basketball totaled 71,116 people with an average of 4,444 people per game.  In 2017, the attendance numbers dropped to a total of 68,090 people with an average of 4,005 people per game.  In 2018, the attendance numbers dropped even further for a total of 63,899 people with an average of only 3,363 people per game.  The ECU Men’s Basketball team has not won over 15 games since joining the American Athletic Conference (AAC) in 2014 and the women’s team is not much better as they just had to hire a new coach in 2019.

To be perfectly honest, both of the tenants of Minges Coliseum are not very good and do not draw large crowds, yet it was recommended to ECU that seating is added when they can’t even fill it up halfway.  By now something shouldn’t be adding up.  The same athletic program that just had to cut multiple sports, is told their expenses are too high, and that had to tell student-athletes they couldn’t go to conferences or attend summer school is now thinking about spending large amounts of money to expand a gym for a failing basketball program?  There’s no way the university would actually do this, you may be thinking.

Well think again because the exact same thing occurred for the football team.  In 2019, ECU expanded Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium.  In the years leading up to the expansion, the attendance numbers looked extremely similar to what occurred with men’s basketball.  From 2016-2018, ECU Football saw their attendance numbers drop in total by over 30,000, with a 12,000 people per game drop to only 32,908 people per game in a 50,000 seat stadium.

These attendance numbers could be even lower as the Wall Street Journal revealed that in 2017, the Pirates might be fudging attendance numbers for football games.  The report said the school announced that 257,090 total people attended games, for an average of 36,000 people per game but only 125,132 tickets were scanned at the gate, for an average of only 17,000 people per game for the 2017 season.  The football team is also struggling on the field as they have not made it to a bowl game since 2014.

The football program was struggling and falling apart, so the athletic department thought an expansion would work to increase revenue, but the opposite happened.  At the time of the construction, the expansion was projected to generate $42 million of new revenue, but more recent projections now believe the expansion will actually cost ECU at least $6 million.

So no, the new football expansion probably will not create the expected revenue numbers and it is fair to say the basketball program (that is in much worse shape than the football program) will not create new revenue either.  So why did the report suggest it then?  The answer is up for debate, but a likely conclusion is that the athletic department only cares about their major sports (football and basketball) as they would rather waste money on another failed expansion instead of spending money to promote educational and professional experiences for the other athletes.

Who is to blame for this?

There are a few obvious actors who deserve the blame, for the Burger King drive-thru like state that ECU athletics are now in.  The first to blame is the Athletics Fiscal Sustainability Working Group and the report they wrote.  For a group that seems to be very knowledgeable, they are extremely idiotic in ignoring the past expansion fail for the football team by advising the athletic department do the same thing for the basketball team.  The group claims to want change and improvement, yet they are making the same mistakes that have failed in the past.

Another person to be blamed is former Athletic Director Jeff Compher.  Compher is responsible for  the plans for the failed football expansion, the large deficits the athletic department is buried in, the plummeting football revenue, the low athletic budget, and the large financial hole ECU is currently in.

Compher resigned in 2018, less than a year after he accepted a large raise.  Now instead of ECU being able to pay for student-athletes to better their lives through professional conferences, the university has to pay him over $1.2 million total for a buyout where he receives almost a quarter of a million dollars every year until 2023, or just over $21,000 every month until April 2023.  While ECU’s athletics program struggles for cash, Compher gets rich.

Not all is ruined

On a brighter note, ECU fans can celebrate their local famous bar, Sup Dogs, who just recently won Best College Bar by Barstool Sports for the second year in a row.  After reading this, a bar might seem like a good thing for ECU fans.  They can sit back, have a few drinks, and not worry about the Disastrous State of their athletic department.  Just don’t stay at the bar too long, another sports team might get cancelled.  My money is on Women’s Lacrosse getting cancelled to put a swimming pool in the baseball stadium outfield.