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Analysis: Fans will have to contribute even more to get EWU athletics on par with rivals

Eastern football fans cheer on the Eagles during an FCS playoff game last year at Roos Field. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)
Eastern football fans cheer on the Eagles during an FCS playoff game last year at Roos Field. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

Give till it hurts, Eagles fans.

That should have been the big takeaway from last month’s announcement that Eastern Washington has hired an outside consultant to “assess the university’s fundraising capacity.”

It wasn’t. Instead of self-reflection, Eagles football fans reacted on social media with either optimism or cynicism. Some hope the consultant will point to way to funding and improvement to 50-year-old Roos Field.

Others labeled the consultant a waste of time and $124,000, and won’t bring facilities on par with Eastern’s major rivals in the Big Sky Conference.

Everyone missed the point. This is about money, specifically the need for EWU to finance big-ticket projects without relying on the Legislature or its own students.

EWU fans can no longer count on others to foot the bill for athletic facilities.

As athletic director Bill Chaves has said several times, “If someone comes in here with $30 million, we probably could put a shovel in the ground tomorrow.”

Of course, 30,000 donors giving $1,000 each also would do the trick. That’s the whole point of the $124,000 contract with the Phoenix Philanthropy Group, which will spend a year in Cheney to help plan a comprehensive campaign that will include athletics.

However, that campaign will succeed only if Eastern alums pry open their checkbooks.

Chaves said recently in a podcast, “That just hasn’t been in the DNA of Eastern. It’s always been state or student fees, it’s not been private donations.”

“That’s kind of the model these days (for large athletic projects). It’s not new to the industry, but it is new to this institution.”

Case in point: the Gateway Project, a $65 million mixed-use project that was proposed in 2012 but never got off the ground. Chaves hopes to spend less than half that to renovate and expand Roos, but still needs that elusive $30 million.

There is no magic pill. Eastern is a financially challenged regional university with athletic revenues that rank near the bottom of the Big Sky.

In the 2014-15 fiscal year (the last period for which numbers are available), Eastern’s athletic budget of $13.5 million ranked ninth among the conference’s 13 football-playing members, while private donations ($1.1 million) ranked 11th, rights and licensing ($835,000) were 12th and ticket sales ($685,000) were sixth.

For football fans looking across Washington Street for more help, the picture is even more depressing. Eastern’s total endowment – the product of private donations – is only $18.6 million, easily the lowest in the Big Sky.

By comparison, Montana’s endowment is $170 million and Idaho’s is $240 million. The Big Sky average is about $80 million.

Like all non-FBS schools, Eastern heavily subsidizes its athletic department. In 2014-15, that amounted to 69.4 percent of the entire athletic budget, or $9.36 million.

Of that amount, $2.24 million came from student fees – an average of $167 for each student, and it doesn’t even show up in the school’s online recap of mandatory fees.

EWU students – many of whom couldn’t care less about sports – already pay $65 a quarter (or $195 annually) for the Pence Union Building and a like amount for the Recreation Center. The latter was partly funded by a 30-year bond, which lessens the chances of another major project funded through bonds.

Likewise, the state legislature has made it clear that it won’t be funding athletic facilities. The University of Washington heard that message loud and clear before soliciting private donations for a $280 million renovation of Husky Stadium.

Eastern needs just one-tenth that amount to renovate Roos Field, but has been treading water for years.

Meanwhile, Eastern continues to win on the field – five Big Sky titles in the last seven years – but coach Beau Baldwin has departed. Can new coach Aaron Best keep the Eagles on top despite inferior facilities?

And is it fair to expect consistent success with inconsistent financial backing from the very fans who’ve grown accustomed to winning?

Meanwhile, archrival Montana is finishing construction of a $14 million athletic performance center. It will be finished just in time for Eastern’s Big Sky opener in Missoula on Sept. 23.

So now what?

Speaking to football fans, Chaves said “I know there’s an incredible amount of impatience out there, and I’m the ringleader to some level. … But we need to think this through for all of our athletics.”

“We need to look at where we’ve been and where we’re going,” Chaves said.

In the short term, Eastern is going with the Phoenix Philanthropy Group. Described by university President Mary Cullinan as a “nationally recognized experts in university development and fundraising,” the group will be represented during the next year by senior consultant Peter Smits.

Smits’ work and recommendations won’t be confined to athletics, but the message will be clear:

Open those checkbooks.

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