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Eastern Washington tries to address $5.8 million athletic department budget deficit

With the departure of athletic director Bill Chaves, what’s next for Eastern Washington athletics?

For starters, some major belt-tightening.

Eagle football fans can wish all they want for a better stadium, but that dream appears further away than ever – with or without Chaves, who was hired Saturday by Big Sky Conference rival North Dakota.

Instead, university president Mary Cullinan and the EWU administration are “looking to athletics to provide cost-control measures” to mitigate a cumulative budget deficit of $5.8 million, a school spokesman told The Spokesman-Review.

At the same time, the university is implementing fundraising initiatives recommended last year by an outside consultant, the Phoenix Philanthropy Group. Those may someday result in improvements or additions to athletic facilities, but reducing the deficit appears to be the first step.

“This is why President Cullinan has charged various university departments to collaborate in an effort to identify revenue-enhancing strategies,” EWU spokesman Dave Meany said Friday.

For athletics, the expectations include increased fundraising, ticket sales, sponsorships, guaranteed-revenue games for all sports and other measures.

Eastern Washington still has an opening on its 2018 football schedule. With only four home games on the schedule, fans have assumed that it would be played in Cheney. That still may be the case, but suddenly it’s not a certainty.

Sources inside the university say that other sports, especially men’s basketball, may be called upon to play more games away from home.

Added Meany: “The administration and athletics have had numerous discussions about budget solutions. The university remains committed to the success of athletics and has historically provided athletic student aid.”

Like all Big Sky Conference athletic departments, Eastern’s is beholden to the university for most of its funding.

During the 2015-16 fiscal year (the most recent period available), Eastern’s athletic department earned $13.35 million, ranking 10th out of 14 Big Sky Conference football– and basketball–playing schools. Most of it – 71.77 percent – came from student fees and university subsidies.

According to Meany, the university increased funding for athletics by $547,954 during the current fiscal year. However, allocations from students were reduced by $181,000 due to a decrease in available funds.

For EWU sports fans, the news is especially depressing after a year in which it seemed that everyone else was improving their athletic facilities.

In recent months, arch-rival Montana recently opened a new $14 million athletic performance center while Idaho received a $10 million gift toward a new basketball arena.

Meanwhile, smaller schools such as Central Washington and Whitworth made major facility upgrades for football. Even Spokane Public Schools is in the market for a new football stadium – and has the $7 million to make it happen.

However, the administration is hopeful that new fundraising efforts will pay off down the road.

“We are working diligently to not just plan, but also implement strategies to move Eastern forward,” Angela Jones, Vice President for University Advancement, said this week.

Following an assessment completed last fall by the Phoenix Philanthropy Group, Eastern has done the following, according to Jones:

• In November, president Mary Cullinan outlined her thoughts in a joint meeting of the EWU Board of Trustees and the EWU Foundation Board. She is now “leading the process of identifying priorities for the long-term campaign,” Jones said.

• The Deans, under the leadership of Provost Scott Gordon, also have started the process of identifying fundraising priorities for their academic colleges.

• The administration has created two planning committees, one for “internal readiness issues,” which will serve as the precursor to a volunteer campaign committee (to be established later); the other an athletics facilities planning committee, which will examine plans for a major stadium renovation along with upgrades for track and field, women’s soccer, intramural fields and Reese Court.

The latter committee will be divided into two subcommittees. One will be chaired by Mary Voves, EWU’s Vice President for Finance. It will oversee planning and construction.

Jones will head a subcommittee “overseeing the identification of various revenue sources to pay for the project, including raising private support.”

Consulting and testing phases will follow this spring and fall, respectively, according to Jones.

“President Cullinan has committed to renovations to the athletics facilities and that will be front-loaded in the comprehensive fundraising campaign,” Jones said Wednesday.