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Shawn Vestal: EWU would be reckless not to consider proposal to cut, or eliminate, sports

Eastern Washington Eagles quarterback Eric Barriere (3) throws on the run to tight end Dylan Ingram (86) for a touchdown during a college football game on Nov. 2, 2019, at Roos Field in Cheney. A report by four members of Eastern’s faculty and set for a presentation to trustees next week, shows EWU spends $12 million to $14 million a year on athletics. (Tyler Tjomsland / The Spokesman-Review)

A new report outlining the degree to which Eastern Washington University subsidizes sports – and noting how few students participate in athletics or attend games – has drawn a public reaction that consists in large part of simple disbelief.

Spend less on sports? Change conferences?

Get rid of sports?

“This seems like a crazy idea,” one local anchorwoman said, following a news story on the report.

One suspects, based on early signs, that this will be more or less the response from the leadership at EWU. But what would be truly crazy is for the administration and board of trustees to dismiss the serious questions raised in the report. EWU made cuts of almost $7 million across campus in the past two years; it spent about twice that in a single year to subsidize athletics.

Ask yourself if you could imagine the world in which those figures were reversed.

Then ask yourself what’s so crazy about this new report.

Authored by four members of Eastern’s faculty and set for a presentation to trustees next week, the report shows that EWU props up athletics to the tune of $12 million to $14 million a year. That’s money that comes from tuition paid by students – more than half of whom are the first in their family to attend college – and other university sources, but not state funding.

Using institutional data, the report showed that athletics spent $18.3 million in fiscal year 2019. If you don’t count subsidies from the university and student fees, sports had $4.9 million in revenues.

“This means,” the authors wrote, “74% of the budget for Athletics is money coming from the institution that could be spent elsewhere.”

The report outlines six possible ways the university could change this if it chose to be bold – ranging from dropping to smaller, less prestigious classifications, to cutting football (the biggest money sink but most popular sport), to cutting all sports, to doing nothing at all.

Nothing at all seems like the front-runner, honestly.

The university’s annual reports to the NCAA show that it has increased its athletics budget by 80% between 2008 and 2018. In that time, “institutional support” grew 89%, from $4.1 million to $7.8 million.

Ticket sales increased almost threefold during that time, but they remain less than 5% of the total sports budget. And alumni contributions increased a bit, while remaining less than ticket sales.

EWU is not the only school funneling millions of institutional money into sports. On football, especially, the keeping-up-with-the-Joneses is relentless.

However much you spend, however much you lose, however much the hoped-for results of going big on athletics don’t pan out – there’s always another school up the road spending more to be chased, another hopeful rationalization to cast athletic debt as an investment in future prosperity, another front-porch analogy about the incalculable benefits of exposure.

You can’t find a better example than Washington State University, which has thrown heaps of money at trying to be a bigger big shot in football. The result has been a multimillion-dollar debt that the rest of the university has had to carry – even as a new president came in and called for austerity cuts across all other university departments.

Return on investment

Passionate Eags fans, and some EWU athletes, are up in arms about the report, of course. EWU officials have rushed to reassure the public that they aren’t cutting sports, and Athletic Director Lynn Hickey, in interviews over the past week, has defended the investment in sports, insisting it is not “outrageous” or “extravagant.”

It’s true that EWU’s fellow schools in the Big Sky Conference also spend millions in institutional and student dollars on athletics. And it’s true that competing in athletics brings attention to the university, particularly in years when the football team competes for a national title and is a source of alumni pride and connection.

The administration’s response to the faculty report has been to emphasize that it was not commissioned by the university and was undertaken by the faculty members themselves. Dave Meany, EWU spokesman, defended the current approach to athletic spending.

“EWU doesn’t believe we are throwing money at athletics,” he wrote in an email message. Athletes “are students, high-achieving students, and many of them come from underrepresented backgrounds as well. The report’s general tone dismisses these students as if they’re not part of the general campus population.”

He added, “The university strongly believes the return on investment can’t always be measured by a budget. We have countless stories of alumni who have been provided an opportunity at EWU to compete in athletics and gone on to do great things in their communities.”

Overall, the administration and faculty report are using the same set of numbers, but Meany said that a large proportion – about 40%, he estimated – of institutional and student fee support for athletics comes in the form of scholarships. About 250 of EWU’s 350 student-athletes receive some form of scholarship, and scholarship money comes back into the institution’s budgets for residence halls, meal plans and other expenses, he said.

I should note that I am an EWU alum and part-time instructor in the creative writing department there, and one of the report’s authors is a friend. I have attended football games at EWU, and watched them on TV, and have cheered as the team competed for national championships.

I think Meany’s correct that there are benefits to the university that aren’t captured in the budget numbers. For a lot of my fellow EWU alums, football Saturdays create a powerful sense of community and attachment to their alma mater that doesn’t exist in any other forum.

But is that a $13.5 million value? A value that towers over all other values when the university is acting otherwise like it’s broke?

The faculty report challenges a lot of assumptions about sports value with some sobering realities. It says, for example, that the data shows athletics has “no positive impact on our student enrollment, retention or recruitment.”

To support this, the report compared athletic seasons and enrollment and found no correlation. Even following EWU’s 2010 national championship in football, they found no evidence of any impact on enrollment.

The report notes that more than 94% of EWU students don’t attend football games, and 99% don’t attend any other games. In all, less than 10% of students either participate in or attend sporting events.

Breaking even?

Much of the media reporting on the faculty piece suggests, or says outright, that it is only proposing eliminating all sports. In truth, it offers several alternatives that would save the university money, including eliminating all sports (saving $11 million to $14 million a year); switching to the NAIA or NCAA Division III (perhaps $7 million or more); shift to NCAA Division II ($5 million to $7 million); cutting football ($2 million to $3.5 million); or continuing as is.

The report calls this final alternative unsustainable. But it’s clear that the university is, for now, going to regard it as perfectly sustainable, and the recent history of college sports – and the university’s response so far to this report – suggests that you should never overestimate the degree to which the subsidy of athletics will be sustained.

A pretty clear hint of this came in the university’s response to questions about the statistics in the faculty report. Asked to confirm the basic financials of the 2019 budget cited by the report, the university provided figures showing athletics pretty much broke even in 2019 – roughly $18 million out, and roughly the same back in.

These numbers are the exact same ones cited in the faculty report, in a way. It’s just that the university counts the money it puts into athletics – 74% of the budget, recall – as revenue for athletics. This is standard accounting at universities.

But think of that for a second: The university puts millions into athletics, and for accounting purposes deems this revenue, on a balance sheet showing athletics breaking even.

What would you call that? Crazy?

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