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What’s the future of athletics at Eastern Washington University? Here are four possibilities given to the school

UPDATED: Sat., Feb. 27, 2021

Eastern Washington University WR Dre’ Sonte Dorton takes a big hit from Idaho defenders Tevin Duke and Ty Graham, left, on Oct. 27, 2018, in Cheney.  (DAN PELLE)
Eastern Washington University WR Dre’ Sonte Dorton takes a big hit from Idaho defenders Tevin Duke and Ty Graham, left, on Oct. 27, 2018, in Cheney. (DAN PELLE)

The Eastern Washington University Board of Trustees was presented Friday with four possibilities to stabilize its athletics budget.

The university hired The PICTOR Group to write the report for $38,000 in September, with the Board of Trustees seeking an analysis amid the athletic department’s more than $5 million deficit. Effects of the COVID-19 pandemic have since resulted in operational cuts amounting to 30% for each of the university’s 14 sports.

The Reno, Nevada-based consulting firm generated the report with upward of 60 interviews, outreach to athletic conference commissioners across the Northwest and more than 2,800 responses to surveys sent collegewide and to external groups, said Cary Groth, CEO of The PICTOR Group.

In terms of cost, feasibility and a number of intangible factors, The PICTOR Group report detailed the following four options as potential futures for EWU’s athletics department:

• Option A: Remain in NCAA Division 1 in the Big Sky Conference with football.

• Option B: Remain in NCAA Division 1 without football, requiring a move to another athletic conference.

• Option C: Reclassify as NCAA Division 2.

• Option D: Reclassify as NCAA Division 3.

The Board made no decisions Friday, as EWU Interim President David May said he intends to gather feedback from campus groups and others throughout the region before releasing his recommendation to the board by the end of April.

“Athletics will always have some reliance, some dependency on the university for financial assistance. That goes for just about every school in the country; as we mentioned, only 25 recorded a ‘profit,’ if you will, in FY19,” said Paul Kowalczyk, a specialist with The PICTOR Group. “The question is, of course, how much money is the university going to spend on athletics?”

Contextualizing the report

EWU’s athletics department reported approximately $18.4 million in revenues for the 2019 fiscal year, the main comparison point The PICTOR Group used for much of Friday’s presentation.

The department’s revenues were in line with the median produced by other schools in the Big Sky Conference, Kowalczyk said. He said EWU’s expenses were also similar to the Big Sky median, though operational expenses in the 2019 fiscal year were approximately $2 million higher than the Big Sky’s median.

From the 2014 to 2018 fiscal years, EWU athletics averaged approximately $13.6 million in revenues, including $6.3 million annual subsidies from the university. The average expenses of athletics was $14.8 million.

The 2019 fiscal year’s accounting included a $2 million university commitment to help defray the cost of scholarships, as well as revenues and expenses associated with EWU’s Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) playoff run, according to The PICTOR Group.

Projected institutional support for fiscal year 2022 is $5.4 million, which Kowalczyk said is more in line with the 2014 fiscal year.

Weighing the options

Groth outlined three approaches the university could take if EWU athletics stayed Division 1 with a football program.

One approach is to reinvest in the athletics program. The second was a hybrid model, in which the college could continue to fund high-profile programs at the current level, while funding remaining sports at a base or minimum level, Groth said.

The third is to inquire about temporarily waiving certain NCAA requirements, such as the number of contests required of a sports program.

“This is new and it is because of the pandemic, but there are some schools that are struggling,” Groth said, “and you’re one of them.”

One of the perks of committing as a Division 1 school is a significant increase in NCAA revenue shares when compared to Division 2 and 3. In Division 1 sports, the NCAA distributes $590 million in revenue compared to $7 million for Division 2 and $3 million for Division 3.

“This is why so many people want to be Division 1,” said Carolyn Schlie Femovich, vice president of The PICTOR Group, “because there’s so much more revenue distributed from the NCAA.”

Option B keeps EWU in Division 1, but removes football from the equation.

As the Big Sky is an FCS conference that requires football, Groth said. EWU would have two alternatives that fall within the Northwest region: the West Coast Conference and the Western Athletic Conference. Gonzaga University competes in the West Coast Conference.

As the West Coast Conference is formed of private faith-based institutions and the sprawling membership within the Western Athletic Conference would require “significant” amounts of travel, Femovich said these might not be ideal – or feasible – for EWU.

If EWU were to change conferences, the university would face an exit fee from the Big Sky Conference (anywhere from $250,000 to $2 million, Femovich said) and a new conference acceptance and entry fee.

With Option C, which outlined a Division 2 move, conference options presented by The PICTOR Group were the Great Northwest Athletic Conference and the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference. Median revenues and expenses for each of those conferences ranged between approximately $6.2 million to $7.1 million in the 2019 fiscal year.

Option D’s Division 3 move suggested the Northwest Athletic Conference as the only potential landing spot in the Northwest, Demovich said. Whitworth University plays in the conference along with nine other small, private institutions across Washington and Oregon.

The median revenues and expenses for Northwest Athletic Conference schools hovered between $4.4 million and $4.7 million in 2019.

“Very few institutions have considered this, particularly going from Division 1 as a football-playing member down to Division 3,” Femovich said, “so the transition process could be a little bit more complicated than going just to Division 2.”

Beyond the numbers

Groth said it is hard to quantify the intangibles a strong athletics program provides a university.

Saying she has seen the impact a weak athletics program can have on an institution’s brand, Groth commended EWU for running the athletics program “with institutional control and the way it should be run.”

“Clearly, there are other areas within campus that contribute to the brand in those ways, so we tried to focus on the field and the games and the exposure opportunities that athletics bring, and it’s not the only thing,” Groth said. “But it clearly has a significant impact at Eastern Washington.”

EWU Director of Athletics Lynn Hickey said in a statement the department is looking forward to a final recommendation this spring.

“While recognizing this can be a difficult time as we await the conclusion of this process, my department is in full support of the university’s efforts to complete a fair review,” Hickey said.

From now until March 26, EWU will collect public feedback through the university’s athletics review webpage.

“The path forward for athletics will be an Eastern path,” May said Friday. “It will be based on who and what we want to be in the future.”

Following this process, EWU Board Chair Vicki Wilson said the board could make a decision in June.

In a statement, EWU’s Faculty Organization said members were pleased to see the report.

“We are disappointed in some omissions, such as the lack of data supporting the claim that athletics success positively impacts enrollment at universities like EWU,” the organization said in the statement. “However, the data that is in this report will be an important part of the conversation moving forward.”

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