Last week, East Carolina University reduced the number of school-sponsored sports by four, cutting the men’s and women’s tennis and swim and dive programs. They joined the University of Cincinnati, a fellow American Athletic Conference school, in that regard as the Bearcats discontinued men’s soccer in mid-April.

“The only thing you can say is you feel bad,” AAC Commissioner Mike Aresco said in a phone interview last week. “You wish that it didn’t have to happen, but you understand there are just financial pressures on the schools that are really hard to deal with. You’re hoping that down the road you can get into a financial situation where maybe you can restore these sports. There’s not much you can say other than you feel really bad, and that’s what we’re trying to prevent.”

Financial pressure at ECU had been building even before the coronavirus forced the AAC and NCAA to cancel its respective basketball tournaments and the subsequent remainder of the spring sports schedule.

A working group was commissioned by Interim ECU Chancellor Ron Mitchelson and Athletic Director Jon Gilbert in January and submitted its finding in the form of an 18-page document to the university’s Board of Trustees earlier this month. Included was a recommendation to “eliminate one or more sports,” as well as nine other ways the athletic department could save money moving forward.

“As long as they stay within the NCAA requirements of number of sports sponsored, they’re free to do what they want,” Aresco said in regards to ECU discontinuing programs. “They do notify the conference, Jon notified me that this would be coming potentially.”

Also included in the report was a recommendation calling for limiting travel expenses in non-revenue generating sports. To accomplish that, Gilbert said ECU plans to limit the number of times teams fly to away games and they should focus on scheduling contests that are within bus ride distance.

On a broader scale, however, regional scheduling has begun to emerge as a possible option for schools to cut down on cost and limit the number of long plane or bus rides student-athletes would have to deal with.

“In terms of the regional scheduling and the cooperation among conferences regionally, that really has more to do with Olympic sports in order to save money and also save wear and tear on our student-athletes,” Aresco said. “We’ve been looking at that for years, but always within the paradigm of conference play.”

According to the working group’s report, 10.5% of ECU’s expenses come from travel. While the AAC has some regional opponents to ECU in Memphis and Navy (football only), traveling to teams like Southern Methodist University, Houston and Tulsa eat up a lot of resources.

“Jon Gilbert has been working on this concept and that is to play Olympic sports regionally,” Aresco said. “Now we wouldn’t necessarily have formal alliances with other conferences in our region but you could play so called P5 schools, you could play the so called G5 schools, you could play Division I schools in your area.”

Under this concept, Aresco said each school would act as an independent and would be free to compile whatever schedule they see fit with a focus on regional matchups. For ECU, that would likely mean more games against the University of North Carolina, Duke, NC State, Elon, UNCW and other out-of-state programs that are still relatively close to Greenville, North Carolina.

As things stand right now, ECU is operating with a $10 million budget shortfall for the fiscal year ending June 30, according to Gilbert. The budgeted shortfall in the working group’s report has the department in the hole around $5.6 million for the 2021 fiscal year.

Of course, that could change for better or worse, with much of that hinging on whether fans will be allowed to pack football stadiums like Dowdy-Ficklen this summer. If large gatherings are still deemed too risky by the time Marshall visits Greenville on Aug. 29, then ECU would miss out on key revenue from sources like concessions and ticket sales. For that reason, Aresco said the conference will do everything in its power to help member institutions financially.

“If we have football without fans, for example, you’re going to have a huge hit to the schools in terms of gate, in terms of concessions, in terms of parking, in terms of merchandising…The schools lost two-thirds of the NCAA revenue they were due this year,” Aresco said. “This could have a real impact on the schools and we’re there to try to help them as much as we can.”

The conference is in a good position due to the lack of expenses associated with operating spring sports schedules and tournaments that were canceled because of the pandemic. That, according to Aresco, will allow the AAC to give member schools larger distributions for this year compared to previous ones.

“Our distributions this year were actually larger than they would have been because we didn’t have the expenses associated with spring sports,” Aresco said. “Granted, we would have rather had those expenses but unfortunately those sports were canceled. We did save a lot of money. We saved a lot of money on travel and virtual meetings recently, so we’ve cut our budget significantly and our schools are getting bigger distributions than they might have gotten otherwise, at least this year.”

For a school like ECU that has had to take drastic measures to stay financially sustainable, that is good news. The next domino likely to fall will be the decision from either the NCAA or league office about when teams can resume team drills and practices on campus.

Already, the Division I Council has approved voluntary athletic activities on campuses beginning June 1 but has essentially left it up to individual conferences and schools to decide when it is safe for them to return. 

Once student-athletes return to campus and begin team activities, the discussion about fans in the stands can begin to be taken up, a decision that will likely hinge significantly on the spread of the coronavirus in the coming weeks and months.

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