The Eastern Washington athletic department has long prided itself in putting out a competitive product with – relative to many of its Big Sky Conference peers – a low budget and run-of-the-mill facilities.
From a tradition-rich football program with the third-most wins in the Football Championship Subdivision since 2010, to a burgeoning and defending Big Sky champion men’s basketball program, to competitive women’s soccer and basketball teams, EWU has made the most of its resources.
When budget cuts are imposed at small Division I schools like EWU – schools without multimillion-dollar TV contracts or several deep-pocketed boosters – they cut deep.
The budget cleaver is soon expected to make a large, painful hack in Cheney.
The coronavirus pandemic, which has brought college athletics to a halt since early March, will result in ensuing athletic department cuts because of a $2.1 million loss in revenue, according to athletic director Lynn Hickey.
In a recent “Lunch and Learn” interview streamed on the EWU Athletics Facebook page, Hickey said each sport is facing cuts of “20-30 percent.”
EWU, already facing a $5 million athletic department deficit before the pandemic, was recently dealt a blow with the loss of funds from the cancellation of the NCAA Tournament and several of its summer team camps.
The loss of anticipated state allocated funds and student fees has severely compounded the issue.
If the Eagles’ 2020 football season is a go and void of ticket-paying fans due to social distancing mandates, it would present another budgetary hardship.
“Trying to start the season and not having fans in the stadium, I don’t know we’d do that,” Hickey said. “Because the loss of revenue, and the cost to run the event, and the team travel – I don’t know how we could survive with that.”
Major reductions appeared imminent in early April when football coach Aaron Best volunteered to take a 10% salary cut this season. Hickey said she also volunteered a cut.
Hickey said during the “Lunch and Learn” that the athletic department has decided to not fill multiple open administrative positions to save on costs, and is operating without a ticket manager, social media manager and its usual amount of trainers.
“We’re all going to have to do extra duties,” she said. “If you see us sweeping floors and packing boxes, we’re going to have to do that.”
Wait and see
NCAA President Mark Emmert recently said schools that don’t allow students back on campus this fall shouldn’t have student-athletes back to compete.
The California State University system –which includes Big Sky members Sacramento State and Cal Poly – has already opted to go online this fall, putting fall sports for CSU’s 23 athletic departments in question.
EWU has announced it will continue online classes this fall, but with in-person labs and open resident halls, each adhering to social distancing measures.
The situation in Cheney remains fluid.
“If there’s a 300-person lecture class, that may not be a class everyone can sit in,” Hickey said, adding that EWU sports are in a wait-and-see pattern.
“We still don’t know how we’ll start our fall sports,” she said. “A lot will determine how (Gov. Jay Inslee) will open up larger group gatherings.”
The Big Sky Conference, which includes school from eight states with various reopening phases, voted earlier this week to give each institution the decision when it can start sports, if the decision aligns with local and NCAA laws.
With Idaho, Montana and Utah loosening their restrictions, Hickey believes athletic programs in those states could get a competitive advantage.
“It’s not going to be a fair landscape,” said Hickey, who added the Montana schools may begin voluntary practices next week. “There’s not going to be a lot of equity this year. But we’ve got to move forward as best we can.”
But will the season start on time? Will games be lost?
Every scheduling scenario is on the table, she said, depending on the decisions that are made among states and schools in the coming months.
The options include playing only Big Sky games, and if some conference members can’t play, facing some Big Sky members twice to fill the schedule.
Hickey also mentioned a conference rule that allows programs to forfeit a Big Sky game to pursue a money-making guarantee game. EWU is scheduled to make $750,000 to play at Florida in a guarantee game on Sept. 5.
“We want to be as flexible as possible,” said Hickey, who expects plans be more concrete in July.
New turf on the way
EWU’s new red turf is being installed at Roos Field. Hickey expects it be complete by the end of July.
The old red turf, which helped raise the Eagles’ national profile since its 2010 installation, will be cut up into small pierces and sold at an EWU athletics auction in the late summer.
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