The fight to get to the bargaining table on behalf of East Carolina’s discontinued swimming and diving teams is ongoing, with an organized group raising funds from alumni and others for the last two weeks and even running a television spot to support the cause of somehow bringing the teams back.
Like many universities nationwide, ECU, facing financial turmoil both before and amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, opted to part ways with both men’s and women’s swimming and diving along with both of the school’s tennis teams as cost-cutting measures.
The Pirate swim teams did not go quietly, immediately launching a campaign to raise funds to bring the sport back at ECU. But according to associate head coach Kate Moore, the effort is more precisely to simply gain enough traction to start a conversation surrounding the teams that enjoyed both conference and national success.
“I’ve been a part of the program for 17 years, first as an athlete and then as a coach, so to me it’s a lot more than just a job,” Moore said of the decision by athletics director Jon Gilbert and the school to discontinue the four sports. “I’ve spent my entire adult life here, so that’s been really hard. If anything good has come out of this, the support that the alumni has been showing and the fight that this team has is pretty special, so that’s been really cool to see.
“As far as what it’s going to take, that’s something we’re still trying to figure out. There have been countless emails and calls to the athletic director and interim chancellor, as well as some of the board of trustees members. There has been some positive interaction with some of the team members, so that’s been good.”
The numbers are tricky, and Moore admits there is not set monetary goal, but there is a push to get the word out about the program’s value and to question how much ECU will ultimately save by cutting the teams, which were partly populated by non-scholarship athletes paying full tuition.
It is estimated each swimming and diving team cost the school $277,000 annually to operate. The Save ECU Swimming and Diving group announced last week it already had surpassed the $500K plateau in pledged donations, but there is no long-term or guaranteed plan to continue generating that amount of funds, or that ECU would bring the teams back under any circumstances.
“The big thing is to have a sit-down meeting with the decison-makers of the university and see what can be done,” Moore said. “A lot of the numbers that were reported three or four weeks go were not completely accurate, and there is a lot more that could have been done with that budget to bring it down, but we never got the chance to do it. We just want a chance for them to meet with us and go over the numbers. We’ve done the math and we’ve got a lot of (swimmers) who pay to go to school here. So ECU as a whole is really not going to save much money, if any, because most of these paying students (on the teams) are not going to stay because they came here to swim and not just go to school. Unless they’re in their senior year or they’re really embedded into their program as a rising junior, they’re gone.”
Moore said it is in ECU’s best interest to have the conversation and re-evaluate its position, citing the championships and high GPAs the teams amassed.
One guarantee coming out of the effort, however, is that at least some of the money raised will be donated to the Pitt County Special Olympics swim team, a group with which ECU swimming shared a long-standing bond until COVID-19.
“We’ve worked with them and every year we have an event with them, so they’re certainly a group that we’re very familiar with, and we really enjoy working with them,” Moore said of the Special Olympics team. “If we can’t save the team, and we can’t have another event with them, then we want to at least be able to help them out in some way before this is all said and done.”
The Save ECU Swimming and Diving group initially set a $1.5 million goal, but Moore said there is nothing specific about that amount of money.
It is more about showing how much support exists for the teams and preparing for what it might cost to help fund them.
“They haven’t given us number as of yet, and that’s what we’re looking for,” Moore said of ECU, which stated on the record it did not plan to revisit the decision. “I think we have a lot of alumni that are really just waiting for that number before they pledge an amount. As far as the long term, there are a lot of ways that we can generate revenue at that pool.”
Moore pointed to the cost for club teams to use ECU’s swimming facilities regularly as one means of fund-raising, as well as the possibility of summer lesson programs that are in part designed to give money back to the program, an idea she said worked at UNC Wilmington. ECU’s Minges Natatorium was actually part of the decision to discontinue swimming and diving by ECU, which deemed the cost of maintaining and upgrading it to be too great.
“Our facility, there’s nothing wrong with it,” Moore said. “They even describe it on the ECU athletics website as one of the nicest collegiate aquatic centers in North Carolina, and it truly is. It is old, and I would say if anything, the locker rooms could use some work, but it’s definitely not something worth cutting a team over.
“Obviously, it hasn’t stopped our men’s team from winning four conference championships. Are there better facilities out there? There are about 100-plus other colleges that should be shutting their programs down because our pool is a lot nicer than a lot of the pools we go to.”
Gilbert and interim chancellor Ron Mitchelson referenced long-term thoughts on Minges Natatorium when making the announcement to cut sports on May 21.
“We knew we needed to make a long-term financial commitment to the aquatics center, based on the state it is in,” Gilbert said. “I’m really talking about the entire space — the aquatics center, the locker rooms, offices, etc.”
Schools like UNCW launched similar campaigns after cuts and in some cases succeeded in bringing teams back. Similarly, the response to Bowling Green cutting baseball recently led to the team being reinstated, but every case is different.
Moore said the ECU swimming group is following the UNCW model by making sure word gets out about the worth of the teams.
“We just don’t want to go down without a struggle, without a fight,” she said. “We don’t want to be forgotten.”
As of Tuesday, a gofundme.com fund set up by the group was nearing $14,000, and Moore estimated that “at least $1,000” already was set aside for Pitt County Special Olympics.
People interested in the efforts to save the teams can learn more at saveecuswimdive.org.