East Carolina University eliminated all of its swimming and tennis programs on Thursday to compensate for an estimated $10 million financial deficit heightened by COVID-19, officials said.
The decision was announced during the second special Board of Trustees meeting on the matter in four days. It cuts ECU’s varsity sponsored sports from 20 to 16 as part of a plan to generate $4.9 million in long-term savings, according to the announcement.
Second-year athletics director Jon Gilbert, who has volunteered to take a 20 percent pay cut for at least one year, later said, “It’s still not enough, from where our deficits are going to be.”
There was no immediate plan announced for Minges Natatorium, which is part of the Minges building that also holds the Pirates’ basketball arena for games, basketball practice courts, university classrooms and offices. In addition to the pool area serving as the home for ECU swimming and diving, it also has been used for local recreational and high school meets.
“We’ll keep the pool for now, at least in the short term for academic purposes,” interim chancellor Ron Mitchelson said. “We do have scuba diving (classes) and the like. ... I can tell you that from a competitive and NCAA perspective, it’s an inadequate facility and it’s not a priority for investment.”
Men’s and women’s teams in tennis as well as swimming and diving were discontinued, eliminating positions for coaches and other team personnel, and it will save in student-athlete scholarship costs. Gilbert, who was emotional Thursday describing conversations with coaches, estimates athletics revenues for this fiscal year to fall $10 million short of expenses.
The ECU athletic fiscal sustainability report released Monday showed the Pirates led the American Athletic Conference with 20 varsity sports despite being in the bottom half of the league in revenue and expenses. ECU joins Central Florida with 16 sports; four schools have 19 teams, five others have 17 or 18.
Sponsoring 16 sports is the minimum requirement to be a Division I-A football playing member.
Swimming and diving is among ECU’s most successful athletic programs. The Pirate men took first place in a four-team field this year at the American Athletic Conference championships in Houston, the team’s fourth AAC title in six seasons. The AAC is now down to two schools who have men’s swimming and diving, and four in the women’s division.
“So much talent both in the pool and out for so many many years,” said Pirate swimming and diving coach Matthew Jabs, who just completed his third season as head coach, in a social media post Thursday afternoon. “Gone. Just like that. Facilities don’t win championships, people do. And we had the best people.”
Gilbert said the Minges pool is owned by the university. The facility underwent an overhaul of its water filtration system and air temperature control system in 2013, and a year later added indirect lighting and improvements to acoustics.
“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. Ultimately, there are still some academic components that will run in Minges and that will continue to happen, and then the chancellor will look at what the future looks like for that facility.”
In tennis, the Pirates paid to use River Birch Tennis Center across from J.H. Rose High School and an indoor facility on Wimbledon Drive.
“We will be able to let those leases expire and not renew those leases,” Gilbert said. “Certainly that played a factor as well, as we looked at the multitude of factors of what sports it would be.”
A total of 68 student-athletes and nine coaches were affected. ECU will continue to honor the scholarship amount for athletes, but also give them a full release to transfer without NCAA hardship if they choose.
Women’s tennis is an NCAA-mandated head count (full scholarship) sport. The other three are equivalency sports, which allow for partial scholarships.
Many of the Pirates’ budget issues are attributed to a string of five straight losing football seasons, declines in season ticket sales and fan attendance. After three straight 3-9 seasons under former coach Scottie Montgomery from 2016-18, ECU finished 4-8 in 2019 under first-year head coach Mike Houston.
The highest-attended game last year in 51,000-seat Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium was announced as 38,094 versus William & Mary for family weekend.
Since the end of football season, the effects of COVID-19 changed the Pirates’ financial outlook.
“Had COVID-19 not happened, we may have looked at one or two sports (cut), but not four,” Gilbert said.
While voicing that other universities have made similar decisions, ECU officials also were aware Thursday of the negative perception of cutting sports.
“I say frequently that Pirates are passionate and compassionate,” Mitchelson said. “We certainly are passionate when it comes to the success of our sports teams, and we certainly have deep empathy for the loss of those four sports. Our hearts go out to the affected coaches and student-athletes. ... These student-athletes did absolutely nothing wrong and, in fact, we have great respect for them and admire them. They deserve our support and they will have it.
“I do think this matter, in general, was pretty simple. ECU does not possess adequate financial resources to host 20 sports programs successfully. It is as simple as that.”