East Carolina University interim chancellor Ron Mitchelson emphasized “days, not weeks” on Monday for impending fiscal decisions as the Pirates face an athletics budget deficit that athletics director Jon Gilbert said could approach $10 million this fiscal year.
Gilbert voiced opposition to a public timeline on cost-cutting measures the Pirates are making amid waves of uncertainty and revenue declines during the COVID-19 pandemic. Gilbert and Mitchelson were involved in delicate discussions during an ECU special Board of Trustees meeting centered around recommendations made by a working group of university leaders. It included considering the elimination of one or more sports, as well as an established amount of money not to exceed $4-6 million annually to be transferred from institutional funds in support of ECU athletics.
“Certainly, the chancellor and I, and our leadership team in athletics, are working on a plan, and we’ll communicate that to the chancellor and to the appropriate people at the appropriate time, but I don’t want to give a timeline at this point,” Gilbert said.
Mitchelson then had a more urgent message.
“It’s a matter of days, not weeks,” he said for the second time in a 30-second span.
ECU’s athletics fiscal sustainability working group established 10 recommendations in its report, also including a recommendation to review TowneBank Tower operations and the pricing structure for premium seating as part of an attempt to close the anticipated operating shortfall for the tower connected to Pirate football’s Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium. There also was a recommendation to further evaluate the model for student-athlete scholarship awards and funding because, “There is a growing gap between scholarship funds generated through Pirate Club donations and actual scholarship requirements,” the report said.
Cutting staff positions and sports completely is something ECU and schools nationwide are considering to reduce expenses and combat significant losses in revenue. Furman, for example, announced Monday a wave of financial decisions that included cutting salaries of administrators and discontinuing baseball and men’s lacrosse.
Excluding Connecticut, which sponsors 24 sports and is leaving the American Athletic Conference this year, ECU has a league-high 20 sports. All of the other full-member, football-playing schools sponsor 19, 18, 17 or 16 (UCF is the only school at 16). Gilbert said Monday that sponsoring 16 sports is the minimum requirement to be a Division I-A football playing member.
“It’s something that people go to right away, and as I look at that recommendation and the chancellor and I visit and obviously, I really want to make sure to respect the process that this decision is really gut-wrenching for me, personally, and it’s not something an athletics director wants to do,” said Gilbert, who later said that in April he declined all annual performance bonuses and he told Mitchelson he would take a 20 percent compensation reduction for at least one year. “I understand the financial realities of where we are, both athletically and as an institution, but really, to respect the process. I want to make sure that, when we go down that path, that the individuals who are affected, that they hear from me first. I’m going to leave it at that and not answer any further in that regard.”
The sustainability report, which was finalized Thursday and became public Monday, showed the Pirates are in the bottom half of the AAC in revenue and expenses, and below the American percentile in head coaches compensation, assistant coaches compensation, team travel expenditures and athletics expenses per student-athlete.
The 10-member working group was formed in January and chaired by Chris Locklear, who is ECU vice provost for academic success and interim chief of staff.
The other nine members were: Kendra Alexander, Clint Bailey, Stephanie Coleman, Alex Keddie, Jody Newsome, Ryan Robinson, Dan Schisler, Chris Stansbury and Paul Zigas.
Robinson is executive associate athletics director for external operations, Keddie senior associate AD for compliance and Coleman associate vice chancellor for budget and athletics fiscal affairs.
Gilbert and Mitchelson both were in support of the Pirates immediately implementing more regional nonconference scheduling. Some of the recommendations noted that further evaluation is needed.
“I’ve said this since Day 1 and when we joined the American (in 2014) that I am absolutely a fan of the American conference and the means to be a member of the American conference,” Mitchelson said. “It is clear to me that it will take some level of institutional support so that we can enjoy the benefits of rubbing elbows and being associated with some of the best universities in this country. I see value in that and for our students, and their degrees, and I see value in that for our institution.
“So it comes as little surprise that there might be some cost associated with that to the institution. ... The simple fact is we are probably in need of a new strategic plan for athletics as we plan to be a member of the American and compete successfully and have a sustainable financial model.
“In general, these recommendations make all kind of sense to me and they implore directly from a very transparent version of the current financial situation in athletics.”