The East Carolina University athletic department was just beginning to turn a financial corner when spring sports were canceled to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Instead of enjoying a spring season full of Pirate athletic events with packed stadiums and football season tickets selling like hotcakes, the department must now make some tough decisions regarding its budget.
“I anticipate a revenue shortfall in the NCAA distribution, the AAC conference distribution, Pirate Club memberships, ticket sales, sponsorships,” ECU Athletic Director Jon Gilbert said in a phone interview on Thursday. “There may be some contractual third party shortfalls, licensing dollars. All that will be less than what was anticipated. We’re working on a plan to help sustain ourselves long-term.”
Already in the midst of an operating shortfall of $7.5 million according to Gilbert, that number could grow by as much as an additional $5 million. Described as a floating number, the possibility remains for that mark to drop.
Of course, Gilbert said it all hinges on what the football season looks like in the fall, both around the country and in Greenville, North Carolina.
“That is under the assumption that from now and through the fall, that we don’t have one more dollar come in in Pirate Club dollars or Pirate Club support,” Gilbert said. “I think we have that potential for that number to shrink depending on what football looks like in the fall.”
In a letter to fans on Tuesday, Gilbert wrote that all forms of budget reduction are on the table. Without teams traveling to athletic events across the country, gameday expenses and recruiting costs, Gilbert said ECU will save around two million dollars this spring.
That number, however, is overshadowed by the $4-5 million “floating target” that Gilbert said he anticipates having to cut from the department’s budget as this fiscal year draws to a close on June 30.
“We are looking at every expenditure and how we do business,” Gilbert said. “Can we play regional scheduling? Do we need to print out all of our game tickets on regular stock or can you go to a complete print-at-home option?”
While some measures to reduce cost within the athletic department are minimal, others could make more of an impact. The University of Cincinnati, an American Athletic Conference school, cut its men’s soccer program in mid-April as a number of conference commissioners petitioned the NCAA to waive the 16 sport minimum it takes to be considered a Division I institution.
That request was denied by the NCAA on April 24, according to the Associated Press, and will only be considered on a case-by-case basis.
ECU offers 20 varsity sports, and while nothing has been said about the fate of some of those programs, wiggle room does exist if the university chooses that route. Considered before that, however, Gilbert said some Pirate coaches have expressed a willingness to join the growing list of coaches across the country who are accepting pay cuts to help their department.
“I have spoken to a few coaches that are willing to go down that path,” Gilbert said. “I am looking at all the numbers and what the state and system office will be doing before we make a final determination of what that is. Certainly we are having those conversations.”
In a hope to mitigate the financial impact of the coronavirus on ECU’s athletic department, the decision was made to push the priority deadline for football season tickets back to June 10, according to Gilbert.
“We felt like it was imperative based on the climate of everything nationally with COVID-19 to push the deadline back as far as possible, and make it as flexible for individuals to be on the payment plan and wait as long as possible to make that deadline,” Gilbert said.
Currently, Gilbert said approximately 3,500 season tickets have been sold and that number is understandably behind a normal year. In an announcement to Pirate Nation on Wednesday, the department rolled out a list of prizes individuals who bought or renewed their season tickets would be entered to win.
Tiered by renewal date, Pirate Club members are eligible to be entered in the drawing for a different set of prizes if they purchase season tickets by the deadline.
In the coming days and weeks as the curve of the coronavirus begins to slowly flatten, more clarity will be provided about what sports will look like in the fall. Dependent upon that will be what kind of drastic measures ECU is forced to take in regards to its athletic budget for the upcoming fiscal year.
“A lot of that is contingent on what does the fall look like,” Gilbert said. “We are anticipating starting classes and school in the fall. We’re anticipating playing sports in the fall. Certainly we’re mindful of what the climate is nationally.”