Appalachian State’s athletic department became the latest to experience collateral damage from the coronavirus pandemic on Friday.
Following the lead of a growing number of Group of Five college programs, including in-state cousin East Carolina, the Mountaineers eliminated three sports as a cost-cutting move amid growing financial deficits.
Athletic director Doug Gillin, as was his ECU counterpart Jon Gilbert a week earlier, fought back emotion as he announced the elimination of his school’s men’s soccer, men’s tennis and men’s indoor track & field programs.
The moves will help offset an estimated $5 million athletic budget shortfall, a situation that has been exaggerated by the cancellation of winter sports championships and the entire spring season in response to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis.
“For us, with the pandemic, it became apparent that the decision had to be made to improve our financial sustainability and we’ve moved on some of those already,” Gillin said on a video conference. “The last thing we wanted to impact was opportunities for our student-athletes.
“It was only after a 45-day assessment when we realized what we were really looking at, a $5 million problem. This doesn’t solve that problem. But it’s a piece of the puzzle.”
Gillin estimated that the elimination of the three sports will save App State approximately $1 million over the next two to three years — a figure that represents a 20% reduction in the deficit.
The moves leave the Mountaineers with 17 Division I varsity athletic programs (seven men’s and 10 women’s), one above the NCAA minimum for FBS membership. It should be noted that the school will continue to field a men’s outdoor track & field program.
Those athletes in the other two affected sports, 36 of them in all, along with incoming freshmen will have their scholarships honored by App State if they choose to remain enrolled.
“There’s different ways that you could’ve looked at a sports mix that might have saved more money,” Gillin said. “But when you look at facilities, scholarships, operating budgets, the gender equity within our university — the gender gap continues to grow, as well — I think all those facets come into decision-making when you look at those sports.”
At least 10 other Division I schools have made similar cuts involving 27 sports programs during the past few weeks. None of the moves have been more dramatic than the ones made by Brown, which did away with 11 sports last Thursday.
ECU’s cuts involved its men’s and women’s swimming, and the men’s and women’s tennis programs.
While Gillin said that he doesn’t anticipate the elimination of any more sports programs, at least for now, numerous other money-saving measures will be put into place. Among them are a freeze on filling current athletic staff openings and a move to more of a regional scheduling philosophy.
To that end, the Sun Belt Conference — of which App State is a member — has begun exploring partnerships with both Conference USA and the American Athletic Conference to hold down travel expenses.
“I’ve long been a proponent of geographic competition, even before COVID, in terms of competition that’s close, competition that fans can drive and go see,” Gillin said. “It’s no secret in the Group of Five that Appalachian travels as good as anybody. I’m hopeful that innovation and creativity comes out of something like this, from a way to manage our resources.”
Regardless of how successful App State is at cutting costs and reducing its deficit, Gillin said that it still doesn’t ease the sting of eliminating sports programs.
“There’s no right answer,” he said. “It doesn’t mean that these three sports and these three sports’ student-athletes mean any less to us than the others. That’s part of the pain and the hurt.”