By: Hunter Mundy
The University of North Carolina Wilmington (UNCW) is in the process of determining whether or not to continue sponsoring teams in men’s indoor track, men’s cross country, men’s and women’s swimming and diving, and softball. The Intercollegiate Athletics Review Committee made the recommendation to eliminate these teams on May 15, 2013 in an 18-page report. The committee was appointed in February by Chancellor Gary Miller to develop the future portfolio of UNCW Seahawk athletics. Chancellor Miller originally asked the committee to identify a portfolio “that would ensure all programs have the opportunities to achieve national prominence. “
UNCW Athletic Director Jimmy Bass projects that UNCW’s athletic budget would need to be approximately $16,000,000 to support the current portfolio of athletics (non-football) to be nationally competitive and prominent. Over the last four years, the Department of Athletics’ expenses have exceeded revenue. With a reserve fund that has decreased by 82% in order to balance expenses, there is no longer a viable funding source. In the current fiscal year, the university anticipates the need to cover a projected $600,000 shortfall. The committee’s recommendations would include re-investing $800,000 annually into the remaining programs and starting the entire process immediately in the 2013-14 academic year.
As a part of its research, the committee met with a number of groups. This included the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee, made of two individuals from each of the 19 athletic teams currently on campus. The women’s basketball team was unable to participate because the meeting took place during the conference tournament. The men’s basketball team was also absent. At a non-football playing institution where athletic department revenue is drastically dependent on the revenue of basketball, particularly men’s basketball, these scheduling issues and omissions are alarming to say the least.
As the report states, the student athletes in attendance did provide a number of consistent and cohesive themes. These included issues with athletic facilities that are outdated, lack appeal in presentation and are often poorly maintained. Some were described as unacceptable, and athletes’ complained they impacted performance and preparation. The state of UNCW’s current facilities were also cited as a reason that quality teams from other schools will not accept an offer to compete at UNCW. Other issues included the insufficiency of the current weight room and its staff and the lack of adequate athletic training staff, which limits the ability to get timely and immediate attention. The level of travel accommodations compared to other schools in the conference was also was described as an impediment to performance and competiveness.
UNCW is a member of the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA), which was founded in 1979 as the ECAC South basketball league and renamed in 1985. It is important to look at the changing make-up of the CAA over the past 20 years and how this plays an important role in the Seahawks’ current financial situation. In 1993, the entire conference was located within a six-hour drive of Wilmington, NC, and included in-state rival East Carolina University. In 2013, with the exit of Old Dominion and Georgia State and the addition of the College of Charleston, only three of the CAA’s nine other teams will be within this distance. This includes trips for the Seahawk teams of over 13 hours to Northeastern (Massachusetts) and 10 hours to Hofstra (New York).
For UNCW’s softball program, the closest drive current CAA trip is to 6 hours to James Madison University. There are other conference opportunities available that would potentially negate the travel impacts of the current CAA situation. Conferences such as the Big South and the Southern Conference are much more local. The Big South has four schools from the state of North Carolina, and the entire 12-member conference is located within a four-hour drive of Wilmington, NC. Changing conferences could help change the face of UNCW, cut down on travel costs and provide the university with local competition.
The softball program at UNCW consists of athletes mainly from North Carolina. While the popularity of the sport has skyrocketed in recent years in the Tarheel State, any future program must have the ability to recruit at least on the regional, if not national, level. In this year’s NCAA National Championship Softball Tournament, approximately 17% of the players hail from the footprint of the CAA while 13% call the footprint of the Big South home. Additionally as evidence of the increase in popularity of the sport, last year was the first year a school in the South won the national title (Alabama). UNCW softball’s program needs additional resources, such as fully-funded scholarships, to be successful so it can recruit regionally and nationally. The committee’s report stated that UNCW currently funds just over six scholarships for softball split among 20 athletes. The NCAA allows a school to provide 12 athletic scholarships for its Division I softball programs.
Regional competitors such as James Madison, Elon, Coastal Carolina and UNC-Greensboro are in the process or have just completed substantial multi-million dollar softball facility upgrades that have substantially boosted the sport on their campuses. These schools also have fully funded coaching staffs for softball that allow increased recruiting, instruction/coaching and program oversight. As previously mentioned, the programs at UNCW have suffered for a long period of time with sub-par facilities and support.
After reviewing the UNCW situation and all of its components one cannot help but be reminded of a similar situation from 2001 at the University of Virginia. Facing a projected $47 million dollar athletic department deficit by 2010, UVA created a task force to study the future of Virginia athletics. The study’s task force recommended creating formal tiers for the 24 varsity sports to “bolster the strongest programs” and reduce support or eliminate some lower-profile sports. This included the de-emphasis of programs that traditionally struggled including baseball, wrestling, men’s and women’s golf, men’s and women’s track and field, cross country and men’s and women’s tennis.
Upon its presentation to the Virginia Board of Visitors and President, the document was met with immediate criticism and anger. The study’s recommendations were immediately voted down and instead a highly motivated and intense fundraising campaign began. Fast-forward 12 years and the UVA baseball team is now one of the premier teams in the ACC, and in the country, having attended two College World Series in the period. The men’s and women’s golf teams have won numerous events and placed several alumni onto the professional tours. The men’s tennis team has been the NCAA runner-up for the last two seasons while winning an indoor tennis national championship.
Here’s hoping the situation at UNCW turns out to be nothing more than a “call to arms” like Virginia from a few years back. With UNCW’s reputation as a stellar academic institution and a campus located just a few minutes from the Atlantic Ocean’s beautiful beaches, the sky is the limit for Seahawk athletics. Given all of the support to compete on a level playing field, Seahawk athletics can and will win all of the championships they can while answering the fiscal questions of the administration.
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