Why does Eastern Michigan Play D-1 Athletics?

Submitted by Zone Left on May 7th, 2011 at 5:44 PM


The PAC-12 announced an enormous media deal this week that’s worth a reported $22 million per school per year. The Big 10 and SEC have monster TV deals in place that virtually ensure profitability for their member athletic departments for the near future. That’s life on the top of the FBS division, and there’s no doubt that football is the key driver of both revenue and expenses.

This diary is about the other half. The financial straights of the lower tier of FBS, specifically the MAC, Sun Belt, and post Boise State WAC are also largely driven by football. Unfortunately for them, the train has fallen off of a cliff instead of chugging towards the land of monocles and gold toilets.  These schools are reduced to selling home games to artificially increase attendance numbers and playing body bag games to pad revenue.

Specifically, this is about Eastern Michigan football and EMU athletics. What, if any, benefits does the school derive and what are the costs associated with those benefits? Why do they field teams at all on the D-1 level?

College sports have a purpose. The NCAA says that its purpose and the larger point of intercollegiate athletics is to promote things like sportsmanship, integrity, the pursuit of athletic and academic excellence, respect and leadership. These are all good things to promote and I believe athletics can help cultivate those qualities. However, a good club program or the intramural programs that most universities run with student fees can accomplish the same goals and provide much greater access than D-1 athletics. Thus, in my mind, schools must derive some other benefit from D-1 athletics than simply promoting certain values in its athletes—of which Eastern has about 465.

Every FBS school should probably ask itself what benefits it derives from big-time football. It’s a shockingly expensive undertaking, can give the school tons of press (both good and bad), can generate enormous revenue, and can be a significant drain on student funds. It’s easy for the University of Michigan to make a cost-benefit analysis for its football team and athletic department in general. It generates many millions of dollars for the athletic department and is a self-sustaining enterprise. Sure, it’s attached to the school, but it costs the school nothing. The Board of Regents never needs to worry about eliminating a student program to fund football.

Eastern Michigan has a tougher time. Last year, EMU’s athletic expenses were $24.64 million, a whopping 9.2% of the school's General Fund. For a little perspective, there are about 23000 students enrolled at EMU, of which about 2% are intercollegiate athletes. They use their share of the 90.8% of the budget spent on items other than athletics, but 9.2% of the budget is used exclusively to support athletics. Sure, some of that $24 million comes out of TV deals, sponsorship, and ticket sales, but the database shows that to be only about $1.7 million. Everything else comes from the General Fund in some way. By the way, tuition went up 3.8% in 2009-10 at EMU.

However, EMU could still justify athletics if the non-monetary benefits made athletics worthwhile for the school. I think sports teams at U of M make valuable contributions to the student body. Aside from pride, I firmly believe that the Michigan diaspora—I see shirts everywhere—stays engaged with the school in large part due to the visibility of the sports teams. This has benefits for job seeking grads, networking alums, and helps donations to the school. Maybe this is the case at EMU too, but it doesn’t help too much. They only received about $3 million in gifts last year. Even if all of those were directly the result of athletics, there are still almost $20 million that the school gives each year to athletics. People don’t go to games and EMU athletics aren’t on TV unless they’re getting drilling by a Big 10 team in September.

The world has changed. Regardless of why (and let’s not get into it), Michigan doesn’t have money to waste. Why is a public university spending almost 10% of their General Fund on entities that only directly benefit 2% of the student body and don’t produce discernable benefits for the student body, alumni base, or school? Michigan and Michigan State are different. Their athletic departments aren’t a choice of resource allocation for the school. If the department closes, the money disappears. If EMU closes its athletic department, there are over $20 million, by my count, that can be reallocated to improving education, facilities, or even lowering tuition.

Why can’t EMU de-emphasize athletics and expand its club offerings? They could bus to CMU, WMU, Northern Michigan, Toledo, etc and play at a rented high school field on Saturdays. The players could work out at a student gym instead of a team gym. The same could be done with other sports. Just as many students could play, but for millions less. If I was a Regent, I’d ask why.



May 7th, 2011 at 5:58 PM ^

Well stated. As Colin Quinn says in his one man show, ideas have inertia and sometimes it's hard to face the fact that what worked well in the past doesn't work anymore.
<br>I don't entirely agree with the whole premise, but I think it asks some important questions.


May 7th, 2011 at 6:26 PM ^

     Apparently the NCAA has criterion for maintaining Division 1 status (including football attendance) and Eastern may not qualify for much longer.  I believe Sam Webb discussed this issue several weeks ago.


May 7th, 2011 at 7:11 PM ^

Have you considered the possible negative effects of a drop out of D-I ranks?  There are schools that have done it, but generally they're like Centenary, tiny schools that can't compete with five-digit enrollment. (Another school, New Orleans, was forced to because of severely declining enrollment due to Hurricane Katrina.)

A tiny school like Centenary wouldn't see much of a drop in stature (and therefore applications) because of dropping out of D-I.  But if Eastern's stature drops, or people look at them differently because they drop, the enrollment hit could be devastating, even if it's just 5 or 10%.

Also, why advocate going all the way from D-I to club?  Simply dropping to I-AA football might well be enough to suit their needs.

Zone Left

May 7th, 2011 at 7:53 PM ^

Personally, I don't think prospective students at EMU really care. However, the public perception could easily be that the school is one step from imploding if it cancels athletics. I went with the extreme scenario, but dropping to FCS/I-AA would probably have significant cost benefits (and maybe allow the Eagles to win a game).

Schools are in an arms race right now. Students want great facilities, free Internet, and high-tech classrooms. People that pay tuition want to pay less or at least have it increase at a rate close to inflation. Ultimately it's a losing battle for schools because eventually the cost of a degree will exceed the benefits and applications will decline. I think Eastern could spin a drop to I-AA or a drop of athletics all together really well by marketing an intensified focus on the average student and announcing the construction of some great new facilities with the money saved.

I wrote the diary because I know most people don't agree and I wanted to see what people would say. Thanks for responding.

Zone Left

May 7th, 2011 at 8:42 PM ^

Fair enough, CMU averaged about 20K in Dan Lefevour's last season. Looking at the database though, they spent about the same amount on athletics as EMU, but took in about 700K more in revenue that wasn't directly contributed by the university in some way. It still doesn't solve the money problem.


May 7th, 2011 at 11:00 PM ^

I know they say numbers dont lie but realistically speaking there is no way in hell CMU averaged 20k.  I was a student during the LeFevour era (actually we were up against that 10-15k mandatory barrier at one point when I was a frosh, when the AD was giving tickets away) and considering Kelly/Shorts max capacity is 30k, that means the stadium was over 50% capacity for most of the games which is not possible considering those late night games the MAC loves to play for TV ratings would see less than 10,000 in the stands and since the AD severly restricted tailgating, most kids dont even make it to the game as they party on Main St. which is a mile walk to the stadium.  

btw I'm not accusing you of fudging the numbers, more like CMU commiting a bit of puffery.  


May 7th, 2011 at 7:57 PM ^

I didn't go to any U-M basketball games in Brian Ellerbe's last season.  That does not mean I wanted the program to fold.  

Any bad team will have trouble getting people to pay money to watch them, but that doesn't mean they won't follow them.  If EMU ever turns things around, their stands will be packed.


May 7th, 2011 at 10:53 PM ^

See Zone Left's post above.

As someone who attended a couple of games at CMU during Dan Lefevour's Senior year, I can tell you that the stands were not "packed".  Maybe by Central's standards they were relatively full, but definitely not packed.  

I can see "winning = fans" being a logical conclusion, however it doesn't always play out like that in real life.  Too many other variables (such as alumni base, regional and national exposure, etc.).


May 8th, 2011 at 12:01 AM ^

Winning sports teams don't just improve attendance.  They tend to increase alumni satisfaction in general, and lead to increased donations.  They also usually lead to increased  applications.  It's silly, but sports are pretty much the easiest way for a lot of schools to get on the map.

Zone Left

May 8th, 2011 at 12:21 AM ^

Yeah, but for better sports teams to be worthwhile in terms of alumni donations, they'd need to pull in more than 8(!) times as much as EMU currently brings in annually. That's a lot of goodwill.

The impact of sports at EMU just doesn't seem to be impactful in the same way as Michigan.


May 7th, 2011 at 8:11 PM ^

It should be noted that EMU has a large number of commuter students and their sports complexes are a bit of a hike away from the main campus.  Not saying the latter is much of a factor, but students who are not on campus all the time are far less likely to attend sporting events.


May 7th, 2011 at 8:06 PM ^

I think the questions you are asking are good ones that need to be addressed, but I also think that some of these costs are just part-and-parcel with being a D1 athletic school and how that distinction affects an entire school's perception and its overall value.  My wife went to EMU for grad school and I do think the school takes pride in being a D1 school.  When marketing the school to outside parties and interested students, having D1 athletics matters at least as much as new lab equipment or a new student center, and going to DII or DIII would definitely be felt.  And while I agree that the 9% of the financing seems high, that does mean 90%+ is being spent on other ventures, some that probably also less-than-advantageous for the university from a bottom-line view.  The reason EMU had to raise tuition was due to dropping full-time enrollment, drastic cuts in state funding, and the nationwide inflation of college education.  While athletics certainly added to those costs, my guess is that they are a drop in the bucket compared to more systemic costs.

What EMU needs to do is start fielding better teams.  I'm not saying they need to be MAC champions, but the football and basketball teams facilated between mediocre to horrible for the better part of a decade, and that shouldn't be the case.  It wasn't that long ago that EMU was making NCAA tourney appearances on a reasonably consistent basis, and the football team was at least competitive against other MAC teams.  Sports like softball and golf are never going to make any university a dime, but winning a couple of football and basketball games would help to drive gate revenue and merchandise sales, which would certainly help to increase the $1.7 million they brought in last year.


May 7th, 2011 at 8:55 PM ^

EMU's basketball team did get to the D-II Final Four in 1972, where George Gervin punched a referee and got kicked off of the team.  It worked out well for Gervin, though.  He was not eligible for the NBA draft until 1974, the ABA was more than willing to draft him. 

I just wish it wasn't so difficult to find any reference to the incident on the internet.  Gervin has done a great job of overcoming his mistakes, but it would be nice to be able to read about the incident, other than it being glossed over on his wikipedia page.  The wikipedia page just says something about him leaving EMU after an "altercation" with no details or even the fact that there was a referee or a tournament involved.

It's pretty impressive that George Gervin is now mightier than the pen.


May 7th, 2011 at 9:45 PM ^

I wholeheartedly agree with dropping to FCS level football.  Since Earl Boykins left there has been little to get excited about for Eagles fans (you know, all five of them) and students.  The struggles have created a downward spiral and EMU now finds itself fifth on the recruiting chain in a state that doesn't churn out a on of top-level athletes.  In fact, one could argue they might even be below GVSU when it comes to football, though that may have changed since Brian Kelly left.  EMU has dug an enormous hole for itself, and it has bred a lot of apathy among the student body; I think my Huron High class had more spirited students than EMU.  A move to FCS would be a good move in my opinion.  Many students wouldn't notice or care about the drop in status and there would be better games at Rynearson.  A wholesale switch to club/IM is a bit drastic, though.  Certainly football and basketball are terrible, but not all EMU teams are cellar dwellers.   The baseball team is generally competitive (including a win over Michigan this season) and the women's basketball team has seen modest sucess as well.

That said, I think the biggest problem is the lack of a fan base outside the campus.  Nobody grows up an Eagles' fan.  We all know football rules in Michigan and, though I wasn't heavily involved in campus life, it seemed to me that many students were like me in that they went to school at EMU, but they brought with them allegiances to other schools from their childhood (I was born and raised in Ann Arbor by a very Blue family).  As such, on a given football Saturday I and many others preferred to watch Michigan (or whatever school of choice) on TV rather than go to Rynearson and watch a slaughter, even with free admission.  I don't think this problem can be solved without stringing together successful seasons and I don't see that happening in the current set-up.  The basketball team has hope if they can get a decent coach who can recruit Detroit, but football is and has been historically awful for years now.


May 8th, 2011 at 1:14 AM ^

Football is a money losing proposition for ~the bottom half of D1.

EMU Basketball made the Sweet Sixteen back in the early nineties.

It's the old 80/20 rule.  You can probably address 80% of the budget in the red with 20% of the teams.


May 8th, 2011 at 10:19 PM ^

From a sports standpoint, it's kind of a shame that EMU was founded in Ypsilanti.  CMU and WMU at least are alone in their counties, so they're the only nearby game in town there.  EMU might have a little more of a sports identity if it were in like Port Huron or Monroe or someplace like that.  (Of course, being in Washtenaw has a lot of non-sports benefits.)


May 8th, 2011 at 12:29 AM ^

It seems like EMU could benefit from going to FCS or maybe even DII though I'm sure some alumni would flip out at sacrificing the CMU and WMU rivalry games. Some people are saying when they get better the fans will return, but what hope is there for EMU football to recover? I can't see EMU really gaining any ground. People grow up as WMU and CMU fans, but how many kids were raised to cheer for Eastern? I've honestly met zero. I don't think Eastern will ever compete in the increasingly business-like world of D1 football


May 8th, 2011 at 4:31 AM ^

I don't know the rules but can you be D-1 in other sports but not football?  EMU has a good swimming and track team.  The football team is a joke and should be canned to suppor the other sports in funding.  But unfortuantely football is the "key" sport and provides noteriety.  It's just too bad it's not working for them.


May 8th, 2011 at 8:36 PM ^

I think the whole spanning divisions thing is totally up to the conferences your are affiliated with allowing it. As an example, Michigan Tech 'plays' D1 hockey but they are D2 (GLIAC) or club for all other sports.

This may be somewhat of a special case since there is no connection to the D1 hockey conferences and the D1 conferences for other sports.

I think EMU dropping to D2 for football and joining the GLIAC makes the most sense. They would have most of their games within a days drive in the same state.


May 8th, 2011 at 9:20 AM ^

......who happened  to do his graduate work at Eastern, I can say from personal experience that it was essentially a continuation of Michigan football, just at  some other school's campus a few miles down the road. I heard someone talk about  Eagles football maybe twice, and  then only to say that it was a dumping ground for the MAC. 


May 8th, 2011 at 1:05 PM ^

With the push for schools to jump to FBS (UMass, Western Kentucky, UTSA to name a few), there seems to be a financial advantage to being in the highest division, even if you don't win any games (as WKU can say). The Dakota schools just jumped from D2 to FCS recently, and I haven't heard of any schools dropping down divisions. While I agree that FBS is getting too large to be sustainable, I don't see the trend changing any time soon.

Zone Left

May 8th, 2011 at 2:01 PM ^

I don't think there are any financial advantages unless the school can break into a BCS level conference. Look at the NCAA Revenue Database and compare some MAC schools with some of the better FCS schools. Running a top FCS/D-1AA program costs about $6-10 million (40%) less in expenses than it costs to run a crappy MAC program. Neither make money, but is it a better sell to students to say they might win a national title during their time at college or that they can watch their team get drilled on TV twice a year?


May 8th, 2011 at 4:10 PM ^

I graduated from Eastern in 1992 and was a freshman in 1987 when they actually went to the Cal Bowl (although I didn't go) and if the school is the same now as it was then, getting a fan base is an uphill battle.  I'm not sure of the percentages but I think the bulk of the traditional students at Eastern come from the Metro Detroit and Toledo area.  Even if they live in the dorms, typically on the weekends they would go home.  There seemed to be decent turn out for the games in my freshman year but after I graduated and went to a few games, it doesn't seem like the turnout is that great.  So it is hard to get good prospects when you can't even promise a good fan base.

As for dropping down to Division 1AA, my brain says it is a good idea but my heart doesn't.  It probably costs alot less to run a team at Division 1AA than it does at 1A which means that Eastern might actually compete at the lower division.  I'm talking football here.  In Basketball, I think Eastern has an easier time and quite honestly is a player or two from competing.  In the other sports, Eastern is pretty strong but unfortunately those aren't the sports that command the attention.  So I don't know.  I would love to see Eastern compete in football but I don't see it ever happening.

But seriously, you could make this argument for just about anything in sports.  Why do some cities try to keep major league teams when they can barely shovel the city after a snow storm?  It seems that money would be better spent elsewhere but life is full of things that would better served elsewhere.  So who knows.


May 9th, 2011 at 1:11 PM ^

I was thinking the same thing about your article and then I realized you were probably using earlier numbers.  But again, you raise some valid points about EMU's D1 status and those are outweighed by your error.  However, unless some of the regents change, it is not likely that EMU will bump down.


May 9th, 2011 at 11:44 AM ^

D1 athletics is the only reason I know of the existence of EMU.


Not to say that that's enough to make the expendature worth it...


May 9th, 2011 at 2:12 PM ^

I can say that EMU does just fine in every other sport but footballl. Heck, even in men's basketball EMU used to be a power.

I am all for dropping football, but if EMU does that they will be dropped from MAC. In order to compete in D-1A athletics they have to maintain a football program. That sounds ridiculous, but it is the truth.

The athletic programs provide value to schools.  Specfically,  they are a public relations tool.That's why they have them. While it would save EMU money to drop athletics they would also lose a potent public relations tool.


May 10th, 2011 at 8:45 AM ^

Then I suggest U-M drop to DII the women's BB and Baseball teams for losses to EMU this year - oh the shame!!!

Also, if Michigan had the football record EMU has suffered these past two decades, you could fire a cannon within the Big House and not hit anyone.  Well, RichRod was trying, anyway...


May 10th, 2011 at 8:45 AM ^

Being in the FBS obviously isn't going so well, but I'm not sure moving to the FCS (which the author didn't suggest, but others did) is the answer either.

Where would Eastern play? There are no Michigan FCS schools. The closest ones are Dayton and Youngstown, which are both a good three hours away. If Eastern moved to the Missouri Valley—the most attractive conference in the region—only three conference schools would be less than a 7-hour bus ride away (YSU, Indiana State and Illinois State).

So while they'd be saving money on scholarships, they'd also be burning quite a bit by going from a bus league to an airplane one. It probably would make more sense to go down a step further to D-II, where there's a more reasonable landing spot (the GLIAC) and a few peer institutions (Wayne State, GVSU, Ferris).

The D Zone

May 10th, 2011 at 2:21 PM ^

Eastern MI is a joke, the coaching staff only recruits kids from California.


grand valley, Wayne, Saginaw and Ferris ALL had better recruiting classes then EMU did in 2010 IMO.  


Thats their roots - recruiting is the #1 reason why schools win/lose.  Coaching is next.