President Michael Benson, the Board of Regents and much of the administration is pushing to add major college football to what Eastern has to offer. While it seems like a questionable move, it’s possible to suspend skepticism as officials hash out the details and lay the foundation for joining Football Bowl Subdivision and upgrading athletics as a whole.
It’s hard to argue against the fact that prospective college students often pick schools for fickle reasons unrelated to academics. Other students may pick a school based on the fact that they have heard of a certain program while watching a sporting event or getting a glimpse of a campus during a commercial, which makes dressing up the university’s “front porch” a good idea. Showcasing the university through athletics could propel Eastern past its competitors in a way you can’t buy simply by sending out ambassadors from academic programs.
The time seems right for such a move. The state budget allows the university to spend $15 million on upgrading facilities. Combine that with plans for a fundraising drive to match those funds and this will allow athletics a pretty big makeover in the coming years.
Eastern is also enjoying the limelight from positive attention selecting a new president, making the NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, and hosting a feature on Good Morning America. Using positive media as a springboard into the big time makes sense in that respect. Lastly, it doesn’t hurt that the university isn’t hurt as bad as other universities by state budget cuts. The restructuring the university underwent last year has provided some wiggle room for fiscal risks.
But that’s where the understandable criticisms begin. The university community seems to have offered only tepid support up until this point. Students, faculty and staff all have their own criticism many of which are valid.
For students the potential for the university to impose an athletics fee looms large. And the fee is no pocket change. Currently proposed at $50 per semester, which will add up to $400 over the course of four years, each student at the Richmond campus would face a mandatory contribution towards Eastern’s athletic rise. The fee would increase Eastern’s athletic budget by 10 percent or about $1 million a year, allowing for more marketing strategies and better facilities among other proposed projects.
While the fee has yet to be approved by the Regents the student body continues to debate the hike, most recently represented by a survey. In this survey distributed by the Student Government Association, students overwhelmingly did not support fees for athletics. In fact, more students participated in said survey than voted in the most recent SGA election, showing just how much students care about this issue.
With each forum or email sent out to clarify the status of the move, the situation becomes even more confusing. And with so many unanswered questions, it’s clear why there is so much backlash for something that could potentially be so beneficial for the university. It may not be clear whether or not the move will pay off for the university in the long-term, but it’s a lot easier to sell somebody on something if they at least have the facts and can see the benefit of the short term.
If Eastern makes this move, which seems to be a foregone conclusion, it has to do more than just raise the public image—starting with better marketing. The university can follow suit with the bigger state schools and have a bigger athletics program, but it can’t continue to rip off marketing and communications strategies by substituting blue with maroon.
Furthermore, a higher profile could mean more students, faculty and staff. And while academics are at the core of many arguments against an increased focus on athletics, another aspect that could change is the individual attention and mid-sized campus that makes Eastern unique.
Whether or not it pays off will remain to be seen, but those in charge must understand there is more at stake than just the potential to be on TV as a likely doormat for bigger, more developed football programs.
Eastern is a special place, let’s not sacrifice that for the sake of games.