Besides the disappointment of the cancellation of the 2021 Military Bowl due to a COVID outbreak in the Boston College program, East Carolina faced significant expenses for traveling to the Washington, DC/Annapolis area before the Dec. 27 contest was called off the previous day.
ECU athletic director Jon Gilbert is breathing easier this week after the American Athletic Conference said it would take care of the costs of the trip in its year-end disbursements..
“We’re going to land somewhere between $450,000 to $500,000,” Gilbert said of the amount that included travel, food and lodging for the Pirates.
Bill Clark Homes had donated $200,000 toward a Military Bowl Fund for expenses. Bob and Penny Barnhill pledged $100,000. Phil Houston committed $50,000.
With the AAC picking up the bowl tab, Gilbert said the Military Bowl Fund will be converted to an Athletic Excellence drive, which will launch shortly.
Those who purchased tickets for the Military Bowl through the Pirate Club will be refunded, Gilbert said.
No substitute opponent
With N.C. State being knocked out of the Holiday Bowl in San Diego, which was scheduled for Dec. 28, due to UCLA’s COVID issues, there was speculation that the Pirates and Wolfpack could play in the postseason.
Gilbert said obstacles prevented such an adjustment.
“Well, a couple things,” Gilbert said. “The game would have been played in California. They were in San Diego. When our game got canceled on that Sunday, Coach (Mike) Houston and I talked pretty quickly, and we felt like the best course of action at that time, because there were no games on the tilt, was to let our student-athletes go home. They really had been in Greenville, other than a couple days here and there, since the end of July. So, they really had not been on a break, and we felt like once we let them go where they could have a break, calling them back was not an option.
“And who knows what COVID would have been in that regard. We had some COVID cases, … not significant enough where we couldn’t play the game, but we clearly had some COVID cases. And then really, the second piece is if you look at it from a financial standpoint, we couldn’t hop on a plane and go somewhere and that game not be played because of COVID, either with our team or whoever we would have played, without a guarantee that we would get paid whether we played the game or not. And I don’t think many bowls would agree to that.
“We couldn’t play the game in Raleigh or some other place because it’s not a sanctioned ball game. You just can’t arbitrarily pick up and create your own bowl without jumping through a few hoops, and I think all those factors combined, we were content with letting our kids go and the season be complete.”
The Pirates finished 7-5 overall and were tied for third in the AAC with a 5-3 league record.
Restoration of revenue
After maximum home attendance of 3,500 per game during the 2020 season due to COVID restrictions, fans were back in Dowdy-Ficklen Stadium in 2021 to a much greater degree.
“We were trending in the right direction, but I wouldn’t call it completely back to normal, no, because we had a slight dip in ticket numbers,” Gilbert said Wednesday. “And I’m going back to the year that I arrived (December, 2018). This was coming off the last season of Coach (Scottie) Montgomery. We had like 12,500 season tickets. The first year that I was here, we sold 14,000. Then, we had a COVID year, and then this past year, we were at like 13,500. We’re starting to trend in that right direction, but I wouldn’t say we’re perfectly back.”
Indoor football facility
The pending Athletic Excellence drive into which the Military Bowl expense donations will go, will include money for a long-awaited indoor practice facility for football.
“We’re getting ready to launch the capital campaign, and it will include a multitude of facilities, indoor (football) practice facility, locker room expansion at baseball,” Gilbert said. “I want to redo some things inside of Minges (Coliseum). We’ve got swimming locker rooms. We need to expand the teams building for our Olympic sports. So, we’ve got multiple facilities that will be a part of this comprehensive campaign. Certainly, the indoor practice facility will be one, and a very important piece that we need.
“Now, that (indoor football) building will be $16- to $20-million dollars, and we’re going to have to privately fund raise for it. We’re not going to be able to bond that facility, meaning we’re not going to be able to take a loan out for it. So, if it’s $16- to $20-million dollars to build, we’re going to have to have $16- to $20-million dollars cash at hand before we build it. And so, we’re going to hit the roads fundraising, and hopefully we’ll be able to complete that task.”
Gilbert has worked out a 5-year contract extension with Coach Houston valued at $11.5 million.
“We’re excited about the direction of our program,” Gilbert said. “I think both Coach Houston and his staff have provided a significant amount of stability to finish third in the league this year, and just be a lot more competitive on the field. Just encouraged about the direction we’re headed. It is not anywhere where we want to be long term. We both have high expectations for this program, but I think it is the next building block, or the next step of where the program’s been, and just excited about the direction and the stability.”
Houston was mentioned in regard to several coaching positions after the 2021 regular season.
“I’m sure his name was mentioned at some openings based on what we had done this year and where the program’s been, and people seeing the value in that,” Gilbert said. “And so, I look at those as good things. That means we’re doing the things we need to do in our own backyard to gain recognition from others.”
Pirates and Playfly
After almost 20 years with IMG-Learfield, ECU has announced that Playfly will become its new multimedia associate.
“We have been an IMG leader field school as far as multimedia rights for a very long time,” Gilbert said. “This summer, we had a look-in period where we could go into the market and see what the value is of our property. It coincided with a successful football season, and we were fortunate enough that Playfly was very aggressive with regards to the marketing and promotional things that they’ll do, and obviously from a financial standpoint, we’re going to significantly better our lie and felt like it was the right time to move with a different company.
“That will not take place until this summer officially. Essentially, what Playfly will do is they will own the marketing rights for the athletic department. So, video boards, signage, coaches’ shows, radio shows — all those things are going to be under their control, advertising, game programs, be under the supervision and authority of Playfly. Most every school has a similar agreement with a multimedia rights company.”
Playfly will control the radio network as well.
“We’re still working through long term contracts,” Gilberty said. “So, I don’t want to put a (financial) number on it today. At some point once that long contract gets finalized, we’ll be able to do that, but it is a significant contract increase for us that I’m very excited about.”
Recent reports have stated that expansion of the College Football Playoffs is unlikely in the near term.
“Expansion is important because I don’t think, in general, that there is a pathway for Group of Five schools to make the playoff,” Gilbert said. “It’s not like like the NCAA basketball tournament. And I know everyone will point to Cincinnati. Well, the reality is Cincinnati was able to thread the needle this year. They played two Power Five schools on the road at Indiana and at Notre Dame, and thank goodness Notre Dame was ranked as high as they were when Cincinnati beat them because in a normal year, normally a Notre Dame is not going to play a school like Cincinnati.
“And so, it’s extremely difficult for a group of five schools to get scheduled for good games like that. And so, I’m happy Cincinnati was able to get in and be the first Group of Five school to be in the playoff, but it is the first time in the history of the CFP or the BCS or any other previous championship formula that a Group of Five school has been included.
“So, I would argue there isn’t a pathway for a Group of Five school in any given year to get there unless they have really scheduled good non-conference games against Power Five schools that are ranked. And so, I am in favor of expansion, and I think it’s taking a while to finalize because I think people realize once this is made final, you’re probably not altering it again for a very long time. And so, I think everyone has a lot of self interest in making sure that they get it right for their respective conference.”
General state of athletics
In an overall sense, Gilbert feels athletics are moving in the right direction at ECU.
“Well, I’m certainly encouraged about where we are,” Gilbert said. “As I look around the landscape, obviously encouraged about where football is. If you look at basketball and our student attendance and people coming to the games, we’ve got baseball coming on, our (women’s) soccer team finished and made the conference tournament this year. So, I believe our sports programs are certainly trending in the right direction. Our student-athletes are doing really well in the classroom and in the community.”
Football season tickets
Football season ticket sales are important in the big picture of Pirate athletics.
“We do need to further stabilize our finances and that all starts with people buying season football tickets,” Gilbert said. “I think the number of 15,000 football season tickets is an important number for us to get to. It will mean that we’re taking another step towards financial stability, and then really need our fan base to come back and play a part in building this program to have a program that we all want and all want to sustain.”
The Pirates have some compelling matchups at home in 2022.
“It’s a very attractive home schedule,” Gilbert said. “Obviously, we’ll have N.C. State and Campbell. We go on the road to BYU. But you look at the home conference games, and we’re going to have Memphis, Houston, Central Florida, Navy at home. That’s a really attractive home schedule, and I think our fans would want to be a part of that.”