East Carolina athletic director Jon Gilbert commented on a number of circumstances relating to the changing landscape in college sports as they concern the Pirates on Monday.
He started with a topic close to home, football season ticket sales, and the discussion ranged to the possibility of the remaining Pac-12 teams joining the American Athletic Conference.
Football season ticket sales
Season ticket sales are going well despite the absence of an ACC or SEC opponent coming to Greenville this year.
“It’s nice for football to be back,” Gilbert said. “Obviously we’ve got soccer and volleyball started as well, but with a few months off of athletic events, it’s good to be back and clearly excited about where we are from a football program standpoint, from a stability standpoint, and then a roster standpoint. Obviously, we have depth in a lot of positions and so excited about what’s going to happen this fall.
“Our season ticket number is right at 14,500. Our Pirate Club staff has been calling all the people that have non-renewed, so we’re continuing to beat that drum. I do think we can get over 15,000, which would be a really good number in our league.
“If you look nationally at schools like us, the Pirates are definitely in the upper third of where our peers are as it relates to football season tickets who need to continue to push that.”
Pirates Unite campaign
A fundraising effort that will provide for an indoor football practice facility is progressing.
“The Pirates Unite campaign is going really well,” Gilbert said. “That was a $60 million campaign. We’ve got $23 million raised in about 15 months. We are really encouraged about what Ryan Robinson, our Pirate Club staff has done in our donor base. Just really pleased with where that is. Record-breaking numbers in 2022, our indoor (football) building, we’re right around $15 million raised on that. I’d like to get to $20 million by December. I think ultimately that building is going to be somewhere between $22 and $25 million to construct, so pretty far down the path with where that building is. Our baseball building, we’ve got about $4.4 million raised on what we’re estimating is about a $7 million project. We’ve got our teams building expansion that we continue to look at to give more space for our Olympic sports teams.”
Williams Arena at Minges Coliseum will undergo a transformation.
“Our Minges lighting, for those of you that experienced Minges towards the end of basketball season, we actually began work today to replace our lights,” Gilbert said. “Those will be LED lights, so really encouraged and excited about atmosphere wise, what that will bring. Obviously, we’ll be able to do new colors and different things, and then in September we will install new seats on the lower-level north side. Those will be chair back, retractable seats that will be located behind the team benches. We’re also going to make a walkway from the bottom all the way to the top section, so you’ll actually be able to go from right behind the benches on the floor and walk up the middle to go to restrooms, concessions, et cetera.
“We do think that our ebb and flow of foot traffic will change with that, and I think it’ll be a really nice addition both for those individuals that sit there, but also I think when we do our ESPN+ streaming or if it’s on TV, that’s going to be a heightened addition. That will certainly make the arena a lot more presentable.”
Compensation for name, image and likeness for college athletes, immediate playing time for transferring athletes and. most recently, significant membership movement in conferences have changed the landscape.
“Over the last 48 months in intercollegiate athletics, there has been what I would call turmoil and chaos on a lot of fronts,” Gilbert saif. “Obviously you have the transfer portal that came about, you have NIL name, image and likeness, which I’m supportive of our student athletes being compensated for that.
“Realignment is the topic for the moment,” Gilbert said. “There’s a lot going on in our collegiate athletics and we’re all reacting to it as it relates to our realignment. I’m on the phone with our (American Athletic) conference office weekly, getting updates of where we are. Certainly, as you look across the landscape, I don’t think that realignment is going to stop for a while. I think it’s going to be continuous for a good amount of time, and I want to share with everyone that the Pirates are in a good place. We sell a lot of tickets. We have a lot of people come to our games. If you look at our ESPN and ESPN+ broadcasts, we are on the higher end of our peers, and so we are doing a lot of good things.
“Our athletic footprint from a facility standpoint is in really good shape. Obviously, the buildings that I mentioned earlier, football, baseball teams building, the new weight room expansion, our footprint is continuing to grow and presents itself very well.”
AAC commissioner Mike Aresco has been pursuing Pac-12 remnants Cal, Oregon State, Stanford and Washington State, according to reports.
“I do believe our commissioner has a good foothold of what’s going on in the landscape of realignment and is keeping us abreast of where things are,” Gilbert said. “I’ve said it a bunch and we will continue to say it. The more things that we can be the best version of ourself, the better we look from an attractiveness standpoint and the more revenue we create for ourselves in the American Athletic, and that means we’ve got to continue to invest. We’ve got to continue to grow our brand. There is the opportunity to create additional revenue that we need to do to make ourselves be the best version of ourselves. And so, it’s not something that I talk about every day, but I felt like it was important to address it given the nature of where it is with realignment.”
There has been a lot of conjecture about conference membership if realignment dominoes continue to fall.
‘There are a lot of rumors out there — this is going to happen and that’s going to happen, and you can’t stop that,” Gilbert said. “And all I know is we’re in a very good place at ECU, both from a conference standpoint, financially what we receive, and then the biggest piece in my mind is … how we’re seen. We are a solid partner with ESPN and we’ve got really high ESPN+ numbers that are very good for the Pirates.”
Travel to the West Coast for Olympic sports could run into significant expense.
“You look at realignment and you look at what’s gone on going back in time too, I think about the SEC adding Missouri and Texas A&M and then different leagues, the finances are real,” Gilbert said. “But I also think your broadcasting partner, they also have to be willing to help fund those things, and so it really is complex when you look at realignment.
“Then you also have exit fees, and I go back to the schools that are no longer in our league, Connecticut, Central Florida, Houston and Cincinnati. They’re all paying significant fees to leave the league, and in some regard we’re benefiting from that because our reserve fund and the funds that we get from the American, those schools are all paying in those exit fees that we’re going to benefit financially from that.”
Potential Pac-12 additions
Gilbert said he would need more data to decide if he would favor adding Pac-12 teams to the AAC.
“I don’t have enough information to answer that question,” Gilbert said. “Meaning you’ve got to go back to what a financial model looks like, and your television partner has to convey to the commissioner what that would be, and I don’t think you can really make an educated stance on that unless you know all the variables. And those variables, we’re playing the hypothetical game, but the hypothetical game is how much distribution are all the schools going to get? Is it a tiered model and then what does the league look like? Are there divisions? Are you having to go west now?
“If I could be a commissioner of college athletics for a day, the one thing I would do outside largely of football, I am a big believer in regional scheduling, and it just makes too much sense in my mind. We don’t talk about the student athlete experience and what we’re all doing financially. Right now, we fly a lot of our teams to Texas and Tulsa and other places to compete that from a revenue generation standpoint, they’re not where they generate revenue. And so, I think to answer, do we want these teams or that team in order to make a fully educated guess or stance on that, I’d have a lot more information.”
Possible Pirates move
Gilbert was asked about ECU’s possible exit from the AAC/
“I don’t want to get into private conversations that I’ve had,” Gilbert said. “I continue as the director of athletics to advocate for our institution, and I point out all the many positives that this athletic department and this institution brings, and I do think it starts at home. We’re a significant value to the American Athletic. If you look at our, again, ticket sales, viewership, we’re in the top of our league or right there with one or two other schools, and we’re competitive, so the best I do is advocate for exactly where we are and what that is.”
Leaving a league comes with considerable cost.
“I don’t like to talk about other leagues other than in this regard,” Gilbert said. “The Mountain West schools have a $34 million exit fee. The AAC, depending on how much notice you give, it could be somewhere between $15 and $20 million plus to exit the league. Mountain West is $34 million, so when everybody sees the diagram of East, West and you see all these Mountain West schools, that’s a $34 million price tag for them to leave. That’s steep, and so I think a lot of it is speculation and the rumor mill and all of that will continue to play itself out.”
Gilbert is kept busy monitoring the realignment scene.
“I’m on the phone daily making sure I have a full grasp of what’s going on nationally and then also certainly I am keeping the chancellor (Philip Rogers) abreast of what is real and what the discussions are and financially where everything is. And so, I feel really, we’re in a good place right now and I want to continue. We certainly have built back, I think some stability in our football program, but I think Coach (Mike) Houston would echo this as well. We’re not anywhere near where we want to be. We want to continue to grow and invest and make the Pirates a championship contender, and we’re going to continue to strive for that.”