Many agree that the situation with free movement of athletes in the transfer portal and considerable compensation from Name, Image, Likeness has created a new era in college athletics.
Some are calling for reform to the chaos.
NCAA president Charlie Baker made a proposal in early December to form an upper tier in Division I that would compensate athletes $30,000 annually. ECU athletic director Jon Gilbert hasn’t jumped on Baker’s bandwagon.
“If you looked at the larger picture, … what he was advocating for was a different level or tier of Division 1-A athletics, where the most resourced schools, they have certain benchmarks that they have to do to be in that, and one of the many things that they were advocating for was some sort of payment to the student athletes.” Gilbert said. “And I think the figure used to initiate discussion was $30,000 per student athlete and obviously not many schools in the country could afford to do that, and so I think all the proposals that they were affording were really geared towards the most resourced schools financially.”
Baker apparently feels that about 100 schools of the 133 in the Football Bowl Subdivision would fit in the proposed tier. Gilbert indicated Friday that the number would be lower, maybe much lower.
“There are a lot of schools in the SEC and the ACC that could not currently afford to do that,” Gilbert said. “I think you’re talking about the most resourced 30 to 40 schools in the country, and so if you look conference to conference, there is a wide discrepancy in the ACC of budgets, and I think the bottom third and maybe even the bottom half, would have a hard time keeping up financially with what was proposed.”
Baker’s proposal may have been a means to get reform conversations started.
“I think really it was a proposal to initiate discussion based on the push for student athletes to have some sort of revenue share,” Gilbert said. “And really when you’re talking about TV revenue share, you’re really talking about football and men’s basketball.
“This $30,000 was proposed to cover all these other student athletes that don’t have the ability to share in TV revenue because their sport is rarely on TV. And so I think there needs to be a larger discussion of intercollegiate athletics in that the financial model is broken. You have one or two sports that are supporting the other 16 to 20 sports, depending on what school you’re at.
“And I think that there’s been too few discussions on the overall financial model, and I think it was a starting point of having discussions of ways to help better support student athletes.”
Thoughts on football
Gilbert shared his thoughts on a 2-10 football season in 2023.
“Obviously, it’s been documented multiple places that according to all people involved with the program, starting with our student athletes, our coaches, staff and myself, we didn’t meet the expectations we all set for the program and so I still feel that way,” Gilbert said. “But I am encouraged. We had a very good defense, special teams were really good last year. We needed to make some tweaks in the offseason to our offense, and I feel like Coach (Mike) Houston and his staff have certainly done that.”
Houston has brought in John David Baker as offensive coordinator from Ole Miss. Mike Mattox is the new offensive line coach. Quarterback transfers include Katin Houser from Michigan State and Jake Garcia from Missouri.
Another source of vast change in college athletics has been conference realignment.
The American Athletic Conference received exit fees of $18 million each from Central Florida, Cincinnati and Houston. The AAC added Alabama-Birmingham, Charlotte, Florida Atlantic, North Texas, Rice and Texas-San Antonio for entry fees of $2.5 million apiece.
Southern Methodist will leave the American for the ACC next year and the AAC will add Army in football.
Gilbert said realignment will continue to lurk.
“I don’t think realignment is ever done,” he said. “I think there’s going to be a constant shift. Now, I think we’re on the slower end of realignment, but I don’t think realignment is going to stop. Schools are constantly investing in their athletic programs and trying to figure out ways to get bigger revenue shares, so I don’t think you’ll see a realignment ever ending.”
With 11 programs entering or leaving the AAC in the last year, Gilbert was asked when realignment might affect the Pirates directly.
“The best thing we can do for ourselves, is be as competitive as we can on the field and continue to invest in our programs and in our facilities,” said the ECU AD. “If you look around at the schools that moved, and I’m going back to our league in Houston, Cincinnati and SMU, they were the most resourced schools in the league and they were competitive on the field or on the court.
“We have a road map, so the more that we can be successful and the more that we can continue to invest in our programs, the more people that we have show up at our games, all those are positive things that would play out for the future landscape of ECU athletics.”
Rank with regard to resources
With financial resources being part of the road map, where does ECU rank in that regard in the AAC?
“With the three schools leaving obviously and the new schools coming in, I think we are out of 14 schools without really looking at it on paper, I think we’re going to be somewhere in that five, six, seven, kind of right in that middle third of financial resources,” Gilbert said.
Where to give
Gilbert was asked his advice to supporters as to whether they should donate to the construction of an indoor football practice facility or Team Boneyard, a collective that supports NIL at ECU.
“Honestly, in a perfect world, I would say both,” Gilbert said. “Because, obviously, the indoor building is one that is going to benefit the program long term. I would say in general that building, the indoor practice facility building, as it relates to football, if we could get that building finished, I think ECU is in a great spot from a facility standpoint.,
“At that point, we are doing renovations and upkeeping what we have. We’re not building new stuff, but I also clearly acknowledge that NIL money is really important and we’re only as good as the players we get. The better players that we can attract, the better East Carolina is going to be long-term.
” … For the indoor football building, we’re a little over $17 million (raised). We’re projecting the cost at about $25 million, so we’ve got a little work to do, but I feel very encouraged about where we are.”
Season ticket time
Football season tickets have gone on sale for 2024. Support is vital.
“It starts with football season tickets,” Gilbert said. “We’ve been fortunate over the years. We are one of the better schools from an attendance standpoint across the nation as you look at schools like ECU. So the more season tickets that we can sell, it is the financial foundation for our department, and it sends a message across the college landscape when we release what the numbers are.
“Typically, our season ticket base is a lot better than everyone else, and that is something that is looked upon favorably and it makes a big difference when Coach Houston brings a recruit on a game day and there are a lot of people in the stands. That certainly helps in attracting players to come play for the Pirates.”
Gilbert became athletic director at ECU in December of 2018. ECU had an annual fee of $500,000 to the AAC at that time as part of payment for joining the league.
Television revenue went from $2 million to $7 million with a new media rights deal in 2020-21.
“We’re in much better financial shape,” Gilbert said. “Pirate Club memberships, people buying tickets, our fundraising is at an all-time high. I credit Pirate Nation to that, and our loyal supporters. I’m very encouraged about where we sit today compared to when I got here. Night and day difference. Now we are still East Carolina in that we’re not the most resourced school in our league, but we are resourced enough that we have everything we need to be able to win at this level.”
Need for reform
Gilbert said the current trajectory of college athletics needs revision.
“I don’t think that it is sustainable in its current form,” Gilbert said. “I think we’re going to need to create a different model and have some legislation that helps have some guardrails, because currently there are very few guardrails right now. But I do think for the betterment of intercollegiate athletics as a whole, I definitely think we need that.”