Eastern athletics budget analysis, financial hurdles


Rob Le Cates

Pitcher Olivia Price attempts to catch a line drive up the middle during the first game of a doubleheader Wednesday afternoon against SIUE. The Panthers won the game 6-5 in 11 innings, with Price picking up the win after pitching 8.1 shutout innings in relief.

Lauren Frick, Contributing Writer

Financial difficulties have been at the forefront of EIU Athletic Director Tom Michael’s eight-year tenure. Michael has faced a substantial budget deficit, a nearly two-year-long budget impasse and the COVID-19 pandemic. These obstacles have forced Michael to make tough decisions, such as cutting 20 athletic scholarships from 2018 to 2020.

Michael began his stint at the helm of the athletic department in August 2014 by immediately cutting 10 percent from each team’s budget—the financial obstacles would only worsen.

The next hurdle Michael and EIU athletics faced was the Illinois Budget Impasse, a 793-day-long budget crisis. During this time period, Illinois went without a complete state budget for fiscal years 2016, 2017, and a portion of 2018–-the athletic department lost $320,000 for FY 2016.

Only a couple of years later, the athletic department would be forced to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic and try to remedy the decline in on-campus enrollment, as well as lost revenue from game attendance.

While some money has been returned to teams’ budgets, Michael said he hasn’t been able to return the full 10% lost in 2014 to a single team.

The Panthers won 6-1 against the Western Illinois University Leathernecks with a strong start gaining six points by the bottom of the third inning during the Panther’s Senior Day game against the Western Illinois University Leathernecks Tuesday afternoon. With the win 6-1 against the Leathernecks, the Panthers now have a 31-18 win ratio. (Rob Le Cates)

What lies in the wake of these financial burdens is an underfunded athletic department tasked with providing an adequate experience for its student athletes.

“You pull one lever and you think you’ve got something fixed, then all of the sudden that sends another lever out of whack,” Michael said.

Student Fees

The athletic department’s funding has three main sources: student fees, NCAA revenue, and football and men’s basketball game guarantees.

NCAA revenue is money distributed to Division I schools and conferences, mostly from the Division I men’s basketball tournament each March.

Game guarantees are money made when an EIU team is paid to play another school, typically much larger. The football team playing the University of South Carolina in the 2021 fall season is an example of this.

The final piece is student fees. There are three fees that each on-campus student must pay that contribute to the athletic’s budget: an athletic fee, grant-in-aid fee, and union/bond revenue fee.

The athletic fee goes directly to the athletic department, while only portions of the grant-in-aid fee and union/bond revenue fee help fund athletics. The grant-in-aid fee goes toward scholarships and the union/bond revenue fee helps with expenses associated with Lantz Gymnasium and the football stadium.

Members of the Eastern swim team cheer on one of the men’s 200-yard freestyle relay teams as they head down the final stretch in a meet against Evansville Oct. 9 in Padovan Pool. The team of Forrest Baumgartner, Jarod Farrow, Dismas Dillion and Jacob Nichols won the relay, although both the men’s and women’s teams lost the meet. (Adam Tumino | The Daily Eastern News)

Larger universities in Power 5 conferences receive so much money from ticket sales and television contracts they have very little reliance on student fees; some schools don’t even have an athletic fee. The Chicago Tribune determined the percent of total revenue student fees comprised in the athletic departments of Division I public universities in Illinois, analyzing fiscal year 2009-2013.

The Tribune found that UIUC, a Power 5 conference member, relied on student fees for only 4% of their total revenue. EIU’s student fees were 27% of total revenue, with SIU Edwardsville relying the most on student fees at 59%.

Since the 2010-2011 school year, the three fees contributing to the EIU athletic department have seen some of the greatest increases.

The union/bond revenue fee saw the largest increase in the roughly decade time span at 108%. The athletic fee increased 62.7% by 2022 and grant-in-aid increased 53% in the same time period. The only other fee to have a larger increase was the health service fee, which increased 75%.

In 2010-11, the athletic fee was $103.65 per semester. This amount remained unchanged until 2015, the first year of the Illinois Budget Impasse, when it increased to $156 per semester. The fee stayed steady for another five years until the pandemic began and it increased by roughly $10.

Eastern forward Abby Wahl waves to her family in the crowd after the women’s basketball team’s 68-56 win over Austin Peay on Saturday in Lantz Arena. Wahl scored a season-high 20 points in the game. It was also Senior Day for the Panthers, as Wahl and her teammates Jordyn Hughes and Kira Arthofer were honored before the game. (Adam Tumino | The Daily Eastern News)

Eastern students on campus for the 2022-2023 school year will pay a total of $337.34 in athletic fees.

As the Tribune article suggested, EIU is not alone in its reliance on student fees to help fund its athletic department. NBC News compiled a database of student athletic fees at public schools competing at the Division I level in 2017-2018. The report determined that 4 out of 5 of these universities charge a fee to support their athletic teams.

EIU ranked 102 out of the 230 schools listed with its $312 yearly athletic fee. Forty-one schools did not charge students an athletic fee, including OVC member Morehead State University. The highest athletic fee was $3,340, belonging to the Virginia Military Institute.

The essential nature of student fees is why the pandemic has caused the athletic department to take a hit. If on-campus enrollment is affected, then the amount of money coming in from student fees is as well.

Michael said it would be more ideal if EIU had roughly 7,500 students on-campus taking classes, in turn paying student fees. This would result in over $2.5 million from athletic fees alone.


Scholarships are a key component to any athletic department. Michael said scholarships are often linked with a team’s competitiveness, and more scholarship money generally equates to having the ability to bring in higher caliber players to a program.

Michael said determining the financial structure of the disbursement of scholarships with a limited budget has been difficult to manage.

Michael said the department has been forced to reduce the number of scholarships distributed over the years. He said 183 scholarships were awarded in 2015, while only 143 were awarded in 2020.

“That’s the thing that keeps me up at night,” Michael said. “I wish we could be fully funded in every program.”

Scholarship reduction began in early 2018 when Michael and EIU administration were searching for ways to reduce the athletic department’s budget deficit, according to the JG-TC.

EIU administration approved a reduction in athletic scholarships over a two-year period, as opposed to cutting teams or doing nothing in hopes of enrollment numbers increasing to overcome the gradual deficit the university was taking on each year.

The cutting of scholarships resulted in over $400,000 in net savings for the athletic department, according to the article.

Erin Howarth, EIU head cross country coach and assistant track coach, said recruiting is one of the most challenging financial pieces.

Howarth said there aren’t as many girls participating in cross country and track, so it has become harder to make competitive offers to recruits when the team’s scholarship funds have not increased.

Redshirt senior Avani Flanagan celebrates with Eastern cross country coach Erin Howarth after the EIU Walt Crawford Open on Sept. 3. (Rob Le Cates)

“It seems like each year it gets a little bit more difficult to grab that same person for the same dollar amount,” Howarth said.

Howarth has found herself competing for recruits with schools she previously did not have to worry about, such as fully funded Division II schools like University of Illinois Springfield.

In addition, COVID has resulted in athletes to use their extra eligibility granted due to the pandemic, which has led to slower scholarship money turn over, further shrinking the funds to be used to recruit athletes.

According to the athletic department’s budget for fiscal year 2022, EIU gave out $3,232,454.50 in scholarships to its student athletes. Men’s teams received $1,981,475.66, while women’s teams received $1,250,978.84.

For perspective, the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign sits on the other end of the spectrum, dispersing $11,571,619 in scholarships to its student athletes in fiscal year 2021.

The pie is already small, but Michael and the athletic department must determine how to divide it up even further.

There are several factors that play into determining the allocation of scholarship funds.

Each sport is governed by a different set of rules pertaining to how scholarship money can be dispersed; they are either equivalency or headcount.

Equivalency sports can spread their scholarships amongst multiple players, so one full scholarship can be given to two or more players. Headcount sports cannot do this, so one full scholarship can only go to a single athlete.

Men’s and women’s basketball, women’s tennis, and women’s volleyball are headcount sports, while all remaining EIU sports are equivalency. Football and baseball are both headcount and equivalency, meaning they can spread the scholarships but to a limited number of athletes.

Some sports are dictated by minimums. For example, the football team must have been dispersing at least 60 full scholarships in order to play the University of South Carolina, according to Michael.


Freshman guard Julia Benston dives for a loose ball at the women’s basketball game against Tennessee Martin on Saturday at Lantz Arena. Benston had seven points. The Panthers lost 58-45 to the Skyhawks. This game was part of the annual CARE Game. The Panthers are currently 13-11 overall and 8-6 in Ohio Valley Conference play. (Rob Le Cates)

Michael said the athletic department values a full scholarship at approximately $22,000.

Factors such as minimums and headcount versus equivalency can give insight as to why some teams get a much larger piece of the scholarship pie.

Football receives 63 of the 96.5 male scholarships, roughly 65%, despite only comprising approximately 40% of male athletes. Basketball receives just over 13% of male scholarships while accounting for only 5% of male athletes.

Similar trends are seen with female athletes scholarship money.

Women’s basketball receives the highest percentage of scholarship money at 24.2% while representing 7.7% of female athletes. Volleyball receives just under 20% of female scholarship money and accounts for 9.3% of female athletes.

In 2018, EIU had planned to trim each team’s scholarships by approximately one in order to cut 20 total scholarships, according to the JG-TC. Yet, the 2021-2022 school year saw five teams with full scholarship funding—football, volleyball, softball, and men’s and women’s basketball.

The least funded sports are men’s and women’s golf, receiving one-half and one scholarship, respectively.

Men’s soccer has the greatest disparity between athletic participation and scholarship funds. The 31 men’s soccer players make up approximately 10% of EIU’s male athletes, yet are allocated 1% of the male scholarship funds.

On the women’s side, the swim team accounts for 13.7% of the female athletes, but only receives 2.4% of female athletic scholarships.

Seven of the 16 programs receiving scholarship money are getting less than 50% funded.

While this is not ideal for student athletes, it is not a bad situation for the university.

Michael said the university has an interest in increasing athletic participation instead of scholarship funding. He estimated he has increased participation by approximately 50-60 athletes during his tenure.


Jay Vallie, a graduate student studying business administration, gives the football team a pep talk after the Alumni Social Spring Game Saturday afternoon at O’Brien Field. Vallie was announced as a caption for the team along with four others after the game. (Rob Le Cates)

More athletes, especially ones not on scholarship, means more money for the university.

Additionally, this means more money for the athletic department in the form of student fees.

For example, men’s soccer is allocated one scholarship from EIU, but the NCAA maximum is 9.9 scholarships. This translates into more than $176,000 in tuition for the university and over $3,000 in athletic fees for the department yearly.

Success Despite Challenges

Howarth said the key to finding success in spite of some of the financial obstacles is having a positive attitude, which, she said, all starts with her.

Howarth said she focuses on everything she and her teams do have, like an indoor facility, outdoor track, and cross country course, as opposed to things they don’t have. She said that it would be nice to have seven different outfits to choose from for practice each day, but that isn’t something that will make her teams perform better.

“Just because we have maybe a quarter of the budget as a team who is second in the region and we’re sixth, doesn’t mean they’re better than us,” Howarth said. “It doesn’t all come down to money.”

This mindset has proven to be a winning formula as the cross country and track teams have had the most success of all the teams in recent years. Since 2016, the men’s and women’s programs have won eight OVC Championships in either cross country, indoor, or outdoor track.

While money is not everything, Howarth said there would be welcomed perks to an expanded budget.

In addition to more scholarships, a larger budget would allow for the teams to compete in more meets each season, or in higher caliber meets that require more travel.

Lauren Frick is a senior journalism major. She can be reached at 217-581-2812 or at [email protected]