CARBONDALE — Sagging enrollment and historic drops in ticket sales for Southern Illinois University-Carbondale's two revenue sports could put enormous pressure on its new women's soccer program to produce revenue in 2019.
SIUC's enrollment dropped below 16,000 students in the fall of 2017, the fifth time in the last six years it went down. More than 50 percent of the athletic department's funding comes from student fees, which was one reason it faced a $4.3 million deficit in 2015-16, according to financial numbers reported to the NCAA. The athletic department also faced a budget deficit of $3.05 million in 2015 and $3.16 million in 2014.
"Everybody took a 10 percent budget cut across the boards in their athletic budgets," SIU athletic director Tommy Bell said. "A lot of our coaches have gone out and raised private money in giving clubs, with direct solicitation to their fans and donors. I use women's softball as a great example for us. They had their 19th annual fundraising event a few weeks ago. Lots of people came out, it was a really great night for them. They've put some substantial changes in their program and have been able to afford things."
Bell also singled out the baseball team, which runs a successful fundraiser in Chicago in addition to its annual fish fry and silent auction around Good Friday. The baseball team also has a dugout club, much like the women's basketball team's High Five Club, the men's golf team's Clubhouse Crew and the Gridiron Club for the football team.
The enrollment drop was just one piece of a three-pronged assault on SIU's athletic budget. Ticket sales for the football team and the men's basketball team fell to their lowest numbers in over a decade in 2017-18.
The football team drew an average of 6,762 fans to 15,000-seat Saluki Stadium, one of the nicest facilities in the Missouri Valley Football Conference. It was the lowest average attendance for football since 2001, when the Salukis still competed at McAndrew Stadium.
Fans also missed out on a lot of the men's basketball team's pursuit of second place in the MVC this season. The average attendance for the 20-12 Salukis, who took on Illinois State in the MVC Tournament semifinals Saturday, was under 4,000 for the first time in 20 years. The average attendance, 3,967 fans per game, was the lowest since 1998, when SIU Arena saw an average of 3,345 fans come out to see the men's team.
Donations to the athletic department also fell for the third straight year in 2016, according to Bell, although he said he expected bigger numbers in fiscal year 2017 and 2018.
"We are doing extremely well this year in our scholarship fund," Bell said. "We set an all-time record in December in our scholarship fund support, so our goal is to increase our scholarship fund support, because we take 100 percent of our SASF monies, and we actually put it toward our scholarship bill. We're growing there. We're not growing fast enough because the majority of our income is a student-based fee. It's a student fee-based budget."
And that is where SIU President Randy Dunn, Chancellor Carlo Montemagno and Bell come in. All three could have a big part in raising SIUC's enrollment, and how much the school's athletic department depends on it.
"Whether it gets to the sweet spot, or 18,300, there has to be a level for the university that exists, the organic and physical infrastructure, there must be a growth of enrollment, for athletics is suffering enough to try to maintain that infrastrtucture that exists," Dunn said. "We also know that, ultimately, that's part of the challenge. They've seen a consistent drop in a big revenue form in athletics, that being the student athletic fee, so they're taking it on the chin, as far as anybody else, as this enrollment continues to slide. It has to be addressed."