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Fan apathy, financial reality has caught up to the EMU football program

EMU Athletics has lost $52 million in the last two years. Can football be saved? Some question if it's even worth the effort.

EMU's hopes of having a sustainable athletics program is slipping away, much like this opportunity to stop Leonard Fournette.
EMU's hopes of having a sustainable athletics program is slipping away, much like this opportunity to stop Leonard Fournette.
Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

This last week has been pretty bad for Eastern Michigan.

Last Monday, USA Today released the numbers for the revenues and expenses every FBS member. EMU was listed as one of the best schools in the MAC, posting only a $1 loss in 2014-2015, but a dig into the numbers revealed a disturbing trend. Of the $34,000,000 spent in that season, 80.43% of that total came from a state subsidy. This amounts to a "student tax" of approximately $917 per school year for every EMU attendee.

The following Tuesday wasn't much better, as HBO's "Real Sports" took a look at the emerging college athletics spending "arms race," with Eastern being featured as a case in how not to operate an athletics program.

The Detroit News' Terry Foster eviscerated Eastern in an article on Wednesday for trying to keep up with the Joneses in his latest column.

"They can paint the field grey, blue, black, or green and can sledgehammer as many brick walls as they want," Foster said, "but few come to The Factory. So why keep football?"

Great question.

This past Monday, the Detroit Free Press revealed that EMU's student government and faculty made a presentation that called for the Board of Regents to drop Division I standing in football, and leave the MAC in all other sports, specifically pointing out the Horizon League as a possible destination.

I believe their case about geographical circumstances and financial concerns is a legitimate one that must be taken seriously.

The state of Michigan fosters many successful FBS programs, including peers Western and Central Michigan, and Michigan and Michigan State; Michigan's campus is only 18 miles away from Ypsilanti.

Eastern Michigan's attendance numbers last season (4,000) are comparable to D-II programs Ferris State (3,054) and Northern Michigan (3,111.) Fellow D-II programs Grand Valley State (11,699) and Saginaw Valley State (6,287) draw far more fans to seats last year than EMU. The Factory seats over 30,000 people; to pull in only 4,000 with 15,000 seats tarpaulined is totally unacceptable.

EMU has also been unable to market itself successfully for a number of years. The grey field, while a unique idea, fell flat with may fans, and don't even mention the brick thing. EMU debuted three new uniforms just this past season alone to try and drum up free publicity, to no avail. EMU held a tuition giveaway and even hosted a craft beer night that eventually lost the school $3,000.

Oh, and there's a small controversy about the nickname and mascot that is still somehow an issue almost 30 years after the change.

In 1990, EMU took the advice of the Michigan Department of Civil Rights and changed their nickname from the Hurons to the Eagles. The move was a largely unpopular one with students and alumni at the time, as there were many complaints about not only how the name was changed, but also that the name chosen was too bland. To this day, petitions with the support of current Huron tribe leaders to restore the old nickname are still floating around. Just last year, there was a snafu with hidden Huron logos in band uniforms that re-stoked the conversation. Maybe EMU should have chosen the Green Hornets or the Express instead.

That ensuing imbroglio resulted in a toxic relationship all around, as some older alumni refuse to pass traditions (or money) due to the name change, and younger alumni and current students have no incentive to attend games due to the team's poor play on the field. Spats between players and fans certainly don't help either in regards to fan engagement.

As a result, there is no lasting culture at EMU football, although head coach Chris Creighton has done his best to change that.

The last time EMU won the MAC Championship was in 1987, which also turned into the program's first and only bowl invite: the 1980 California Raisin Bowl.

The football teams gone 74-207-1 in the last 24 years of play, including two one-win seasons (2006, 2015) and a winless season in 2009. On a whole, EMU has a 134-319-4 record as an FBS program, translating into a measley .295 winning percentage.

Eastern Michigan finds itself in an unenviable position. The university wants to provide a well-rounded collegiate experience for all attendees in both academics and athletics, and be as successful as peers like CMU, WMU, and other MAC schools.

However, the house might be entirely too out of order to fix without demolishing everything first. EMU can no longer blow on the cartridge and hope it works; they must press the reset button.

A move to Division II does two things for EMU: it gives them some financial relief, as there are fewer scholarships that cover less for a smaller football team, and it gives them an opportunity to strive in a different environment.

Think of it like promotion and relegation in European soccer. Teams move up and down the league tables every season, with the top two teams being "promoted" to the next tier. Some teams strive once they reach the top; others flounder. EMU simply does not have the resources to be an FBS-caliber team, and it's time they realized that.

A move to D-II could potentially be addition by subtraction, giving EMU a chance to be a big fish in a small pond, with more resources at their disposal than most schools at that level currently. Taking a hiatus, organizing a transition of leagues, and creating a new plan to make amends with students is Eastern's only hope (outside of winning) if they ever want to see an engaged fan base again.

If EMU football does drop a division, their stay in the FBS will end not in a bang of glory and emotion, but rather, in a thousand whispers of what could have been if things were different.