Akron on Tuesday announced a plan that, if approved next month by the board of trustees, would restore the school's baseball program and add a women's lacrosse team. The Zips eliminated their baseball program following the 2015 season.
The move to eliminate baseball was a part of widespread budget cuts at the university, made by former president Scott Scarborough. He resigned a year later, and Akron named Matt Wilson as his successor. Since Wilson took his new job, he said, he has constantly been asked when Zips baseball would return.
"There's really been a call to bring baseball back to Akron," he said. "If you didn't have community support or a groundswell, it's difficult to do something as rare as this."
Wilson and athletic director Larry Williams unveiled a plan that would return baseball to the Zips' athletic lineup for the 2020 season. If it is approved, Akron will become the first Division I school since Oregon in 2007 to reinstate a baseball program.
As rare as the restoration of a baseball program is, Akron's plan to do so is even more novel. The plan is so frugal that Wilson believes baseball, typically thought of as a non-revenue sport in the college landscape, can be revenue positive.
Akron's biggest cost savings will come in the area of scholarships. Any athletic scholarships for baseball or lacrosse players will be funded privately and not by the university. The program will operate on a frugal budget and take advantage of donations and other cost-saving opportunities. Wilson said the university is in discussions with the Double-A Akron RubberDucks to use Canal Park for at least home Mid-American Conference games, which would save money on field maintenance.
Both the baseball and lacrosse programs would also employ a recruiting strategy focused on Ohio. Out-of-state students would still be able to play for Akron, but the coaching staff would look for in-state players first.
"As a public institution, I think we owe it to the citizens to focus on Ohio-based student-athletes," Wilson said. "I believe we have the talent base to make that happen."
Unlike many baseball programs that have been eliminated or threatened by elimination in recent years, Akron will not require the program to be endowed before committing to it. Wilson said the university is targeting raising between $200,000 and $300,000 for each of the new programs for startup costs. He hopes to have the first phase of fundraising done in the spring and would then hire a head coach in the summer. The new staff would then have a full year to prepare and recruit players for the 2020 season.
Wilson said he is not focused on raising enough money in the first year to sponsor the full complement of 11.7 scholarships allowed by the NCAA.
"I'm more focused on bringing back baseball putting everything in place," he said. "In an ideal world, it would be great to get to (11.7 scholarships), but that's a considerable amount of heavy lifting that would take to get to that. I hope with this approach that's fiscally conservative, donors will step up."
Akron's return to baseball would be a boost to the MAC, which has lost two teams in the last three years. After Akron eliminated its program in 2015, Buffalo followed suit this year.
While there is still plenty of work to do, Wilson is excited by the opportunity to return baseball to Akron. The program has produced six big leaguers in its history, including righthander Chris Bassitt who was drafted in 2011.
"I'm excited to be able to return to the rich traditions we've established to be a hub for baseball," Wilson said. "I'm excited to offer a new sport for female student-athletes, as well. It gives the university an opportunity to shine, another opportunity to take another step forward, as well."