Bill Beekman open to hearing ideas to save MSU's swimming and diving programs

Matt Charboneau
The Detroit News

Across the country, universities have been backpedaling on recent decisions to cut various sports.

On Thursday, a small glimmer of hope was offered for the men’s and women’s swimming and diving teams at Michigan State.

Some seven months after athletic director Bill Beekman announced the decision to discontinue the programs, he said during a virtual town hall that he’d be open to meeting with those searching for ways to save the program and discussing some of the options they’ve come up with to keep the swimmers and divers in the pool at Michigan State.

Bill Beekman has expressed concern that Michigan State can't afford to support the swimming and diving programs, which cost just more than $2 million per year.

“I would be willing to have another conversation with some subset of people,” Beekman said. “It’s not my style to negotiate in the media, but if there are some number or small subset of people that want to carry on a conversation and explore things in good faith, I would be happy to listen and participate in such a conversation.”

As the session came to a close, MSU Trustee Pat O’Keefe asked to clarify if Beekman was saying he’d be open to hearing options, and Beekman said he was.

It all took place Thursday as Beekman agreed to meet with 12 members of a group called “Battle for Michigan State Swimming and Diving,” made up of current and former swimmers and divers as well as some of their parents. The group has been working since Oct. 22, when Beekman announced the end of the program, to find a way to save it.

The virtual meeting on Thursday was the first chance for many to raise their concerns with Beekman.

More: Bill Beekman: Decision to cut MSU's swim program won't change after $32M gift

At the core of the discussion was whether or not Michigan State could afford to continue supporting the program that costs the athletic department just more than $2 million per year. In October, Beekman said the decision was made both for financial and infrastructure reasons exacerbated by revenue declines created by the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Thursday, he reiterated those concerns, focusing on the outdated facilities at the IM West building as well as the closing of the outdoor pool, even as he explained the budget shortfalls Michigan State is facing will not be quite as painful as many other Big Ten schools.

According to Beekman, Michigan State faced roughly an $80 million decline in revenue, of which $50 million has been offset in limiting expenses over the year, such as cutting salaries, placing employees on furlough and leaving open positions unfilled. Another $24 million came from reserve funds and Beekman hopes to get $4-5 million in government funds to cover the bill for COVID testing. That would end in the athletic department taking a loan from the university of $5-6 million.

"We are relieved to have finally met with Mr. Beekman nearly seven months after the cut," Michael Balow, father of women's swimmer Sophia Balow, said in a statement. "We are disappointed that some facts behind Mr. Beekman’s decision to cut the MSU swimming and diving team are still not known or transparent at all (such as the reasoning behind the timing of Oct. 22, 2020, who he talked to within MSU to reach the decision, and more), but we are glad that Mr. Beekman has agreed to meet with representatives of the 'Battle to Save Spartan Swim and Dive' group in the very near future to discuss specific ideas to keep the program active. Given that the program is 1.5% of the overall MSU athletic budget, and yet provides so many outstanding student-athletes, we believe that reinstatement of the team is a 'win-win-win' scenario — a win for MSU, a win for the athletic department, and a win for the swimmers and divers themselves.

"We look forward to our follow-up meeting with Mr. Beekman and the MSU trustees, exploring potential solutions and finding a path forward to reinstatement."

The members of “Battle for Michigan State Swimming and Diving” are hoping reversals at several schools around the nation will help with momentum in saving the MSU program. Already, schools like Iowa, Clemson, Dartmouth, William and Mary, and East Carolina have reinstated the swimming and diving programs while Stanford on Wednesday announced it was reinstating 11 programs it had announced it would cut, including synchronized swimming.

For much of the meeting, it didn’t seem as though Beekman was planning on doing anything other than explaining how the decision was made, even suggesting there was nothing that had changed since October that could lead to a reversal.

“As we stand today, I don't see change sufficient to change the decision,” Beekman said.

Whether that feeling changed during the meeting or will in subsequent meetings remains to be seen, but the fact Beekman is open to hearing ideas was the first positive sign those fighting to save the program have seen in months.

“I urge you not to let MSU become yet another sad number,” said Amanda Ling, a senior diver who competed in March in the NCAA Championships. “I urge you instead to work with us to save the program and to come up with solutions that can turn a short-term difficulty into a long-term solution that will benefit the university for years and decades to come, as we have been fighting for all these months and you have just agreed to continue to discuss with us.

“The tradition of MSU swimming and diving is worth saving.”

Twitter: @mattcharboneau