Q&A: UNC Pembroke AD Dick Christy on how sports betting will impact smaller NC colleges
Dick Christy has been the director of athletics at the University of North Carolina at Pembroke for more than 11 years, which means he’s seen the landscape of college athletics shift quite a bit. Even at the Division II level — where the UNCP Braves compete in Conference Carolinas — student athletes can now earn money off their name, image and likeness, and they can transfer one time without the penalty of having to sit out (or redshirt) for a season.
Christy himself was a Division II athlete, having played golf at Wingate University, just southeast of Charlotte. When he played, the program provided a few polo shirts and he and his teammates hopped in a van to go play at a tournament. Things have changed.
“As much as you'd like to think we're insulated from some of the changes in college athletics, everything kind of kind of trickles down. I think we've seen a big change in the standard of care in college athletics,” Christy told WUNC. “The level of support services and expectations that parents and students have these days is dramatically different, even at our level. So, trying to meet that standard of care, trying to have all the support services around them in a meaningful way, that's only grown.”
Christy is now preparing for the next big adjustment in college athletics in North Carolina: gambling.
Last summer, Gov. Roy Cooper signed House Bill 347 into law, which legalized in-person and online sports betting across the state of North Carolina. Previously, gamblers could only bet on college and professional sports at one of the state’s three casinos. Soon, anyone with a cell phone will be able to gamble on sports wherever they are in the state.
While it comes with its critics and concerns, sports betting could benefit 10 UNC System schools, including UNC Pembroke, in a big way. Once betting begins, those schools — the 10 with the smallest athletic department budgets — will split 20% of the yearly tax revenue from legal gambling in North Carolina. That figure is expected to be at least $300,000 annually per school, but it could balloon to more than $1.5 million eventually.
For someone like Christy, running an athletic department at a place like UNC Pembroke, that money could go a long way. The other nine schools that will get a cut of the annual revenue share are Fayetteville State, Winston-Salem State, Elizabeth City State, Western Carolina, UNC Wilmington, UNC Greensboro, UNC Asheville, N.C. Central and N.C. A&T State.
Christy recently spoke with WUNC about how college athletics continues to change and how sports betting will impact smaller schools like UNC Pembroke.
This conversation has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.
Y’all at UNC-Pembroke (and nine other UNC System schools) are going to receive $1 million this year in stopgap funding. Is that sort of an advance on the betting revenue? How does that work?
“That was a one-time funding provision from the House and it’s a two-year set-up to try and allow sports betting revenues to get on their feet. So, there's $1 million in this fiscal year, there's $700,000 in next fiscal year with the hope that sports betting will begin to self-sustain from there. But I think the stopgap funding is a sign of just how much research and how much work the Board of Governors and the UNC System and the legislature did, and kind of all working hand-in-hand to see there is a real and legitimate and immediate need at a lot of these institutions. For UNC-P, this money is largely going to backfill a lot of lost revenue for us. For the Division I schools, a lot of that money is already spent. There's extension of healthcare resources, there's extensive insurance, there's mental health counselor requirements, there's a lot of things that are new expenses for a lot of mid majors that now have to find a way to execute if they want to stay at the Division I level.”
You and nine other UNC System schools are going to split 20% of this annual tax revenue that is estimated to be $300,000 a year, but could become $1.5 million a year, depending on how many North Carolinians jump on the sports betting train. What is that projection based on?
“I'm not an expert on it, but through the process – what I was told – there's so many other states that have legalized (gambling) at this point, they have a lot of good reference information to look at similar states and similar metros and see what that build up time was for adoption. So, they have projections now they're showing as high as $1.8 million. So obviously, for our departments, we're hoping that that's true, but we can't take that to the bank until we actually get the get the process up and running.”
How important will that extra revenue be for y’all?
“It’s game-changing for us. It's not exaggeration to say we were really running out of options on how to sustainably fund athletics in the state of North Carolina. With COVID, and a lot of students moving their education online, we've seen a big diversity in how students receive their education now. And historically, for the UNC System, athletic funding was restricted only to the Intercollegiate Athletic Fee. And you only paid that fee if you were a full-time face-to-face student. As students continue to change the way they received their education, less and less students are paying the athletic fee. And without some legislative change to allow for other resources to support athletics, I mean, it's been a number of schools that have been forced into a position where they've tried to reduce their number of sport offerings. That's not because we don't love athletics; that's because there's just not a sustainable way to fund it under the existing funding model. So, this was just a huge, huge example of leadership and hand holding across the aisle, and the UNC System working with the legislature. We’re so appreciative that they saw the need, executed the economic impact study and said, ‘Okay, yeah, this makes sense and this is where we need to invest right now.’”
As this bill was being altered, edited and changed as it went through all the stages in the legislature, what was your involvement? Were you talking to state representatives and senators? And if so, what were you advocating for?
“The system office really takes the leadership of that. They gave an opportunity where a number of schools sat on a panel last spring, and we talked about some of the challenges with the current funding model. And that was kind of a tipping point where they used that to go out and execute an economic impact study that really showed what does small regional campus college athletics mean to their surrounding community in that part of the state. And I think that was a great tool to be able to show legislators what this meant. Fortunately for us, we got some really engaged local representatives and senators, and we were able to answer their questions when they asked. So, really appreciative to Brendan Jones, Danny Britt and Jarrod Lowery and their leadership and trying to help this get across, particularly from a UNC Pembroke angle.”
This bill did have its detractors. Is there anything that you're worried about when it comes to gambling in North Carolina or with your student athletes at UNC Pembroke?
“There still has to be a hard line for anybody that works in college athletics or is associated with college athletics. I mean, it's just a non-starter. You can't participate in it. You know, so that part and that educational process hasn't changed. When you look at all the stories about the point shaving scandals and things like that – we still have to have a strong educational component to make sure they realize this is not for you. Now, what we've seen from some of these other states through interaction with the NCAA and their enforcement staff, it gives them an opportunity to come alongside those gaming commissions and actually patrol and monitor it more, to be able to have better access, tracking IP addresses, doing geofencing, and having an understanding of who is engaged in betting and making sure it's not somebody that's not supposed to be. So, I think it will be an opportunity to actually maybe clamp down even further and let the NCAA monitor this more closely.”
You worked at N.C. State before you came to Pembroke. What’s been the biggest difference between the ACC and Division II that maybe a casual sports fan might not know?
“It’s game-changing for us. It's not exaggeration to say we were really running out of options on how to sustainably fund athletics in the state of North Carolina."Dick Christy, UNC-Pembroke athletic director
“N.C. State and UNC, they've got major challenges of their own. Now they do have a lot more diversified revenue streams with which to tap into. So, that's your major difference. I think a lot of people don't realize, nationally, if you look at Division II – there's about 400 Division II schools in the country, and the national average for Division II is that 92% of the funding for athletics comes from the university in some form or fashion. And I think that's a head scratcher for the average fan, because they're like, ‘How can that be?’
“Athletics on a campus like ours, it just makes business sense, right? Our students are on partial scholarships, and for them to be in Pembroke, North Carolina, and getting their education here and spending money here, it's actually more revenue positive for the university to have those students on-campus than it would be not to. So, at most Division II schools, it's part of their business plan, it’s part of their enrollment strategy – they need to have successful and robust athletics. So, to largely be funding it makes sense for them. And for us to be able to diversify the color of money with which the university can fund it through this legislation is going to be huge, because now it allows us to try and make that square peg fit and round hole, so to speak, with how North Carolina has been funding it in the past.”
In these 11 years that you’ve been at UNC Pembroke, is there something that’s changed in college athletics that has surprised you, or anything on the horizon that’s worrying you?
“What’s not, right? There’s a big trickle-down effect with what you’ve seen with NIL (name, image and likeness) and the transfer portal and things like that. Those things are slowly but surely impacting our landscape and also impacting the psyche of the students because they see that stuff and you're trying to keep them focused on their opportunity that's here. I don't think any of it is necessarily for the betterment of the of the student or the industry, but we're kind of working in the landscape that we have at this point. I think the big challenge on NIL is, students see that the top quarterback at LSU get an astronomical number, and very quickly, those numbers fall off.”
What’s the next decade look like for UNC Pembroke as the landscape changes and as you’re going to get this extra revenue?
“Our goal is to try and become a top school in Division II. We're fortunate in our region – I would say we are relevant in the region – and we've done well at the conference level. We won 10 conference championships in the last 14 months. I mean, that's a hot streak I've never seen or been on in my career. But I think the next step is trying to get those teams funded in a way that they are now nationally competitive when they get to the postseason. So, we don't want to be a first or second round out, we want to be a tough out. And we want to be a team that's going to be having those opportunities to get on a national stage with some of the changes. Just from a branding standpoint, and the marketing value that athletics can bring to a university, we've got to be on that stage. So I would say in the next 10 years, the goal is definitely to continue what we've been doing, but to give our teams a chance to be competitive, late in the season, and funded in a way that they can actually expect to be there deep in the playoffs.”