Western has pretty much always had a strong reputation for athletics. Mustangs teams have won 72 Ontario University Athletics (OUA) championships in the last 10 years, and many former Western athletes have gone on to compete at a high level after graduating.
This winter though has been a relatively dry one for some marquee teams. Both the men's and women's hockey teams, after appearing at last year's CIS tournaments, found themselves far removed from contention to even make a playoff run this year. The only U Sports-level team in true contention for national titles is track and field.
Let's not take away from the accomplishments of some smaller teams. In the winter term, women's fencing and men's squash won OUA gold and various other teams competed well for championships. The 2016 fall term was a good one for Western, with championships for the tennis, cross country and baseball teams.
Nonetheless, only hockey, basketball and football are defined as "market-driven sports" by the OUA. They get all the attention, and, perhaps more importantly, the funding.
Western football is in a pretty good spot, of course, with back-to-back Yates Cup final appearances (no trophy either time, though). And really, both hockey teams should be back near the top of their leagues next year — there's no way that men's hockey team was really as bad as they performed.
Still, a relative lack of success this winter might come at a very interesting time for Western Athletics. Jim Weese, interim athletic director since Thérèse Quigley's retirement in December, is heading up a program-wide evaluation of Sports and Recreation Services.
Athletics has been fairly mum on what exactly a review like that entails. According to Weese, they're looking at "a number of things including finances and our capacity to deliver the best sports and recreation program in the country."
Intercollegiate athletics at Western operate on a substantial budget, with an $87.61 fee tacked on to every student's tuition in addition to various sponsorships and the team fees paid by athletes themselves. So, it's not an unfair expectation to be one of the best athletics programs in Canada.
That said, Western Athletics find themselves in a sticky financial situation.
Sports and Recreation Services reportedly saw a six-figure loss this year over the Homecoming football game, with low student turnout.
This year, the six "market-driven" Mustangs teams either missed the playoffs, got bounced in the first round, or lost Athletics a ton of money (or a combination of these). That's got to play a role in the discussions Weese and his committee are having.
"My hope is that we can accurately assess what we have the capacity to deliver given our existing resources, determine if additional sources of revenue can be found and efficiently deployed, and look for economies to ensure that we deliver on our objective of creating opportunity and pursuing excellence," said Weese in an email.
If Weese's role is to determine if something really is rotten in the state of Western Athletics, there are a few ways this could all play out.
With operating costs stratospheric, if the University decides to make cuts it'll most likely affect the teams that Western largely ignores to begin with. Several non-OUA sports, including ultimate frisbee and ringette, could find themselves on the outside looking in.
The idea of cutting teams completely probably isn't the ideal solution for Western Athletics, but it's surely been discussed, and Weese has not ruled it out. And if not that, then some student-athletes could see their fees increase.
A hierarchy of funding for sports at Western certainly exists, with team fees shooting up the farther down the ladder you go. Consequently, it seems unlikely that Weese's evaluation would decrease funding to the top-tier teams like hockey, even if they're at their lowest point in almost 20 years.
Actually, if Athletics decides they need to be more competitive in the marquee U Sports-level sports, the evaluation committee could even look at increasing their budget — either by upping the student ancillary cost, or by cutting other teams.
Western takes pride in the reputation of its athletic program, and Weese is confident in its ability to bounce back in the long term.
"We will rebound in our sports that had off years — no question about it," he said, "and continue our traditional position as the leading sport and recreation program in the country."
Still, whoever is appointed the new athletic director at the end of Weese's review may have a slightly different landscape to work with.