The process of adding three new sports at UW-Eau Claire will be kicked off in the next few weeks if an initiative by chancellor James Schmidt is passed, UW-Eau Claire athletic director Dan Schumacher said Wednesday at a press conference in Zorn Arena.
The reinstatement of baseball and additions of men’s soccer and women’s lacrosse at the university are part of a package the chancellor has brought forward to help fight against an expected decline in graduating seniors over the next few years and improve the school’s retention for students that do attend.
“We’ve embarked on an initiative the chancellor has put forth as a way of us increasing enrollment and stabilizing enrollment,” Schumacher said. “Enrollment initiatives are based on the fact that there’s a decline across the whole Midwest (in students). With that, we have to stay ahead of the curve.”
A declining birth rate has schools around the country getting creative to try and attract students to campus. Carleton College economist Nathan Grawe predicted last year the college-going population will dip by 15 percent nationally from 2025 to 2029 and an additional percentage point or two in the following years. The number of high school graduates in Wisconsin has dropped to levels not seen since the 1990s.
“In 2025 demographics shift significantly in the upper Midwest,” Schmidt said Tuesday. “We want to make sure that we’re competitive and the school’s the right size and frankly be in the strongest spot possible when competition gets to be a little bit more.”
Schumacher said the initiative will not be approved piecemeal. Either the plan passes, and all the proposed new athletic and academic programs go through, or none do.
“I think a majority of people are favorable about the whole package,” Schumacher said. “This isn’t just about sports.”
The three new sports would bring nearly 100 new students to campus, appealing to the university from a financial standpoint considering the lack of athletic scholarships at the Division III level. Additional student-athletes would pay tuition, and both Schmidt and Schumacher said the school has found athletes have a higher retention rate than the rest of the student body.
“If it goes through, we’ll have over 800 student athletes in 25 sports,” Schumacher said. “There’s no other athletic department of that size in the state of Wisconsin. It’s an exciting time.”
If the initiative is passed, Schumacher said the school will begin immediately searching for head coaches.
Baseball is the highlight for many alums of UW-Eau Claire who have been frustrated since the sport was discontinued in 1995. The school sits in a hotbed which has seen success at the prep, Legion and Northwoods League levels. Eau Claire North took home a Division 1 state title this year. The Eau Claire Express, whose roster included a handful of locals, made it to the Summer Collegiate World Series.
“When I came here as an athletic director it was baffling why we wouldn’t have baseball,” Schumacher said. “This is a baseball town, I’ll be the first to recognize that. ... This creates opportunity to keep our kids home and have a place of pride.”
The WIAC sponsors baseball and would earn an automatic qualifier to the NCAA tournament with the addition of UW-Eau Claire. The athletic department would need to search for conference homes for men’s soccer and women’s lacrosse.