The Stony Brook athletics program is one made up of contradictions.
Its teams in the America East Conference have won a combined 27 championship rings in the last 10 years, but the program lacks the private funding or national recognition to properly capitalize on that success. Its athletes have taken home a slew of MVP and Rookie of the Year awards, but they play for a student body that is largely apathetic towards those accomplishments.
At the heart of those contradictions lies Director of Athletics Shawn Heilbron. Since Heilbron took over the department in 2014, Stony Brook athletes have achieved a level of success unrivaled in the school’s history, both on and off the field.
The Seawolves won their first America East Commissioner’s Cup — given to the best-performing athletic department in the conference — in 2019 and repeated the accomplishment this year. In the past five years, the school’s men’s and women’s basketball teams both reached the NCAA Tournament for the first time. Stony Brook’s women’s lacrosse team, an annual powerhouse, reached the quarterfinals of the tournament last year, losing by just three goals to the top-seeded North Carolina Tar Heels.
“For me, it’s about competing at the highest level,” Heilbron said in an interview with The Statesman. “We’re a national university. We’re one of the top public research institutions in the country. And as such, we feel like we should be one of the top athletic programs in the country as well.”
But many of the issues that predate Heilbron’s tenure continue to plague the program. The university has yet to fully engage its student body with its Division I athletics, and empty seats continue to litter Kenneth P. LaValle Stadium during football games.
When asking a small sample of students how emotionally invested they felt in Stony Brook’s sports teams, a vast majority replied that they were not invested at all, with few saying that they were either somewhat or very invested.
Some improvements have been made in recent years. The football team broke its own attendance record four times in the last seven years, a $5 million renovation in 2017 expanded LaValle Stadium to a capacity of 12,300 and the university opened a 106,000 square-foot indoor training facility.
However, Stony Brook’s most recent home football game against Fordham drew just 5,765 fans, even while being billed as part of the university’s “Family Weekend.” The remaining 11 football teams in the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA) averaged 9,982 fans at their most recent home games. It does not help that the Stony Brook football team has lost 12 of its last 14 total games.
“The students are everything,” Heilbron said. “The students bring energy, the students bring excitement. We really want to create events that students want to attend [and] feel that it enhances their Stony Brook experience. So I’m excited now that we’re back to in-person, continuing to work with our colleagues across campus and with the student body to create those opportunities.”
Heilbron disclosed that the athletic department lost roughly 20 full-time staff members after COVID-19 and were unable to replace them, with some of those positions responsible for engaging the student body.
“Right now, we’re working very closely with Rick Gatteau and Ric McLendon in trying to create new opportunities to engage students,” Heilbron said. “I always think it's important for us to reach across and for our student-athletes to reach out to other parts of campus and build those connections.”
Many of these difficulties stem simply from the program’s lack of outside funding.
According to a report from USA Today, 82% of Stony Brook’s athletic funds in 2019 came from allocated sources: student fees, institutional support and state money. That was the 25th-most out of 227 Division I public schools. Despite those challenges, the program’s total revenue of $35.6 million ranked 90th, highest among public schools in the America East.
The difference between Stony Brook and public schools of similar size with larger athletic programs stems from recognizability. UMass brought in $49.5 million in 2019 while earning $1.5 million in ticket sales — roughly double the amount Stony Brook’s tickets earned. UConn accrued $80.1 million while charging fewer student fees than Stony Brook because its program was famous enough to earn nearly $20 million in licensing fees.
“I think we need to focus more on private donations,” Heilbron said. “We want to become more self-sustaining ... We have a five-year financial plan that has been approved that will lead to that, so I’m excited. But I think we have everything right now that we need to be successful.”
In 2014, Heilbron’s first year as athletic director, Stony Brook received only $555,061 in donor contributions, the lowest among all CAA Football public schools. Half a decade later, the department brought in $1.8 million in a year, a 229% increase. Still, the number fell under Heilbron’s initial goal of raising $100 million in his first five years at Stony Brook.
Stony Brook received more money from donors in 2019 than any other school in the America East, but even that number paled in comparison to the amount that FBS colleges on the east coast of comparable size brought in.
This all places Stony Brook within the current national conversation about conference realignment, with several teams upgrading their affiliations in the last month after Texas and Oklahoma announced plans to join the SEC. Stony Brook’s recent athletic accomplishments are those of a school that may have outgrown the America East, the conference it has called home since 2001.
“It’s a subject that's on everyone's mind,” Heilbron said. “But I don't want for us to be reactive. I'd certainly rather be proactive as to what's going on. We're in a position of strength because of our academic reputation and location … but right now we're focused on continuing to win America East championships and Commissioner's Cup titles. Those sorts of things will shake themselves out as more realignment occurs.”
Making the jump to a more prestigious conference would require a larger national presence from Stony Brook, something Heilbron is focused on building.
This September, Stony Brook’s football team traveled across the country to play the No. 4 Oregon Ducks and trailed by only 10 points at halftime. The men’s basketball team has games against Kansas and Florida scheduled for later this year.
“The one thing that we don't have the benefit of right now is, we're not on SportsCenter every day. You don't read about us in the paper,” Heilbron said. “But we've got to continue to put winning teams out there so that we can get more coverage. We're still a young program, we're only in our 22nd year as a Division I program. So it takes a long time to establish that history and tradition.”