LANE ONE: Danger ahead: “The glory days of college athletics as we’ve known it, may be over” and “college athletics simply does not need Olympic sport”

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One of the lasting impacts of the year 2020 in sports will be not just the coronavirus pandemic, but the competitive and financial havoc it caused in collegiate sports. True, parts of the fall football season were salvaged, but by mid-March, most collegiate competition simply ended. And for some conferences and some sports, it has not restarted.

For some schools, the answer to financial peril was to cut sports. Stanford is cutting 11 varsity sports. Clemson and Minnesota drew headlines for cutting track & field, although Minnesota reinstated outdoor track only. USA Gymnastics began working with the Collegiate Gymnastics Association and the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee to find ways to save NCAA men’s programs.

What will happen next?

It’s worth listening to Chuck Neinas, 88, a voice of experience in collegiate sports administration, who has served as Assistant Executive Director of the NCAA, Commissioner of the Big Eight Conference and Executive Director of the College Football Association from 1977-97. He was asked in a Q&A with the National Football Foundation about the changes coming in collegiate athletics, including a direct question on the future of non-revenue – the so-called “Olympic” – sports programs:

“With higher education in the financial difficulty that it currently finds itself because of the pandemic, you have to recognize that there are other things that are going to have come before college athletics when it comes to financing an institution. There is going to have to be some accommodation.

“As one athletic director indicated to me, he would rather see developing an active and high-quality club sports program that provides an opportunity to compete, even though it would not be at the intercollegiate level. There’s going to have to be a lot of analysis. I think the glory days of college athletics as we’ve known it, may be over. I also read that the amount of debt associated with facility improvements is staggering. And those bondholders expect to collect their money every month. So, all those things factor into the financial pressures, which currently exist in higher education and, as a result, in college athletics.

All of this lends itself even more to recognizing and distinguishing the differences between programs. … The Olympic sports may have to rely on outside income from the national governing bodies and the [U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee] to maintain the program. (Emphasis added)

That’s hardly going to work, as the USOPC and the NGBs are in substantial financial stress themselves and underwriting collegiate programs is way beyond their scope. This site noted in June the brilliant work of George Perry, a coach in Texas and operator of the blog, in sifting through the Equity in Athletics data site and determining that schools spent $974.98 million on cross country and track (indoor and out) in the 2017-18 academic year alone!

Compare that with the USA Track & Field budget of $36.71 million in 2018 and you see the futility of Neinas’s observation.

The danger for America’s Olympic programs – especially in track & field and swimming – were further underlined by an insightful essay by someone who knows the Olympic Movement first-hand: University of Arkansas Sport Management Professor Steve Dittmore, who has been a member of multiple mega-event organizing committees, including those for the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta and the 2002 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City, before starting his career in academia.

Dittmore noted:

● “[W]hile the Olympics needs college athletics, college athletics simply does not need Olympic sport, and the December 7, 2020 announcement from the IOC about inclusion of skateboarding, breaking, and surfing to the 2024 Paris Games should underscore this.”

● “According to the official [Paris 2024] Games website, the following 32 sports are included in the Games (note sports such as swimming and water polo are considered one sport): …

“Of those 32, only 16 – exactly HALF of the 2024 Olympic sports – have NCAA-sanctioned national championships: athletics, rowing, basketball, fencing, football, golf, gymnastics, hockey, wrestling, water sports, equestrian sports, tennis, shooting, triathlon, sailing, volleyball.”

● “The IOC is making a deliberate effort to move away from traditional, legacy sports and toward sports which attract a younger demographic. And why wouldn’t it do that? Figures from Front Office Sports indicate viewership among 18-49 year olds declined 25 percent in 2016. The average viewer age in 2016 rose to 53. By 2024, those 53 year olds will be in their sixties. The Olympics need to get younger, and they know it. Freestyle BMX and 3-on-3 basketball will be part of the 2020, er, 2021 program in Tokyo.

“Will the NCAA suddenly encourage its member institutions to add skateboarding and breakdancing to their list of sports? Probably not, but the proliferation of varsity esports teams across all divisions, but particularly in Division III, suggests athletic departments are attempting to get younger as well.”

“At some point, some college athletic director will come out and say it directly: college athletics does not exist to subsidize Olympic athlete development. At least not at the highest level. College athletics on the FBS stage exists to provide entertainment and engender school pride (translation: donations) among alumni and other stakeholders.

“If the powers that be in ‘secondary’ sports such as gymnastics and swimming want to see programs saved, they could follow the approach employed by Dan Sharadin, commissioner of the Collegiate Water Polo Association, and documented in last month’s ill-fated Atlantic piece by Ruth S. Barrett. Sharadin arranged meetings with Division II and III institutions to discuss the merits of adding water polo, and the associated enrollment it would bring. His targets were tuition-driven schools reliant upon enrolled students to pay the bills. Having a water polo team to attract the many high school athletes who are not yet ready to have their dream of playing college athletics explode, would be a win-win. And he is not fundamentally wrong. This is what the USOPC should be endorsing, perhaps even incentivizing. If the USOPC were truly serious about the importance of college athletics to elite Olympic athlete development, it could, in conjunction with the appropriate National Governing Body, provide grants to offset start-up costs for universities which start programs in sports such as water polo, gymnastics, tennis, wrestling, fencing, rowing, and other ‘secondary’ sports. (Emphasis in original)

Dittmore has spoken and more need to hear him. And both he and Neinas point to the uncomfortable – if well-known within the U.S. Olympic community – truth that the USOPC is woefully short on funds to handle this kind of development, even if it is perhaps the best-funded National Olympic Committee in the world.

In its days as the United States Olympic Committee, there were multiple attempts to create new events that might turn into significant money makers. The U.S. Olympic Festival – held 14 times from 1978-95 – was always more of a competition opportunity than a commercial endeavor, but it did have a high profile. The twice-held “Titan Games” concept (2003 and 2004) was a loser and nothing similar has been tried since. There are high hopes for windfalls from the 2028 Olympic Games in Los Angeles and for a likely 2034 Olympic Winter Games in Salt Lake City, but these may be too late.

The best current hopes are for:

(1) Collegiate sports to return to some kind of normalcy in the 2021-22 academic year with the appearance of vaccines for the coronavirus and begin to work through its virus-inspired financial drain;

(2) More money pumped into the Division I Football Bowl Subdivision schools from even higher payouts for football and basketball rights that will allow non-revenue sports to continue. Example: the just-announced ESPN deal with the 14-member Southeastern Conference for just 15 football games a season for 10 years beginning in 2024-25 at $300 million-plus per season! The Big 10 Conference is also expected to make a big score with FOX Sports, but what will be left over for the Atlantic Coast Conference, Big XII and Pacific-12 is less clear;

(3) Some inspired work by the USOPC Collegiate Advisory Council and the newly-formed, 34-member USOPC College Sports Sustainability Think Tank. The latter’s task is to “identify innovative solutions to help sustain Olympic and Paralympic varsity programming opportunities within college athletics.” There are working groups on partnerships, economics and regulations.

The key will be to formulate an approach which creates incentives – especially financial, reputational and community-based – for the universities in the major conferences (and others) to continue to sponsor track, swimming, gymnastics, wrestling, fencing, rowing, water polo and so on. These could be based on modest-cost, regional competition schedules with a nationals at the end of the season, perhaps on conference vs. conference events, possibly even international matches between, say, the Florida or Arkansas track squad and a national U-23 team from Canada, Mexico or Jamaica? Or Russia or China?

Could a multi-sport event for American collegiate performers against foreign universities or U-23 teams be constructed under the auspices of the FISU, the international university-sport federation that operates the World University Games? Essentially a “World Championship” of collegiate teams? Maybe there’s money in that? eSports?

Although the NCAA was initially formed in 1906 to handle changes in football, its first-ever national championship was held in track & field in 1921. In many ways, the approach of the organization and its member schools to track and many other sports – other than football and basketball – hasn’t changed much in 100 years. For the 479,094 collegians whose way through school is possible because of athletic scholarships – outside of football and basketball – as well as America’s Olympic future, it’s time to change that.

Rich Perelman

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