Return of the War on Nonrevenue Sports: Beyond the “Title IX Games”

When we last left the War on Nonrevenue Sports, we were asking a few college revenue questions tangentially related to Title IX, and we were still fretting a bit over the Sports Illustrated piece wondering why we should bother to keep funding sports that lose money.

In the meantime, we’ve had the Olympics dubbed the “Title IX Games,” in which female athletes won tons and tons of medals. (Well, female athletes from the USA and a few other countries won tons and tons of medals — they didn’t really change the number of medals women could win or start handing out six medals per women’s event.)

And we’ve seen the start of the college soccer season. I’m pleased to say my alma mater’s women’s team is already 2-0. Just imagine how they’ll fare once the freshmen move in later this week.

How does that tie together? Basically like this — for all the talk of the “Title IX Games,” colleges are in danger of contributing less and less to the U.S. Olympic movement.

One reason is obvious: U.S. women are winning medals in sports that aren’t traditional college fare. In these cases, Title IX is more of an abstract inspirational force than a direct catalyst. And even so, it’s not as if the USA is the only country whose women are winning medals.

The other reason: Student-athletes in sports other than football and basketball are still on the endangered list.

Football continues to move toward “superconferences,” which will ramp up the expenses for football programs and make athletic departments wonder if it’s really worth it to fly their volleyball teams from Boise to New York for a “conference” game. And if you read the SI story about college football teams emulating Nick Saban’s “Process,” which seems to entail hiring tons of people to take care of various details from academic advising to film review, you wonder how many resources will be left over. (Yes, Saban’s program has made more money from its higher spending. But he can’t win the national championship every year. And what about the other coaches trying to do the same thing?)

Even aside from the financial muddle, the NCAA seems to take particular joy in making silly, pointless decisions on nonrevenue sports. That explains why soccer has kicked off before students are even in session, forcing W-League, WPSL and PDL teams to wrap their seasons in late July, while the “spring season” is being whittled away. That explains the college tennis recommendations that have drawn a petition drive.

And we still have the sensitive subject of Title IX. The gloating about U.S. women winning more medals than men is surely a terrible idea that could easily lead to backlash. A cursory glance at college campuses finds colleges adding large teams in women’s rowing and “equestrian” (not quite the Olympic events), while USA Wrestling is tracking the status of embattled men’s programs under the heading “Title IX.

The counterargument says male athletes in the USA devote a lot of attention to football, which isn’t going to be in the Olympics any time soon. And that’s true. But so is this, from the NCAA’s 2010-11 Sports Sponsorship and Participation Rates Report:

Since 1988-89, there has been a net loss of 312 men’s teams in Division I. By comparison, since 1988-89 there has been a net gain of 715 women’s teams in Division I.

Yet the more you dig into the numbers, the more you see it isn’t just men’s Olympic sports teams getting cut in D1. Women’s sports are getting the ax, too. Here are some women’s numbers, with men’s numbers added for comparison (except where noted, the “from” number is from the 1981-82 school year):

  • Archery: Down from 4 (1998-99) to 0 (Men, too)
  • Badminton: Down from 7 to 0 (Men never had more than 2)
  • Synchronized swimming: Down from 5 (1995-96) to 0
  • Fencing: Down from 39 to 23 (men: 43 to 20)
  • Field hockey: Down from 95 to 79
  • Gymnastics: Down from 99 to 63 (men: 59 to 16)

Meanwhile, women’s bowling, a non-Olympic sport, is on the rise (3 in 1998-99, 33 now). Women’s equestrian, an eccentric cousin of the Olympic sport, is up from 8 (1999-00) to 18. Women’s golf, now technically an Olympic sports, has blown up — 83 to 248.

But women’s rugby hasn’t benefited from its new Olympic status, holding steady at 2 D1 varsity teams. Women’s lacrosse, meanwhile, is up from 39 to 89. Softball, recently excluded from the Olympics but fighting to get back, has nearly doubled from 143 to 283.

Some Olympic sports are doing a bit better. Women’s cross-country is steady, slightly up. So is women’s swimming/diving. Women’s rowing may be the height of absurdity with an average squad size of 61.1 (!?!), but it is indeed an Olympic sport up from 28 to 85 teams. Women’s basketball is still growing, women’s water polo is up to 33, and women’s soccer is still going through the roof. Women’s volleyball, women’s indoor track and women’s outdoor track are still comfortably over 300.

And that’s where men can claim some inequity. Men’s rowing can’t get back over 30, men’s swimming/diving has dropped from 181 to 136, men’s tennis trickling down downward, men have fewer track teams, and men’s volleyball is down to 23.

Then there’s wrestling, down from 146 to 80. Maybe it’d help if women’s wrestling could gain a foothold.

So why is all this important? Should colleges prepare Olympic athletes? Is the bigger issue the lack of opportunities after college, particularly for women’s team sports?

Perhaps. But colleges have the facilities. In many sports, college-age athletes are at a critical spot of determining whether they have world-class potential.

So maybe the USOC and NCAA should get to the same table and figure things out. Maybe we could see some partnerships. Maybe at the very least, the NCAA shouldn’t launch initiatives — from tweaking the rules to favoring certain sports — that make college less attractive to athletes on the Olympic path.

(We’ll get to the “pro league” part of things soon. Don’t worry.)

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2 Responses to Return of the War on Nonrevenue Sports: Beyond the “Title IX Games”

  1. Beau Dure says:

    One article worth adding to the discussion: Beverly Oden demonstrates that the gap between men’s volleyball and women’s volleyball goes way beyond Title IX – http://volleyball.about.com/od/ncaa/a/Title-IX-And-Mens-VB.htm

  2. Joshua says:

    IMHO, Olympic sports have ALWAYS been on the endangered list in this country. When I was in college back in the 1970’s, before title IX took effect, the issue was “amateurism” versus “professionalism”. The Olympics were telecast by ABC in those years (1968, 1972, 1976) which made a far stronger effort to show the Olympics as an International event rather than what NBC has done lately. Soviet and Eastern European Athletes got bigger play on American TV then. Why did they win? The rationale then was that they were “professionals” whereas our USA Athletes were “amateurs”. Our “best” went into football, basketball, and baseball. If the olympics allowed “professionals”, America would WIN!!!

    The one common thread over time is that pro football (NFL and NCAA) took the lion’s share of the best athletes in the country. It did in the 1970’s and it does today, Title IX or no Title IX. “Nonrevenue” sports fared worse then than now. The major college football powers had NO football scholarship limitations for a time in the 1970’s. An athletic scholarship was a football scholarship. Basketball was the only exception.

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