War on nonrevenue sports, ctd: How college sports programs die

My old paper in Wilmington has a thorough report on UNC-Wilmington’s decision to cut a few sports.

Title IX influenced the decision-making on what to cut, but the figures show some women’s programs bringing in more money than their male counterpart. (In most cases, though, the expenses are higher.)

The numbers also show men’s basketball, the non-football school’s showcase sport, as the biggest revenue-generator by far. But it had expenses of $1.87 million against revenue of $557,624.

So if you were going strictly on finances, you’d cut the basketball team and leave the others.

They’re not going to do that, of course. Cutting the basketball team would be a huge blow to UNCW.

But then does that mean college sports serve an intangible purpose of school spirit rather than the tangible purpose of giving student-athletes a chance to compete?

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.)

Title IX-related questions

I pride myself on being less cynical than the typical journalist. And I’m certainly not someone to rain on the parade of Title IX’s 40th anniversary. Griping about an anniversary commemoration is like showing up at a July 4 fireworks display to gripe about drone attacks or Guantanamo or all the Native Americans who died when Columbus came over here. Time and place. Time and place. And besides, I think we’d agree that Title IX, like the Declaration of Independence, is generally a Good Thing.

That said, this sort of celebration brings out a few groups of people:

  1. People who have legitimate concerns over Title IX enforcement.
  2. People who twist those concerns into spurious self-defeating arguments and defenses of every penny spent on football.
  3. Title IX advocates who understand some of these concerns.
  4. Title IX advocates who ignore these concerns and won’t rest until every college and high school has a women’s modern pentathlon team, no matter how many men’s sports are cut to reach that point.

(All right, I’m exaggerating slightly on groups 2 and 4. Slightly.)

I’m in no mood to write an essay. I did that 15 months ago, and I either got it right at the time or haven’t made enough intellectual progress to think of anything better.

But I’m hoping the following list of questions — to which I’m willing to listen to answers — will spur some reflection among groups 2 and 4 to ease them into groups 1 and 3. Maybe they’ll even find some middle ground and become group 13. OK, 31.


– Shouldn’t we be more concerned with mostly male Georgia Tech adding more female students than majority-female North Carolina adding more female student-athletes to a staggeringly successful women’s sports program?

– Who’s going to speak up for traditional nonrevenue sports against plans like this while football programs bleed athletic departments dry? (Yes, they quite often do.)

– Why do we see NCAA numbers showing how few programs make money while the Business of College Sports blog ranks programs as if they were Forbes billionaires wondering which building should be rebuilt in marble?

– If you’re trying to meet the desires and aptitudes of the underrepresented gender in your student body (one of the prongs of the three-pronged Title IX test), wouldn’t a JV soccer team be better than a varsity equestrian team?

– Why is Title IX all about sports, anyway? What about us musicians? We draw bigger crowds than some sports teams. We travel a bit.

– And what about scientists? Your daughter has a better chance at a career in medicine or engineering than she does at a college soccer scholarship. Shouldn’t she be pursuing it?

– Why should college scholarship opportunities play any role in determining what counts as a sport? I can tell you right now that 95 percent of the kids in my local U8 boys soccer league have no shot whatsoever at a college scholarship. Should they quit?

– Why does the third-string tight end for the football team need a scholarship while the starting left midfielder doesn’t?

– Why are colleges adding sports such as rowing in which nearly 90% of all intercollegiate athletes had no experience before entering college? (See the study.)

– Women’s wrestling is a valid Olympic sport in which the USA is pretty good, and adding it requires little to no new equipment for a school that already has a wrestling program. Why aren’t colleges adding that rather than cutting their men’s wrestling programs?

– Why are schools so good at adding rowing and bowling but so bad at the very basics of meeting all female students’ needs? (Case in point: sexual harassment)

– College biathlon. When’s it gonna happen?

– Can’t some sports be identified as Olympic development and protected in some partnership with the USOC?

– Does anyone have patience to let sports grow? For example: When I was at Duke, women’s basketball rarely drew in the hundreds. Now they draw in the thousands.

– Why do we tolerate the corrupt college football bowl system?

Maybe that’ll get the conversation started so that we really will preserve all that’s good about Title IX and not end up with a bunch of lawsuits and a ton of program cuts blamed (rightly or wrongly) on the law’s enforcement.

Title IX: Would it ever collapse under its own weight?

Many thanks to the folks organizing the NCAA convention for streaming today’s session on Title IX.

If only it weren’t so depressing.

Sure, this wasn’t some rah-rah session to cheer about how much progress women have made in American sports, progress that shouldn’t be taken for granted. The target audience was athletic department types who have to make sure their schools are compliant.

And the middle segment was a topic that’s not going to be pleasant under any circumstances — sexual violence and what universities need to do not just to prevent it but help victims. Hearing some of the examples of what victims can face is just heart-rending.

The more mundane details were just overwhelming. If I were a compliance officer, I would have walked out of that meeting with an overriding sense of hopelessness. (Granted, I might have walked into that meeting with the same feeling.)

We know the basic issues — as colleges skew more female, it’ll be tougher for schools to meet strict proportionality. North Carolina has one of the best women’s sports programs in the country, but the student body is more than majority female, so it’s not likely to meet proportionality as long as it keeps up a football team. The next two tests are more nebulous.

So what did we learn in this session? Well, for one thing, “lack of facilities is not a defense.” They didn’t go into detail on that point, but I’m wondering where the line would be drawn. If you have enough people who want to play tennis, do you need a tennis facility? A competition-quality pool if you have a demand for swimming? Maybe a velodrome for track cyclists?

Well, maybe not. The one thing that I learned from the session that made me think athletic departments are going to survive is that sports don’t need to be added unless they have enough students who are not only interested but reasonably capable of competing at a varsity level.

And yet we have enough giant rowing teams with marginally interested athletes that they actually joked about them in the presentation.

So it seems like something’s gotta give. That, they didn’t talk about.

Gender equity debate won’t end, but can it change?

Gender equity has become one of those topics about which it’s nearly impossible to have a rational discussion.

If you see the last discussion I had on this topic, you can get a sense of my frustration. Legitimate points are there to be made — sports programs are getting cut, and while Title IX may sometimes be a convenient scapegoat, it’s hard to ignore that complying with Title IX can be messy or even counterproductive.

The examples I always use are Georgia Tech and North Carolina. The latter could easily be a victim of its success if it were ever seriously pressed to meet “Prong 1” of the Title IX test, proportionality (tying athletic opportunities to the gender ratio of the student body). In reading The Man Watching, the biography of Carolina women’s soccer coach Anson Dorrance, you can trace Chapel Hill’s history from an overwhelmingly male student body to a 60-40 female ratio as, only partly coincidentally, it gets serious about women’s sports. Georgia Tech is still puttering along with a 64% male student body. Guess who has no trouble meeting the proportionality prong. Why use this law, which was supposed to be about educational opportunities and not just sports, to make things difficult on the university that has become a haven, if not heaven, for female students and student-athletes while not using it to encourage more women to go to schools like Georgia Tech?

Continue reading Gender equity debate won’t end, but can it change?