War on College Sports: Maybe justified?

I love college sports. I’m not so thrilled with the prospect of other students paying for them.

An investigation of the eight largest public universities in Ohio in the Football Bowl Subdivision found that with one exception, college administrators and trustees impose hidden fees and invisible taxes on thousands of students who pay tens of millions.

Source: Robin Hood in Reverse

War on Nonrevenue Sports returns: USOC gearing up

USOC CEO Scott Blackmun isn’t going to give up on Olympic sports in colleges without a fight. He sees the threat of budget cuts and reallocations as athletics departments start paying more for its football and basketball players.

There are so many things that we can do. What we need to do is get together and decide what is our top priority, what are our top three priorities. We have identified a donor who’s willing to support us, subject to us collectively — and by that I mean the athletic directors and the USOC — finding a program that we think is really going to move the needle. … We need to preserve these Olympic sport programs.

College campuses are ideal training grounds for Olympians. They have the facilities, and athletes can live, train and study in one spot. We’ll see if these sports can hang on.

A couple of reports: USA TODAY, Louisville Courier-Journal.

And the previous dispatches from the War on Nonrevenue Sports:

More to come. I hope not, but probably.

Are all scholastic sports a waste of time?

That’s the question raised in this pointed essay from The Atlantic: The Case Against High-School Sports and a follow-up from CollegeSportsScholarships.com.

The examples cited are extreme. The Atlantic found schools that managed to fund its football teams while the science labs rotted. The University of Oregon’s students apparently slipped academically as the football team got better. That’s not good. But it’s one school — not a huge sample size.

That said, these are legitimate questions that fly in the face of some sacred cows. We’ve been programmed to think athletes (particularly female athletes in Title IX arguments) are more likely to stay in school and succeed. But that’s not always true, and we all know it. Especially not in college. There’s a reason the NCAA started tracking graduation rates so obsessively.

Another issue here, especially for the soccer crowd: Are schools a better place for sports than clubs are? From a school budget point of view, maybe clubs are better. From a family perspective, maybe the schools are better. You can’t tell me a kid is better off hopping in a car a couple of times a week to go practice with a club somewhere else when there’s probably a perfectly good field or gym right there at the school.

Football is the easiest target when schools need to cut back. That’s a lot of money to spend. But it’s hard to cut football out of a school’s social calendar. And unlike soccer, basketball, tennis, golf and several other sports, football doesn’t offer a lot of non-school options.

I was raised with the old ideal that kids needed to develop mind and body (and spirit, in my YMCA days). My tiny high school had a full athletic program, and roughly 90 percent of us played something. I admire that ideal, but I understand the expense argument.

So here’s a heretical idea: How about having more intramurals and less travel?

Maybe you could have tournaments within each school. From those tournaments, pick All-Star teams that compete against a couple of big rivals and then into state tournaments.

This would get many more people involved at big schools. I can already tells you how many players in youth soccer have no chance of making a school’s varsity or junior varsity with only two teams per school. Why not spread things out a bit?

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.)

The war on nonrevenue sports, ctd

The argument as laid out in Sports Illustrated:

1. There’s a lot of money flowing into big-time college sports.

2. They should give some of that money away toward charitable causes.

3. But wait, many athletic departments are actually losing money. So …

“The first obligation is to restore fiscal sanity by using [the savings in salary] to plug that hole,” says Zimbalist, who also proposes reducing the number of football scholarships, having FBS schools cut spending on nonrevenue sports and instituting an NCAA football playoff.

The Zimbalist here is Andrew Zimbalist, a Smith College professor who has done pretty much all there is to do in sports economics, from research on Ken Burns’s odes to baseball to a Title IX analysis with advocate Nancy Hogshead-Makar.

(I do have to mention that Zimbalist appears in Long-Range Goals, testifying on behalf of MLS players in their lawsuit against the league, much to the bemusement of Soccer America columnist Paul Gardner:

The players called sports economist Andrew Zimbalist to show how Division I competition could have driven up salaries. (Rhett) Harty’s 1996 salary, to give one example, would’ve been $115,275 instead of $41,356. Gardner was unimpressed: “For an entire session, this totally fictitious exercise dragged on, as the good Professor Zimbalist revealed charts and calculations to ‘prove’ what must have happened had a whole series of improbable conditions existed. They never did exist.”)

In the case of college sports, Zimbalist certainly understands the issue. It’s just curious to see him and SI‘s Alexander Wolff tossing aside nonrevenue sports as collateral damage.

But that’s not the first time we’ve seen such a suggestion from SI. Or elsewhere.

So if you believe in college soccer, swimming, track, volleyball, wrestling, lacrosse, tennis, golf, etc., you might want to start speaking up.

(The first “war on nonrevenue sports” post is here. I’ll start tagging them from now on. Not that I’m hoping for more.)