USOC’s Blackmun “Very Concerned” About NCAA Olympic Sports

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The (re)establishment of two prominent Division I intercollegiate water polo programs has provided a boost to the spirits of American water polo fans. San Jose State’s men will begin competing again this fall after taking a few decades off. The Spartans are the first DI program to be added to the NCAA portfolio since the early 80s. Fresno State’s women will follow suit some time in the next couple years. Both are widely perceived to be positive signals for the growth of the niche sport in the US.

But those signs mask an increasingly gloomy prognosis for water polo and every other non-revenue sport held by many observers of intercollegiate athletics. While football and, to a lesser degree, basketball, are generating enormous revenues – Michigan football reported earning over $81 million in 2012-13 – the other sports don’t come close. And many involved in the cash-register sports have come to resent the redistribution of their massive earnings among the “lesser” programs, buttressing the simmering view that the Olympic sports are under genuine threat of elimination.

The heat beneath that simmer is on the rise with recent comments by United States Olympic Committee CEO Scott Blackmun. In Yahoo! Sports on Wednesday columnist Pat Forde quoted Blackmun as being “very concerned” about the future of non-revenue college sports.

As he should be.

Sixty-five percent of the USA Olympic team in London was made up of athletes who trained at the collegiate level, writes Forde. As a direct beneficiary of that relatively inexpensive arrangement Blackmun is uniquely sensitive to changes in the intercollegiate status quo. So consider these statistics:

Since the early 1980s, Blackmun said, college men’s gymnastics programs have been cut by 75 percent. Wrestling has been cut by half. About 50 schools have dropped their men’s swimming programs.

To water polo fans this sounds at least vaguely familiar. Since 2010 Chatham, Maryland, Colorado State, Vanguard, Notre Dame (OH), and UC Davis have either cut water polo programs or forced them to raise their own funding to continue.

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To those who think those expenses can be covered by all the cash generated on autumn Saturdays, the revenues produced by the cash-register sports will be offset by a new wave of expenditures, says Forde.

There are full cost of attendance scholarships, plus enhanced meal plans and health coverage. There is the O’Bannon lawsuit outcome to be factored in, and the Kessler lawsuit as well, each of which seeks major financial windfalls for athletes in revenue-producing sports.

“We’re not against giving college athletes much-improved medical care, four-year scholarships, full cost of attendance,” Blackmun said. “Our concern is that the inevitable impact of these changes is coming down on Olympic sports. We’ve seen estimates that athletic departments will have to spend an additional $2 million to $3 million [emphasis added] per year to cover these costs. That’s the cost of operating two or three Olympic sports programs.

There’s more. The moneyed sports in the most powerful conferences are campaigning to hold on to more of their prodigious incomes, much of which were shared among less glamorous programs in the past:

…there have been preliminary discussions in some power conferences about petitioning to reduce the number of sports Division I schools must sponsor (the current [minimum] is 14, with at least six of those mens’ sports). That has induced some musical chairs-style anxiety among non-revenue programs, each trying to prove themselves worthy of a place within what could be shrinking athletic departments.

The tally of men’s intercollegiate programs consistently hovers just over the 40-team threshold for NCAA sponsorship. Women’s teams top 60, but vary uncomfortably year to year. That precariousness is certain to be a factor in the difficult decisions that ADs will more often have to make when they select the sports that best match the needs of their schools and changing budgets.