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Three Emerging Sports for Women: Will 2018 be their Year?

10 Jan, 2018

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
Equestrian, Rugby and Triathlon Vying to Become NCAA Championship Sports

Get organized. Get healthier. Live according to a budget. Become an NCAA championship sport?

Cue the music: One of these things is not the other…

Okay, so it’s not your typical New Year’s resolution. But in this case, it’s the mantra of three sports, all labeled “emerging sports for women,” which have been working to gain acceptance on the NCAA varsity-level, with local, regional and national championships.

The three sports – equestrian, rugby and triathlon – have been making strides in the past several years, and each is hoping 2018 will be its year.

So what are the chances? And what can those mean for sports event organizers?

Related: SDM’s poll on Emerging Sports for Women: Which will make it in first? Vote here.

First, a review. An NCAA emerging sport, according to that organization’s definition, “is a women’s sport recognized by the NCAA that is intended to help schools provide more athletics opportunities for women and more sport-sponsorship options for the institutions, and also help that sport achieve NCAA championship status.”

Back in 1994, the NCAA embraced the concept of emerging sports for women, on the urging of its Gender Equity Task Force. At the time, nine sports were on that list. Some went on to become championship sports (beach volleyball, rowing, ice hockey, water polo and bowling), while others have been added to or removed from the list.

Bylaws require that emerging sports must gain championship status (minimum 40 varsity NCAA programs for individual and team sports; with the exception of Division III requiring only 28 varsity programs for team sports) within 10 years or show steady progress toward that goal in order to remain on the list. 

The most recent emerging sport to hit championship status was women’s beach volleyball, which enjoyed a meteoric rise; it was added to the list as an emerging sport in 2009; by 2015, it was a full championship sport, and continues to grow explosively in all divisions, and in land-locked states as well as coastal regions.

Which brings us to the three currently under consideration. Here’s a quick recap of where they stand:

Equestrian: Added to the list of emerging sports in 1998, equestrian is contested at the Division I and II and levels, and it is available to Division III schools as well. Currently, there are 18 Division I and four Division II programs sponsoring equestrian. The National Collegiate Equestrian Association (NCEA) is currently responsible for the development and administration of equestrian rules and guidelines.

In fall of 2014, when the Council on Women’s Athletics (CWA) recommended equestrian be dropped from emerging sports due to limited growth, it was representatives from DI schools who rejected this decision and tabled it for future discussion. As a result, CWA reconfirmed its support and in 2016, was firmly in equestrian’s corner.

The NCEA’s present structure, which includes a National Advisory Board (NAB) comprised of corporate leaders, philanthropists, and equine industry experts. The goal of the NAB is to develop the financial support to make Equestrian the first financially-independent non-revenue generating collegiate sport.? NAB efforts have shown early success in the form of grants to help sustain current NCEA teams, as well as providing financial strategies for the development of new Equestrian teams across the nation. In addition, garnering the support of stakeholders within the NCAA and the USOC has better positioned equestrian in the world of collegiate sports.

The NCEA itself has compiled a fact sheet on why colleges should consider, and adopt, equestrian sports. Reasons in favor of the program include the following:

·       Participation Opportunities: The ability to increase Title IX compliance and offer additional scholarship funding;

·       Low Financial Impact: Contrary to popular belief, NCEA states, implementing equestrian as a sport is not expensive;

·       Excellent Student-Athletes: Women involved in equestrian tend to have an above-average GPA (3.28)

·       Established Championship: The NCEA championship is held each year in Waco, Texas. The 2017 event will take place in mid-April. The calendar of competitive equestrian events at the NCEA level runs from September through February. The setup of events is also different from that of a private horse show.

Riders do not bring their own horses to events; each school shares its own herd of horses (most of which have been donated to the school) during competitive events. Events in competition include Hunt Seat Equitation Over Fences, Hunt Seat Equitation on the Flat, Western Horsemanship and Western Reining.

In each event, five riders from each team are tested in head-to-head competitions.  Five horses are selected for each event. Each rider is paired with one of the five horses in a random draw before the competition. She is able to watch the horse warm up and receives four minutes to practice on her assigned mount before competing.  Riders from opposing teams compete on the same horse in the head-to-head competition.  Each rider receives a score, and the rider with the highest score receives one point for her team. In NCEA competition, the level of difficulty is demonstrated by the accuracy of the pattern and how the competitor uses the horse that she draws to the best of her ability.

Leah Fiorentino, executive director of the NCEA, is optimistic about making gains in 2018, but notes the organization anticipates “limited growth this coming year and predict a larger boost the following year.”

Rugby: Labeled as an emerging sport in 2002, rugby has 16 full varsity teams and over 200 club teams in the NCAA system. (Want to know the difference between varsity and club teams? A synopsis can be found here).

According to the National Intercollegiate Rugby Association (both NIRA and USA Rugby have pages dedicated to NCAA acceptance), women’s rugby currently has “3,225 girls participating in high school club rugby. There are 11,000 women collegiate club rugby players. And currently, NCAA rugby for men does not exist as women’s rugby is an emerging sport classification in the NCAA. There are several men’s rugby teams that possess varsity status but none are classified as part of the NCAA structure or beholden to divisional bylaws.”

USA Rugby also notes, “For schools not in compliance with Title IX, Women's Rugby provides a low-cost option by adding a sport that can field a large roster with minimal equipment needs. For all institutions, it is an economical way to offer a popular women's athletic activity for current and incoming students. To field a women's rugby team, the basic needs include: 1) a pool of existing or incoming students that want to play, 2) a coach, 3) a soccer-sized field for practice and competition, and 4) developing a schedule with local, regional and national competitive opportunities.”

The deep bench, USA Rugby further notes, is there, since youth high school (varsity and club) rugby participation grew over 400 percent in the span of the past two years. Among the world's most popular sports, participation in rugby increased by 81% during 2008-2013 according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association (SFIA) in the organization's latest U.S. Trends in Team Sports Report.

Rugby is one of the few true full-contact sports and the only one offered by the NCAA for women. Physical contact occurs at virtually every phase of the game. A sport not solely defined by contact, a successful rugby team combines tackling, speed, strength, agility, passing, kicking, and driving for a multifaceted attack.

Triathlon: USA Triathlon, the sport’s national governing body, has announced that multisport has made serious inroads toward its goal of becoming an NCAA championship sport. This week, Johnson State College in Vermont was officially announced as the 22nd school in the nation to add varsity triathlon. This marked the organization crossing over the halfway point of a goal to reach 40 schools by 2024. Triathlon was added as an emerging sport in 2014.

The organization has been active in its work to get schools to adopt the sport, presenting to more than 140 individual institutions that had interest in starting triathlon programs. It has also communicated via e-mail with more than 5,000 athletic directors and senior woman administrators at colleges, noting the potential to add triathlon. It has also presented at 13 conference meetings in 2017 and is scheduled to present at another 10 before the end of the academic year in 2018. A list of the 22 varsity women’s triathlon programs in USA Triathlon can be found here.

USA Triathlon offers an information brochure for colleges; that and other pieces of information can be downloaded from this page. Among the reasons triathlon is seen as a good alternative for schools are the fact that it is already an Olympic sport, the fact that it creates increased recruitment opportunities for new students, and the fact that it has a relatively low start-up investment; if an institution has a pool and a track, facility costs associated with a triathlon program are low, manageable, and sustainable. In addition, USA Triathlon offers start-up grants for organizations with aspiring varsity triathlon programs and has worked to identify vendors of equipment students will need.

Event Owner Tie-In: The tie-in for event owners is a simple one: work to increase opportunities for student-athletes. Offer competitive divisions, if possible, for college athletes, and put the word out to colleges in the area. Reach out to the governing bodies shown above for collegiate equestrian, rugby and triathlon – and engage students at every level.

Destination Tie-In: Hosting opportunities for championship events are available for many sports, including:

USA Triathlon

USA Rugby

NCEA

The result: increased economic impact for the destinations that embrace the program, and the planners who work with colleges and event owners to put on championships – or who create special registration categories for college students or college teams.

As a case study, USA Triathlon reported to SDM that at its April 2017 USA Triathlon Collegiate Club and High School National Championships in Tuscaloosa, almost 98 percent of participants used lodging, resulting in close to $1 million economic impact in that area. The total economic impact (including the lodging figure plus shopping, attractions, dining, rental cars and more) came to more than $2.1 million. Tuscaloosa will host the 2018 championships as well. 

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