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Can College Club Programs Help Boost the Sports Economy?

1 Jul, 2020

By: Mary Helen Sprecher
As More Universities Cut Teams, Rec and Club Programs Will Gain Athletes and Grow in Prominence

First came the news that a few schools were dropping sports teams here and there because of COVID-19-related budget cuts. Then a few became dozens and dozens became more than 100.

While some colleges have chosen to cut specific sports, others are cutting all sports, cancelling specific seasons or dropping post-season play, creating an enormous void in the competitive world. (A comprehensive list of colleges and sports the sports they are cutting can be found at the end of this article, as compiled by HoopDirt.com).

Many of the sports being cut are labelled “non-revenue” sports; in other words, they don’t pack in the fans that basketball and football can. One of those is swimming, and Greg Earhart, of the College Swimming and Diving Coaches of America, remarked in an article in Sports Illustrated that unfortunately, the impact of cutting programs can be felt starting all the way down to the youth level.

“People start to see this in the news,” Earhart points out. “Parents have choices of what they want to enroll their kids in. Now we see fewer kids involved in swimming. If you don’t have 8-year-olds enrolling in swimming, you’re not developing the pipeline to get players to London or Tokyo [for the Olympics].”

In agreement on this point is Sarah Wilhelmi, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee's director of college partnerships; according to Wilhelmi, a whopping 88 percent of American summer Olympians in Rio had played their sport in college, and in the 2018 winter games, one-third of Americans were former college athletes.

Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby told the Los Angeles Times that cutting any sport that appeared in the Olympics was an incredibly short-sighted measure, and was obviously being taken by schools who were in panic mode and not using reason.

“There are only 17 men’s gymnastics programs in the country,” he said. “If those go away, our Olympic efforts in men’s gymnastics will be devastated. Similarly, with different numbers, the same is true with women’s gymnastics and swimming, wrestling and a whole array of other things like water polo.”

When sports were singled out for removal, the ones most frequently cut were golf, tennis, swimming & diving, track & field and cross country. Among all these, tennis was the biggest casualty, losing 24 teams – a number that could easily double, given the number of colleges eliminating all sports.

Club sports may be able to fill the gap, offering opportunities for competitive play to students. With tennis programs appearing to be first on the chopping block, Tennis on Campus, a national club tennis program offered by the United States Tennis Association, is likely to get busy. In fact, TOC’s director, Glenn Arrington, is already fielding calls from students who want to set up club teams.

“I've spoken to them and they believe free play for tennis on college campuses will be one of the most popular activities once school resumes,” says Arrington. “They are pushing for this too.”

Golf is another frequently targeted program, with eight programs being singled out for elimination and most likely even more, with some colleges fall sports and some cutting all sports. The National Collegiate Club Golf Association, which runs competitive weekend college golf tournaments for students during the fall and spring semesters (when varsity golf would also normally run), is likely to start seeing interest as well.

“We are ready to support any schools whose varsity teams will not be operating on schedule for sure,” says Matt Weinberger, COO and Co-Founder of NCCGA, whose overarching company, NextGenGolf, also manages separate club programs for high school students and for those who are entering the workforce.

Other organizations that sponsor club sports can similarly expect more interest. The National Federation of Collegiate Club Sports Leagues, L.L.C. (known as CollClub Sports for short) offers collegiate club programs in baseball (more than 300 teams across three divisions), basketball (men’s and women’s), softball and tackle football.

NIRSA, formerly known as the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association, and now known as NIRSA, Leaders in Collegiate Recreation, also sponsors multiple sports programs, including those with national championships (soccer for men and women, flag football for men’s, women’s and co-ed teams; and basketball for men’s and women’s teams;, as well as club basketball, also for men’s and women’s teams). It also works with USTA to produce events for Tennis on Campus.

Club opportunities also exist for other sports. Running sports, meaning track & field and cross country, are also frequent targets for cuts. Six cross country programs and four track & field programs were named as being cut, with others possibly being impacted by schools eliminating full seasons, or even entirely removing all athletic programs). As a result, it is likely organizations such as the National Intercollegiate Running Club Association (NIRCA), which offers cross country, road and track programs, will see increased activity. Something else that could help boost college running's chances is World Athletics' push for cross country to be included in the Olympics.

And all those programs which sponsor championships will need somewhere to compete, meaning destinations may also see increased demand (something that will likely be very welcome). And with cuts to varsity programs, it is likely the level of competition will increase across the club spectrum and bring with it increased media and scouting attention.

Club governing bodies often sponsor events at the national level, and at the regional level as well. NIRCA, for example, coordinates events that include a fall cross country season, Cross Country Championship Series, Road and Track Nationals, and all-club conferences.

Tennis on Campus hosts multiple competitive events throughout the year, including a National Championship (in partnership with NIRSA), Spring and Fall Invitationals, and Section Championships. (The USTA has 17 geographic Sections; the latter events are coordinated by many of those groups.)

NIRSA’s Championship Series, in its three other championship sports (soccer, flag football and basketball) selects host sites for its national championships; sites for regional events are generally chosen by member institutions. In 2016, Valerie McCutchan, National Sports Program Director at NIRSA, said the site selection process for national events is driven by a number of factors.

“We need facilities – that is our main thing. We want a destination that is easy to get into and out of, and we want to give our students a good experience. We want them to remember it.  There are other considerations, too – for example, with soccer, the championships are held in November, so we have to make sure we’re choosing a location with the right weather.”

Golf is similarly facility-driven, says Matt Weinberger of the National Collegiate Club Golf Association.

“All our tournaments take place over a weekend, and they are 36 holes, 18 each day. We have established great relationships with hundreds of courses over the years.” Destinations can use the form available on NCCGA’s site to gauge what the organization is looking for and to express interest in hosting. That page sets out what the NCCGA will provide and what the course will provide, and what the student coordinator will do.

A separately organized event, the Golfweek Myrtle Beach Collegiate, which wrapped up play in late June, featured players from varsity teams. Chris King, who manages communications for the tournament, said he thought there would be a demand for more collegiate tournaments going forward. However, he noted, “How many we see will likely be dependent of on how colleges are able to rebound from the coronavirus. If schools are able to resume “normal” athletic activities this fall, I think the uptick in events will be marginal. If college sports aren’t played, the numbers could increase dramatically.”

Sandy Sanderson, of CollClub Sports, notes that while club sports in many places may experience growth, this is not guaranteed and that "There is concern that as varsity sports are cut so may club sports and those options may go away in the short term."

Expect the debate about cuts to college sports to last as long as the pandemic does – perhaps even years, if finances continue to deteriorate. The Los Angeles Times quoted David Ridpath, associate professor in Ohio University’s Sports Administration program and president of the Drake Group, a nonprofit that advocates for academic integrity and athlete welfare, as saying COVID-19 marks a tipping point for college sports.

“There is a ton of fat to cut before you get to dropping teams,” he said.

Ridpath said he would start with football, suggesting there are too many coaches and staff members on D-I teams. He also said there should be more regional scheduling for all sports to save travel costs and that a school should have the flexibility to play football at the Division I level but play tennis, golf and other non-revenue sports at Division III, where there are no athletic scholarships.

Ridpath was also quoted in USA TODAY, stating that schools were not looking at the big picture.

“We’re not seeing real leadership," Ridpath said in reference to schools that are eliminating sports.

The comprehensive list of cut sports, as compiled by HoopDirt.com in late June, is as follows:

NCAA DI schools eliminating varsity teams

NCAA DII schools eliminating varsity teams

NCAA DII schools canceling sports for a season or year

  • Morehouse College (GA) – canceled all fall sports
  • California Collegiate Athletic Association – canceled all fall sports competition. Affected colleges are:
    • Cal Poly Pomona
    • Cal State Dominguez Hills
    • Cal State East Bay
    • Cal State Los Angeles
    • Cal State Monterey Bay
    • Cal State San Bernardino
    • Cal State San Marcos
    • Chico State
    • Humboldt State
    • San Francisco State
    • Sonoma State
    • Stanislaus State

NCAA DIII schools eliminating varsity teams

NCAA DIII schools canceling sports for a season or year

  • Bowdoin College (ME) – All fall & winter sports canceled during fall semester
  • Pratt Institute (NY) -All sports canceled until at least 1/1/21
  • The College of New Jersey – canceled the following high-risk sports seasons for the fall semester: football, field hockey, men’s and women’s soccer, wrestling and men’s and women’s basketball.
  • UMass-Boston – All fall sports canceled for 2020

NAIA Schools eliminating varsity teams

NAIA schools canceling sports for a season or year

NJCAA schools canceling sports for a season or year (or more)

Colleges closing permanently (some announced pre-COVID-19 outbreak but listing them as well).

NCAA DII

NCAA DIII            

NAIA

NJCAA

NCCAA

Other league and division notes

NCAA DI

Mid-American Conference (MAC) eliminates post-season league tournaments for:

  • Baseball
  • Softball
  • Men’s Soccer
  • Women’s Soccer
  • Men’s Tennis
  • Women’s Tennis
  • Women’s Lacrosse
  • Field Hockey

Men’s and women’s basketball, volleyball, swimming, golf, and track & field all alter their tournament formats cut back on the number of teams in some cases, and not as many days for others. Complete details HERE.

NCAA DII

NCAA DII as a whole reduced sport maximums, and reduced minimum games played by 33 percent for 2020-21

Sport-by-sport recommended maximums for the 2020-21 academic year only HERE

NCAA DIII

 NCAA DIII Minimums needed for championship selection and sports sponsorship lowered by 33 percent in all sports.

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