Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise
Sports News Without Fear, Favor or Compromise

NCAA Unionization Means Sink-Or-Swim For Smaller Sports

Illustration for article titled NCAA Unionization Means Sink-Or-Swim For Smaller Sports

At this point, the professionalism of collegiate athletics seems to be not a question of if, but when. This inevitability has triggered those high in the NCAA food chain to insinuate that every sport save football and basketball is doomed. Case in point: the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, comprised of the leaders of the country's biggest colleges, which met Monday in Washington. Though their own internal report failed to mention anything about their proposed ideas, The Chronicle of Higher Education caught quite a bit:

Under (former Big 12 Commissioner) Mr. Beebe's plan, athletes in nonrevenue sports would no longer receive scholarships but would have the opportunity to sign endorsement deals. Teams would play a region-based schedule, allowing some colleges to save hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in travel expenses. And colleges would not have to hire full-time coaches in every sport, freeing up even more money.


No scholarships. Regional schedules. Part-time coaches. That sounds suspiciously like high school, provided teams can collect enough soda cans to pay for a big yellow bus. But the real wishful thinking is that the proposed changes would result in "bolstering U.S. Olympic programs that have suffered as a result of colleges' cutbacks in those sports," as Beebe says he believes.

In place of the current model, where all sports suck on the teats of basketball and football earnings, smaller sports would have to open more participation spots, a regressive idea again based off the high school model (minus the full-time coach). By gutting non-revenue sports' scholarships and travel budgets, it would "allow colleges to fully support athletes in football and basketball, who provide the most exposure for their universities," along with "increased academic and medical support, and continued opportunities to compete nationally."

But even with this blood-letting, sad-sack administrators are still prophesying the end of college sports as we know it, led by Northwestern's president emeritus Henry S. Bienen:

Mr. Bienen said the idea of "franchising out" sports was "slightly bizarre," given that the mission of a university is to educate students.

And because of financial pressures on colleges, he was skeptical that colleges could add teams in any sports.

"In this climate," he said, "bringing back even the number of club sports—much less ones with varsity status—is wishful thinking."

Because of his location in the eye of the football unionization storm, Bienen is far from an unbiased party. (Take the mysterious "climate" Bienen is referring to: undergraduate enrollment alone has been forecasted to jump from 17.7 million to 20.2 million students between 2012 and 2023.) But I'm not a math guy. Say it's true. Say there's just not money available to field a men's soccer program. The primary reaction against this loss of funding is that it's not fair.

Do smaller sports lament? Do they stage protests? If they want to stick around, they must adapt. Part of the reason football and basketball are in their current positions is because they've been willing to adjust to the times. They've gotten sexier and more fan-friendly, while smaller sports have largely clung to tradition and ridden along on their funding coattails. With the changes coming to the NCAA, smaller sports will now have the opportunity to market themselves better. They have the chance to consolidate and grow their audience. For the first time, smaller sports have the chance—and the necessity—to compete, and for a sport, that's a good thing.