“This model is not a plan to just save our 12 remaining programs… it is a revenue-generating model that we can take to any university, offering them a way to increase the athletic opportunities at their school and in their communities without having to spend a dime.”

To further address and add to the ongoing conversation about the current state of men’s NCAA gymnastics, Illinois’ Associate Head Coach Daniel Ribeiro “Imagines a Sustainable Reality for Men’s NCAA Gymnastics” in this OP-ED for Inside Gymnastics.

What is the real issue? 

Universities have been fighting in a financial arms race to stay competitive in all sports over the last 50 years. Those that spend more on salaries, facilities, and the large category labeled as the “athlete experience” tend to get better recruits; which helps them win more games, generate more money, and ultimately leads to spending that money. Every single university is forced to chase that model because it is believed that if you don’t spend, you can’t win, and if you don’t win, you can’t generate enough revenue to catch up to the spending leaders. Cutting sports allows universities to reallocate that spending to try and catch up with the salaries, resources, and support of the top schools.

Over the last 50 years, while some universities have slimmed down their departments, to try and catch up with the industry leaders, many schools have thrived, and only seen revenue increasing at exponential levels. So, while many opportunities were being lost, a lot of that was being overshadowed and drowned out by the incredible athlete experience, the success of a growing market, and a thriving revenue generating model.

The success has created budgets over 100 million dollars covering a couple dozen sports.

In short, it’s a revenue generating model built for sports that generate revenue. If your sport doesn’t generate revenue, you’re at risk.

If this has been happening for 50 years, why is it becoming such an issue now?

While this model always ran at odds with the collegiate athletics mission of providing opportunities for students to participate in athletics, it has now reached a point where it is no longer sustainable due to the impacts of Covid 19. The looming financial implication from the Alston case and NIL will compound the financial pressure on universities where they will continue to be forced to make the tough decision between reducing the athlete experience or cutting programs. With so many programs being cut at the same time, sports, athletes, parents, and fans are finally waking up to the problem that has been created.

So if the current solution is to cut sports in order to maintain the highest quality of athlete experience, to continue in this arms race model, will they just continue cutting sports until only the revenue generating sports remain?

Alas, we have arrived at the core of the problem. The answer is yes and no. Without intervention, or leadership coming together to reform the system, the arms race will continue. But even that isn’t the end of the story! The NCAA Division I minimum number of sports that is needed to be sponsored at a university to retain its Division I status, is 16. As more schools downsize, many are quickly approaching this minimum number. 

What will they do once they reach 16 and can’t cut anymore sports? Have they tried to fix the system?

I am not sure what will happen when they reach the minimum, but unfortunately some institutions have doubled down on the current model and tried to fix the system by proposing legislature to reduce the minimum number of Division I teams to a lower number than the current 16! Luckily, this proposal was rejected. There has also been rumors about certain conferences splitting from the NCAA, which would result in them not needing to follow those minimum numbers anymore.

How has this been allowed to go on for so long?

Unfortunately, we have all played a part in allowing this to go on. Coaches, athletes, parents, athletic directors, administrations, fans and the public have stood by while thousands of opportunities have been lost. I say this as fact, because it is the unfortunate reality that we must confront. If we banded together and wanted a different result, surely we would have been able to come up with one. In fact, many did stand together, but not for this cause. Everyone has actually banded together for the broken system we have. Fans and the public demand more football and basketball wins, coaches of all sports gripe about not being able to compete at the highest level because other schools have greater resources, athletes who avoid getting cut are silenced or distracted with an athlete experience fit for kings, and so, priorities have been set. 

What can we do to help stop this?

If you want to help, get informed on the issues at hand, ask questions, and stand up and fight for what you believe is right. Take John Roethlisberger’s letter and share it with everyone, and tell them to share it with everyone. I don’t have any kids, but I will fight for yours. You may not be my athlete, but I will stand up and fight for your opportunity to just have the chance to participate. We must fight now so that they will listen, and once they are ready to listen we can all solve this problem together.

Let’s say they are ready to listen. Are there really any possible solutions?

There are literally hundreds of solutions. The simplest solution for the immediate problem is for universities to cut back on bloated budgets. Did you know that universities put their football teams in hotels the night before a home game? This costs $100,000-$400,000 a year depending on the school. This is just one example of things that many schools are keeping around while cutting sports. 

The NFL and NHL have a “hard salary cap”. The NBA has a “soft salary cap”. MLB doesn’t have a cap, but has a tax on spending past a certain amount, where those tax dollars get dispersed to teams that are unable to spend as much. 

The NCAA could raise the minimum number of sports required for a Division I school to retain their sponsorship. If they had been doing that while revenue dollars were exploding over the last 50 years, institutions would have been forced to put those dollars in creating more opportunities. The cost of putting a football team in a hotel before a home game is the entire budget of an a female A&T (women’s acro and tumbling) team for a year!

All of these solutions require others to make sacrifices. What can non revenue sports do to help save their opportunities under the current model?

I may be oversimplifying this, but the real answer to fitting in this model is… find a way to generate revenue. Gymnastics, for example, has already faced this crisis when high schools stopped sponsoring gymnastics in all schools across the country due to liability insurance expenses. What did we do to survive? We created a revenue-generating business model to sustain the sport across the country. I believe that a model exists for each sport to create a revenue-generating model for their sport at their school. I have been looking into such models to save men’s gymnastics. Tie this idea with camps, clinics, hosting competitions, and running fundraisers, and these programs could generate up to $500,000 annually while creating a non profit community center for youth athletics to thrive in underserved communities.

But doesn’t a men’s gymnastics program cost closer to $1,000,000? That’s not exactly revenue generating right?

That is the reason that we MUST downsize in order to survive and grow. If we moved closer to an Olympic model that looked like an 8-man travel party, 3 up 3 count, reducing from 6.3 scholarships to 3, and reducing coaches to 2, you are left with a budget in the $250,000-$400,000 range. We are not reducing because of fear, but to fit a legitimate sustainability model that solves the reasons for getting cut in the first place.

Wait… so this is a revenue generating sustainability model for the sport of men’s gymnastics?

Yes… and nearly every sport can create their own model based on their sport.

But there are only 12 teams remaining, if we reduce those scholarships there will barely be any left!

Sadly, making that statement and resisting evolutionary change is what got us into this boat in the first place. This model is not a plan to just save our 12 remaining programs… it is a revenue-generating model that we can take to any university, offering them a way to increase the athletic opportunities at their school and in their communities without having to spend a dime. In fact, Arizona State University is already a proof of concept for this model! If we change our format and reduce our financial footprint, ASU can almost immediately be reinstated as a varsity men’s gymnastics team! Not only that, but they can designate 8-10 athletes to the varsity team (reduced roster helps with title IX numbers) and they can keep their GymACT team as well! ANYONE could build a gym at a university and start a varsity and GymACT program, fully funded with annual revenue generating streams, without needing to chase a $32,000,000 endowment that ends up getting targeted by athletic departments anyway. Add in a female sport with a similar cost conscientious spending model like the one we are creating to further offset title IX, helping create more female opportunities, and you have a REAL possible solution to all of the problems. 

These are just some of the solutions that a few of us have come up with. Imagine what we could think of if all parties were truly looking for a sustainable long term solution.

Daniel Ribeiro

 

Photos provided by the University of Illinois

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