The Case for Men’s NCAA Gymnastics

PLUS: A Roadmap for Success

By John Roethlisberger

Amidst the pandemic, non-revenue sports have been placed onto the chopping block with increasing frequency as athletic departments across the country try to make up for massive financial losses. The current pandemic has pushed college sports as a whole to the brink. Cutting sports doesn’t have to be the answer. In fact, in some ways it’s the easy way out. The industry needs creativity, forward thinking and some guts to answer the hard questions and save these opportunities. College athletics, outside of football and basketball, have been forced to ask the question, why? Why do we exist and for what goal and purpose? Is it about participation and opportunity? Or, is it about constantly spending for something bigger and fancier and constantly having more?  

I will use my alma mater as an example – The University of Minnesota. They announced recently that they intend to cut men’s gymnastics, but there is still time to let your voice be heard with their Board of Regents before they confirm the decision (more on that and link at the bottom of this article). Keep in mind I do not work closely with the university, so much of the following are observations. However, I have been around college athletics since I was born and have participated and worked in a multitude of levels from athlete, coach, within the athletic department, and covered it for television. I have seen a lot of change in my lifetime. The University of Minnesota, to their credit, has done an amazing job creating an outstanding, well-rounded athletic program despite having a largely unsuccessful football program for much of my life. That being said, college athletics has changed greatly since I was a young boy running around campus as my Dad coached his team to when I was on the team, and now as an alumnus.

Back in the 70’s and 80’s more teams shared locker rooms and weight rooms. The men’s hockey weight room used to be a vacant space in the corner of the old football stadium. They called it the dungeon because that’s what it resembled. Those years also represented the greatest years in Minnesota hockey history. When I was on the gymnastics team we had one warm up for each season and I actually had one jersey I wore for all four years. Recently, they’ve have a $15,000 Nike budget, and home and away uniforms. Not much compared to some sports, but it adds up.   Minnesota has men’s and women’s hockey. They each have their own hockey arenas on the same street right next to each other. Awesome right? Why don’t they share a sheet of ice? For the cost of maintaining two arenas, I’m guessing you could add another sport. But therein lies the question.

People will say that the athletic departments are making millions, and millions more all the time from TV and advertising. This money should be spent on the athletes, I agree. How it is spent on the athletes is the question. Should it be on scholarships, adding or maintaining opportunities to participate? Or, should it be on locker rooms, weight rooms, state-of-the-art facilities, student-athlete centers, or a different uniform for every competition? I’m certainly not going to suggest how football should spend its money necessarily, as it’s the lifeblood of every sport at the collegiate level. Most universities need football, and men’s basketball, to fund everything else. If they need to keep up with the Joneses, I get it. How departments spend money after that remains the philosophical question. Is it on bigger, better, and shinier? Or, is it focused on the essence of what college athletics is about, an opportunity to participate?

Many people think if athletic departments can just survive the pandemic and keep these sports afloat, everything will go back to normal and be fine. That’s naive. Unless spending and revenue generation are simultaneously addressed soon, everyone is just delaying the inevitable. Others believe it’s time for college athletes to get paid. Maybe that’s the right thing to do, but that money still has to come from somewhere and that somewhere inevitably will be non-revenue sports. Maybe that’s still viewed as the new world of college athletics and I am not one who can argue against it, but everyone just needs to have a clear understanding of the consequences.

The NCAA business model is broken and the basic philosophy needs to change if sports are going to be saved. I think men’s gymnastics, ironically, is in a unique situation where I think they can change, improve and ultimately save themselves, and along the way be a model for other sports.

Men’s Gymnastics: Solutions Are Within Reach, If We Work Hard

For those familiar with men’s gymnastics, you are aware that over the last five decades it has been decimated at the collegiate level to the point where it has fewer than 20 programs. The current pandemic and cancelation of many spring and fall sports has placed men’s gymnastics squarely in the path of being cut. Men’s gymnastics is not alone. Women’s programs are at risk as well, along with just about every non-revenue sport at universities across the country. In fact, if I were to put it bluntly but as clearly as I see reality, I would say in no uncertain terms, it’s over. There will be no men’s gymnastics at the collegiate level, as we know it unless something drastic is done and there’s a change in how it’s viewed at the university level, and quickly!

Some will say increasing the marketability of men’s gymnastics is the answer. It will bring more fans, increase viewership on television and as a result, generate more revenue. I am not going to disagree with that and some of what is below addresses that issue. However, that is a long-term change that has to happen over years. Men’s gymnastics needs drastic change today to be saved.

That understanding is the foundation of where this started and what needs to happen going forward.

Number 1: The Budget

Money makes athletic departments work. It always has and always will. Football and men’s basketball are almost universally the only moneymakers on college campuses. Take away the NCAA Tournament and now fall football, or at the very least fans in the stands, and you take away the lifeblood of an athletic department and most certainly the lifeblood of every non-revenue sport. Hence, the first thing each program needs to do is cut their budget to the absolute necessities.

Right now, every athletic department that has men’s gymnastics is looking at that line item and asking how and in some cases why, they should keep it. One strike of the pen can result in roughly a savings of $750,000 to each of those athletic departments. I have always been of the contention that at its very core, all you need to have in an athletic program is a coach and a place to train. When looking at the budget, that needs to be a constant reminder. Reduce the budget to under $300,000:

  • Reduce paid coaches to one head coach and one assistant
  • Reduce scholarships to three (could be 2)
  • Reduce team size to 12 men (could be 10)
  • Completely eliminate a travel budget
  • Completely eliminate an equipment budget
  • Completely eliminate a uniform budget

Immediately, the question will be asked about the holes in the budget. Travel, uniforms and equipment will be reliant on fundraising and where fundraising falls short, athletes will need to pay their own way to competitions. Again, remember what we truly need is a coach and a gym. Gymnasts, more specifically their families, have spent their entire athletic careers leading up to college paying for everything. Now they are in a situation where the coach and the facility are paid for, and in an ideal situation, so are travel, equipment and uniforms. In a worst-case scenario, they will have to continue to pay for some of their gymnastics experience.  

Sound unacceptable or unreasonable? The alternative is there will be no men’s gymnastics, that’s a certainty.

Number 2: Format Change

If you’re the athletic director, the first question you may ask is, “why would I do this instead of just eliminating the program?” or, “how can I do this and still have a viable, competitive program?” The answer is to change the format of men’s competitions to 3 up 3 count. Here’s why:

  1. With fewer competitive spots to fill, it allows programs to reduce their team size to 12 (or even 10) athletes and still put a high quality program on the floor. Possibly even higher quality.
  2. With fewer athletes competing, fewer athletes need to go on the road, thus less money to be fundraised for traveling.
  3. Fewer athletes validate the need for fewer coaches, while still maintaining ideal coach to athlete ratios in the gym.
  4. It makes the fan experience better and more exciting. It makes the team score much easier to follow, which has always been an issue for men’s gymnastics. Shorter meets create television appeal and a better in-house experience.
  5. One of the reasons stated for not changing the scoring system for men’s gymnastics is that it is a feeder program for the National, World and Olympic teams. If you’re going to have the International Gymnastics Federation scoring system for that reason, why not also adopt the same competition format?

The format change on the surface may seem like a small thing. In actuality, it is the element that helps make all the other changes possible. I believe if men’s gymnastics made this format change, enhanced their in-house product, and catered more to TV, they could move from being an afterthought to possibly having a regular time slot during the week much like women’s gymnastics does in the SEC (see Friday Night Heights).

Number 3: Small Changes Add Up to Big Results

I call this miscellaneous because it encompasses all the other things that may seem small. However, they all tie into one of the above and collectively add up to something big.

  1. For at least two of the home meets a men’s program hosts, it needs to have a junior boys competition in conjunction as a fundraiser. This would be more than a fundraiser; it would also raise awareness of the program as well as bring more fans to the competition on that weekend.
  2. Work with the women’s programs at their respective universities to have at least two coed meets a year. The change in the format above will help make this happen. Women’s meets in the SEC last about one and a half hours. Men’s meets can routinely go over two hours. Going to 3 up 3 count for the men will shorten the men’s meet and create a product that could work with the women at a much higher level. There is also the advantage of a larger crowd for both programs and an economy of scale for the resources at the respective university (women’s programs are going to have to save, too).      
  3. Most every university that has a varsity program also has a club program. Some of them are pretty good. Use your university’s club program as a junior varsity program. Recruit athletes from around the country to your respective club program. As head coach or assistant coach, give a few hours a week to working with your club program. They can still compete at collegiate club nationals, and there may be athletes that can make the jump from JV to varsity.
  4. Negotiate with the university for reduced tuition scholarships. This may be a long shot but worth a try. Between a 12-man squad and possibly another 8-10 on the club program, most of which likely wouldn’t have attended that university were it not for gymnastics, there may be some value and some leverage to encourage the university to help keep those 20 or so tuition-paying student-athletes coming back to campus. This may be especially valuable now when attendance at some universities could be in jeopardy.

Alone, none of the above is the answer, but collectively they chip away at the problem and create an answer while also galvanizing and growing the gymnastics community and fan base. This is certainly not an all-inclusive list; there are many more ways to subsidize a collegiate program by working with equipment suppliers, uniform suppliers and obviously working with alumni.

Conclusion

Recently, I asked a senior administrator if I could deliver a gymnastics program that would continue to be competitive, create national and international caliber athletes, graduate students at a higher rate with higher GPAs than the university as a whole, and create the exact type of student-athlete the very mission of the athletic department has set out to achieve, but I said I could do it for one third of the current budget, would you keep men’s gymnastics? I would hope the answer would be obvious. If it’s not “yes” from every athletic director, I quite frankly think they need to ask why they are there.

This plan for men’s gymnastics can work. It can not only work, but can make men’s gymnastics better, stronger, and hopefully end this annual worry every men’s gymnastics coach, athlete and fan has wondering if this year is the last. It’s certainly not as simple as putting a black line through a budget item, but doing the right thing and what aligns best with the mission of the athletic department most closely, isn’t always easy.

This can be done and not only can it be done for men’s gymnastics, I hope it can be done for the many other sports unlikely to survive the next 12 months. Either the formula for non-revenue sports is going to change or long-term survival is not going to happen. The budgetary problems are not going away when the pandemic ends and stadiums fill back up. For many sports, getting through the next 12 months is just kicking the can down the road.

Finally, Let Your Voice Be Heard!

We still may have an opportunity to help the University of Minnesota. Head Coach Mike Burns said, “The decision to drop four sports at Minnesota, including men’s gymnastics, need Board of Regents approval. The Board is meeting [September 11] and will receive the proposal… I urge anyone and everyone to contact the Board of Regents to express your disapproval of this proposal… Please engage today!!”

Link: https://regents.umn.edu/contact?fbclid=IwAR0Fhq1sxPZRNHLsYG3ldxTooH64o8iuf-ul41sovoFvruWWzvCO-tYKSWY

Photo of Shane Wiskus of the University of Minnesota by Lloyd Smith for Inside Gymnastics

Additional photos provided by the University of Minnesota, University of Oklahoma, Stanford, and the University of Illinois

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