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Practical Considerations for Adding Sports Programs Post-Covid

By Sloane Milstein, PhD, Colorado Mesa; Zack Damon, PhD, Central Arkansas

Covid-19 changed the face of sports like no other time in history. Sporting institutions are in the midst of reorganizing, restructuring, and in the coming years rebuilding. While much attention was given to the elimination of college sports, there were a number of institutions adopting new sports. In early 2020 numerous universities announced additions of sport teams, such as Plymouth State adding men’s swimming, Indiana Tech adding women’s ice hockey, Augustana College adding men’s and women’s water polo. For many institutions this may seem counterintuitive during Covid-19, a pandemic and a recession. AthleticDirectorU has recorded 149 varsity athletic program additions (as of March 20, 2021) across D1, D2, D3 and NAIA since March 2020. 


We have published articles breaking down this topic: a white paper with the Center for Research in Intercollegiate Athletics focused providing an overview of the College Sport Addition Process (CSAP); an International Journal of Sport Management article breaking down the most common factors and themes; and, most recently, a Journal of Intercollegiate Sport article looking at the data through an escalation of commitment and entrapment lens. A summary of the articles provides a full picture of why a university would choose to add a sport, even in a pandemic, and what factors should be considered to make sure this is a good idea for all parties involved. 


The Collegiate Sport Addition Process (CSAP) emerged from a study designed to understand the factors, priorities and processes that NCAA Division I Athletic Directors use in determining whether to add one or more sports to their institution. The information provided will help leaders recognize the various aspects of the decision-making process and the interdependence of the priority themes – University Viability, Sport Popularity, Association Membership and Access and Opportunity, consisting of individual factors (provided in the table below). CSAP is both a model and a tool that considers the whole institution and its various stakeholders puts emphasis on the connectedness that must exist for a sport adoption initiative to be successful. Following is a list of the factors as well as diagnostic questions about each process and priority, which provides structured guidance to those considering adding a sport to higher education institutions. 


Escalation of commitment is often associated with the sport arms race, such as building bigger and better facilities, bringing on big contract coaches, and the recruitment benefits that result from these facets for both student-athletes and the general student body. Essentially, the escalation of commitment is usually combined with the notion of entrapment, and both are associated with the negative aspects related to further pursuing a decision in spite of the growing negative consequences of the decision. When escalation of commitment is intertwined with the sport arms race, leaders in intercollegiate athletic departments face numerous potential issues. For example, the climate of athletics has changed drastically in the last 40 years with an increased call for accountability in academics, recruiting, gender equity and an expectation of sound fiscal practices from both inside and outside of the institutions. Because of the more complex nature of today’s higher education environment, the responsibilities of athletic administrators are increasingly demanding. Decisions made must consider the impact on the students, the departments, the institution, and the external environment. 


Escalation of commitment has centered on the connection of five key determinants in an organization throughout time; with the determinants being – social, organizational, project, contextual, and psychological. The social determinant is centered on one’s internal processes to reconcile modeling others’ behavior, and cultural norms expected of leaders in decision-making situations. Ultimately, social determinants dictate a person’s resistance to admit a mistake in their decision-making for the sake of maintaining credibility. Organizational determinant is based on aspects of public support for the organization’s decision, economic and technical investments into the decision, and how well aligned the decision is with the organization’s existing values. Next, the project determinant is focused on the economic impact of a decision. The contextual determinant incorporates those forces and aspects related to the organization’s decision, which expand beyond the organization’s boundaries (i.e., beyond their physical facilities). Lastly, the psychological determinant is centered on how one processes their decisions in such a way that leads to the manipulation of data and facts to align with their desired decision’s outcome.


The five escalation of commitment determinants provide a foundation for understanding the forces surrounding the decision-making process of adding a sport program in an athletic department. Opposite of the escalation of commitment has been the emerging focus on de-escalation of commitment. De-escalation behaviors involve the ceasing or reversing escalation commitment decisions, in the hopes of avoiding or minimizing negative effectives of previous escalation initiatives. If reversing or ceasing actions do not work, then the ultimate de-escalation is to terminate the project or decision completely. Therefore, it is important that athletic department leaders weigh all escalation determinants and corresponding outcomes before enacting a decision that may need to be de-escalated or terminate the initiative completely at a later time.


Proposed Decision-making Process to Add a Sport to NCAA Division I Institutions



Phase One – Driving Forces. The CASP illustrates the various phases of decision-making detailed with our emergent themes and data. We incorporated the first phase of the driving force of where the push to add a sport originated from, (such as: students, board of trustees, compliance, and the athletic department itself, among others), and linked this phase to phase 2, justification.


Considering the impact on stakeholders and key internal forces (e.g., Institutional Administration, Admissions, Board of Trustees, Students, and Strategic Plans) and external forces (e.g., community, association memberships, and compliance) is necessary from the onset. A formal buy-in (Acceptance) will be necessary for a sport to be added with as little resistance as possible. Consider who is requesting the sport and their connection to the sport as well as the end goal and the impact it might have on the institution.


Phase Two – Justification. Justification helped to reaffirm the driving force, and posed as the first gatekeeper in the decision-making process. As we found, there are times when the justification stemmed from an NCAA mandate, which moved the process along quicker than when the justification was rooted from a different driving force. Four main justifications exist.


  • Association Membership (Requirement Based). Is there a shift in NCAA membership or conference alignment that drives the sport addition?
  • University Viability (Request Based) Is the sport addition being used as a tool to recruit new students, provide financial benefits or increase stakeholders’ support? With what kind of students is the sport popular? Is it offered locally?
  • Sport Popularity (Request Based) Is there sufficient competition, both in quality and quantity? Will it fit with the culture of the institution and the existing sports teams? Is there a sufficient population of eligible athletes? Will stakeholder participation increase with the addition?
  • Access and Opportunity (Request or Requirement Based) Is the sport being added to fit an internal or external requirement like a strategic plan, accreditation or gender equity? Does the sport addition provide access to a new population for the institution?


Phase Three – Evaluations. Phase three involves the athletic department performing a robust evaluation of ‘fit’ between the potential new sport and the institution. As our data suggested, this phase was primarily conducted internally within the athletic department and focused on financial feasibility while determining whether or not external acceptance of the additional sport would be positive or negative. Factors are listed here (ordered by theme but NOT by priority). While any institution considers every priority theme to some degree, each program will have unique conditions related to their situation and differ in which are most prominent. Consider how each of the factors influences the program and/or the institution as it relates to adding the proposed sport. Use multiple lenses: athletic competitiveness, compliance, financial, community connection, and impact on individual and affiliated stake holding groups. Programs that were able to do extensive evaluation upfront appeared to facility programs gaining acceptance.



Once evaluation is complete, a sport is either moved forward into the acceptance phase, put aside for future consideration, or rejected. 


Phase Four – Interruptions. There is potential for conflict, politics and other interruptions during all phases of the decision-making process, which could slow down or block the process permanently. The following set of considerations is not meant to be exhaustive but should be utilized to preemptively address possible interruptions.


  • Resistance to Change: Anticipate who might be resistant to change. Address as early in the process as possible.
  • Culture: What are the predominant norms, values, and attitudes that drive the stakeholders that will be affected?
  • Organizational Climate: Consider perceptions at all levels. What will change with the addition of the sport?
  • Political Resistance: Who is at risk to lose resources with the change? Are there long-term benefits?
  • Environmental Conditions: What trends are occurring in regards to society, higher education, and technology? How does the addition interact with the institution’s mission and goals? 


Phase Five – Acceptance. The next phase of our model, acceptance, is positioned as the alternative interruption aspect (Mintzberg et al., 1976). At the acceptance phase in our model, we found this to be the last critical barrier to adding a sport, and the last time that a potential de-escalation exit strategy could be implemented prior to the final phase of authorization. Acceptance involved gaining support from external stakeholders, after the internal evaluation phase was completed and successful in gaining final internal stakeholder support.


In most cases, a majority of the departments, faculty and staff must be on-board prior to any public announcements, followed by collection of community opinion. Consider the key stakeholders here, which may include students, student-athletes, governing bodies, community, board of trustees, and more.


How will each of these stakeholders or groups be affected by a sport addition? What are the positive and negative ramifications? For those groups in which a negative effect may exist, how will the program gain their acceptance?


Phase Six – Authorization. The last phase in our model is authorization, and occurs when all processes of the decision-making have been passed. Once this phase has been achieved, our data saw internal and external stakeholders give their final support and approval for the addition of the sport. Leaders and administrators involved in the authorization of the decision to add a sport will be looking for “goodness of fit.” It is important to determine who can authorize the initiative and how this will occur. For some programs, this might be an individual director or administrator while at other institutions, there might be a board of trustees. Some questions that may be considered include:


  • How well will this sport fit in with the institutional mission and goals?
  • Will the sport and the athletes fit in with the institutional, athletic department and student culture?
  • How well does the sport addition address the priority themes of University Viability, Association Membership, Access and Opportunity, and Sport Popularity?


Approach and Leadership. We summarized our findings and organized the new themes into a model in Figure 1 Proposed Decision-making Process to Add a Sport to NCAA Division I Institutions. The new Proposed Decision-making model, demonstrates the general path(s) the decision to add a sport takes, at an institution based on our data. Depending on the driving force or originator of the idea to add the sport, the process might look slightly different. However, the findings illustrate common themes or phases of driving forces, justification, evaluation, acceptance, and authorization. While Table 1 described the themes from our data, Figure 1 illustrates the themes in our new model, as they relate to the phases of the Mintzberg et al.’s (1976) work. The themes are considered alongside of the elements of the theoretical framework used as a heuristic in this study, along with that of Mintzberg et al.’s (1976) Structure of “Unstructured” Decision Processes.


Conclusion. Emerging from the pandemic, sports may need to be added for enrollment, publicity and to return campuses to traditional social activities that students have come to know and expect from college life. Our model offers guidance for those intercollegiate athletic leaders engaged in the decision-making process of adding a sport in the coming years as institutions emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic and assess growth strategies in the future. By adhering to our phases, we believe athletic directors and administrators can potentially avoid an escalation of commitment scenario after the pandemic by ensuring all of our model’s phases have been thoroughly vetted and approved. The inclusion of gaining “buy-in” from all levels in our acceptance interruption phase points to the importance of gathering the proper amount of internal and external stakeholder approval. During the potential economic downturns related to the 2020 pandemic, the feasibility studies performed during the evaluation phase become critical to the speculation of future sport seasons with fewer fans and unknown ticket revenues.