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Where Are We With Sport Sponsorship Trends Three Years After College Athletics Shut Down?

By Steve Dittmore, PhD - Baldwin Wallace University

Three years ago, in March 2020, the pandemic hit. Universities sent students home. Spring sports ceased. Institutions wondered what a reimagined landscape would look like, both on the academic side of the university, and the athletic side. Since March 2020 I have kept track of, to the best of my ability, all sports added or cut. Through this exercise, I have been able to discern what trends, if any, exist. Last October, for example, I wrote about the phenomenal growth of women’s wrestling everywhere except at the Division I level. In October 2020, I considered what factors appeared to influence an athletic department’s decision to add, or subtract, from its sports offerings. 

What the data, complete so far as I know, shows is that, with the exception of Division I, college sports is growing, despite, or because of, the pandemic.

So, as we sit here three years burning down the road, what insights can we find from my spreadsheet? Here are seven, in no particular order.

1) Women’s wrestling has exploded while esports has plateaued.

Early on, universities added esports at a record pace, but that roll has slowed. It seems esports has not fulfilled its hype as the next big thing (despite my article from July 2018). Why is this? Well, for starters, women’s wrestling is on the NCAA’s list of emerging sports for women. Esports is decidedly not.

As of March 13, 2023, 56 women’s wrestling programs have been announced at four-year institutions in NCAA Division I, II, III, and NAIA. Just under half (27) of those are in Division III. Since July 1, 2022, 13 Division III schools have added women’s wrestling. Only one school has added esports during the same period. That same trend is reflected in Division II where six schools have added women’s wrestling since July 1, 2022, and one has added esports. A similar story exists in NAIA with four new women’s wrestling teams and two new esports teams in the same time period. The exception here is Division I where both sports are non-existent. Only the University of Iowa has added women’s wrestling, largely as the result of a Title IX lawsuit

Chad Weiberg, AD at wrestling-rich Oklahoma State, recently told a reporter right now “is a very challenging time” to consider adding sports. But, OSU is proceeding with a $325 million athletic facilities vision plan. In other words… women’s wrestling is not going to happen in Stillwater.

The sport is growing rapidly at enrollment-driven institutions. The pandemic has universities worried about sustaining enrollment. Adding a new sport to, hopefully, attract interested students makes sense and, as Ursinus College director of wrestling Joe Jamison told me in October, the sport was excluding half of humanity. USA Wrestling numbers indicate tremendous growth in youth girls’ wrestling. 

Division III North Central College (IL) won the recent 2023 National Collegiate Women’s Wrestling Championship. Only three Division I schools – Sacred Heart, Presbyterian, and Lindenwood – scored points in the championship.

2) Autonomy 5 schools, the most well resourced, have zero interest in adding sports.

Without question, Division I athletic departments have the most financial resources. But it is also without question that DI ADs, particularly those in Autonomy 5 conferences, have had no interest in growing their sports programs. In fact, evidence suggests those ADs have used the pandemic as a way to become leaner, without sacrificing revenues.

Since March 2020, DI schools overall have added 57 sports and cut 71, a net change of 14 fewer sports than pre-pandemic, even though revenues are skyrocketing thanks to the expanded college football playoff. An additional 42 sport cuts were announced, only to be reinstated, many under threat of litigation. The evidence suggests this group would prefer  to downsize but, for legal reasons, was not successful.

When delimiting Division I to just the Autonomy 5 (A5) schools, those with the greatest resources, the data suggests ADs are more interested in maintaining status quo and increasing compensation for coaches and administrators. Want the list of A5 schools that have added sports in the past three years? Here you go… Clemson (women’s lacrosse, gymnastics), Kentucky (stunt), Iowa (women’s wrestling), Vanderbilt (women’s volleyball), Arizona (women’s triathlon), and Texas (women’s beach volleyball). That’s the list. Seven new sports from the richest college athletic programs in the country.

By contrast, A5 schools have cut eight sports (nine if we include Cincinnati which is joining the Big 12 this summer). Of the 42 sports cut and later reinstated, 15 were at A5 schools. 

Fact: There are fewer sports at A5 schools in March 2023 than there were in March 2020. A conspiracy theorist might infer A5 ADs were merely seeking an opportunity to reduce sport offerings and tried to leverage the pandemic to do so. 

3) On the whole, the pandemic has been good for intercollegiate athletics.

Despite the trend in Division I, the fact remains that a total of 642 sports have been added at four-year institutions of higher education since March 2020. Also fact: A total of 436 sports have been dropped in the same period, half (219) as the result of universities completely shutting down or moving completely online. From my tracking, college athletics is up about 68 new programs per year during the pandemic. I cannot find data to suggest the average number of sports added during a non-pandemic year so it is difficult to determine if this is different than normal times. More sports equals more participation opportunities for student-athletes, particularly at enrollment-dependent DII, DIII, and NAIA schools. This would appear to be a positive development.

4) The problem(s) with the enrollment cliff.

As noted, the overwhelming majority of these additions are at what could be considered enrollment-driven institutions. It should be apparent by now to all higher education administrators that many high school students want to continue their athletic identity in college. Sponsoring sports teams can be a vehicle to sustain enrollment. Administrators at enrollment-driven institutions are acutely aware of the impending “enrollment cliff.” If adding sports can help keep an institution afloat, it might be worth doing.

But it is not quite that simple. As institutions add sports, there is increased strain on existing resources such as weight rooms, locker rooms, practice facilities, and athletic training staff. How do ADs at these institutions reconcile the added resource expenses with their presidents who see increased sports as a way to save enrollment?

Simultaneously, ADs may be encouraged to expand roster sizes as a way of increasing campus enrollment. But this may create a retention concern. At what point does the 21st player on a basketball roster say, “You know what? I don’t need these 6 am lifts in order to sit on the end of the bench and hand the starters towels. I will finish my degree closer to home.” 

5) The USOPC missed a golden opportunity.

The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee boasts every four years about the number of former college athletes who qualified for the Olympic Games. It seemed that for every women’s wrestling, women’s triathlon or men’s volleyball team added at the intercollegiate level the past three years, there was also an esports, stunt or cornhole (really!) team added. If the USOPC and its NGBs were serious about strengthening the relationship with college athletics, more of them would follow the lead of USA Triathlon which provides emerging sports grants to college athletic departments starting varsity women’s programs. USA Fencing awarded a grant to Wheaton College in Massachusetts to start collegiate programs. More creative NGB financial incentives might have increased the number of true “Olympic” sports being added. Instead, colleges added 49 esports programs. 

6) Farewell Stunt?!? We hardly knew ya.

Stunt was another pandemic darling as 17 NCAA institutions, including Kentucky, added the sport. Another 20 NCAA institutions, including 13 in Division II, added Acrobatics & Tumbling. However, the NCAA voted in January to table a motion to add Stunt as an emerging sport for women, a status already awarded to Acrobatics & Tumbling (A&T). Division II, however, approved Stunt as an emerging sport for women anyway, creating a unique situation where not all NCAA divisions are aligned. 

As Daniel Libit wrote in Sportico, “A&T proponents have criticized Stunt for competing over the same turf.” That the NCAA’s decision to table occurred days after the USOPC announced five new members to its list of affiliate organizations, including USA Cheer, adds some intrigue to the story of Stunt. Stunt is supported by USA Cheer, which, as Libit noted in early January, is facing a myriad of financial and other challenges, one of which went away in late January when Varsity Brands, the Bain Capital-owned cheerleading company that supports USA Cheer, settled an antitrust lawsuit.

We know Division II, III, and NAIA schools largely recruit students regionally, from a tight geographic radius. And while proximity of programs is good for competition and keeping costs low, two of the five Division II programs to add Stunt are Walsh University in North Canton, Ohio and Malone University in Canton, schools located less than five miles apart. In addition, three nearby members of the Division III Ohio Athletic Conference – Muskingum, Heidelberg, and Baldwin Wallace – have announced new Stunt programs. Will there be enough students interested in the emerging sport of Stunt in the recruiting regions of these schools to fill rosters?

What impact will the governance challenges have on the prospects for continued growth of Stunt at the collegiate level? Is it possible for both A&T and Stunt to coexist? I can’t find a school that sponsors both Acrobatics & Tumbling and Stunt. With the uncertainty around USA Cheer and the split support for Stunt across NCAA divisions, it will be fascinating to watch the palace intrigue play out in the months ahead. 

7) Can women’s flag football become a thing?

Seven NAIA schools have added women’s flag football with a disproportionate share of those in the Kansas Collegiate Athletic Conference (KCAC) including Bethel, Baker, and Southwestern. The KCAC will soon have eight schools competing in women’s flag football. Why is this so popular? 

“Women’s flag football works well for the KCAC institutions sponsoring the sport due to rosters ranging from 11 to 30 student-athletes with an average roster size of 20,” Dr. Scott Crawford, KCAC Commissioner, told me. “Overall, I believe sponsoring institutions are happy with these preliminary results.”

Crawford also noted the recent additions push women’s flag football close to the NAIA threshold, 25 programs, needed for recognition as a National Invitational sport. With only 40 programs needed for Championship status, are we really that far away from having a collegiate women’s flag football champion? Will NCAA institutions get on board with this trend?

In summary, I believe it would be disingenuous to suggest the pandemic has had a negative impact on intercollegiate athletics. I think it has forced university administrators to more closely examine the relationship athletics has with their campuses. There is value in offering college-bound students the opportunity to pursue activities they enjoy, whether that is athletics, band, performing arts, or student journalism. Creating those opportunities are an important marketing tool for institutions competing among themselves for an increasingly smaller group of college-bound young adults.

I believe all of the above to be true for today’s universities, except, sadly, for the Autonomy 5 schools.