Are Olympic Sports a Dying Breed?
In the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, China, some 30 million viewers in the U.S. tuned into NBC broadcasts of the men’s gymnastics competition. The six man U.S. team won a bronze medal in the overall team competition.
Four of the six members of that team were graduates of NCAA men’s gymnastics programs. Yet the excitement generated by the Olympic team does not translate into fans at the collegiate level. This year the University of Oklahoma won its eighth national title at the NCAA Championships held at Ohio State University. Yet there were only 17 men’s programs in the entire country at all levels this season. In the 1960s there nearly 200 programs and around 60 at what are now known as Division I schools. In 1982 there were still 79 programs at all levels.
Even the University of Oklahoma’s team draws few fans for its meets and receives little coverage in the press in its own state. This struggle also played out in Berkeley, California over the past few months. The University of California program has existed for 99 years; won 4 NCAA championships; and produced 11 Olympic gymnasts.
Yet the program was slated for elimination in November, 2010 due to budget concerns (one of 5 sports originally slated to be eliminated at Cal at a savings of $7 million per year in general funds). Its supporters have since then raised $1.5 million of their $2.5 million target to endow the program. Cal administrators recently announced that the program has won a temporary reprieve.
Predictably, many people blame this steep decline on the passage of Title IX in 1972 and the subsequent growth in women’s sports teams. Others point to the large numbers of student-athletes on football scholarships. Yet it should be noted that in virtually all so-called “Olympic sports” at the college level very little revenue is generated from gate receipts, advertising, media rights or anywhere else.
These arguments have been going on for years now. An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education on May 10, 2011 reports on the decline in men’s gymnastics programs in some depth. This article is very similar to one that appeared in The Chronicle back on Aug. 5, 1992. It is interesting to note that the same discussion taking place today was in the news two decades ago. The question is when will supporters of Olympic Sports such as men’s gymnastics come up with new ideas to finance and market their sports?
Women’s gymnastics has much more support and visibility. Even at a football power such as the University of Alabama its women’s gymnastics team, which won its 4th NCAA Division I title this season, drew an average of almost 15,000 fans per meet in Tuscaloosa. Can it be as simple as women’s coaches and administrators doing a better job of marketing their product?
Editor’s Note: Dr. Lawrence Bestmann is a Distance Learning Faculty member at the United States Sports Academy. Dr. Bestmann competed in men’s gymnastics at the University of Chicago back in the days when the university was a member of the Big 10 athletic conference. Dr. Bestmann’s coach back then was Dr. Hal Frey, who later coached until retirement at Cal-Berkeley and has been one of the leaders of the fundraising effort that has temporarily saved men’s gymnastics at the school. Dr. Bestmann teaches on these issues in his courses at the Academy. For more information on the United States Sports Academy go to http://ussa.edu.