Commentary: Re-Imagining The U.S. Collegiate “Olympic” Sport Model (Part 1): The Enormous Disparity between Varsity and Club Sport Funding

Yearly expenses for several sports programs at Ohio State University. Team Handball actually does have a bar, but at $3,376 it just doesn’t register at this scale.

The COVID-19 Pandemic has been a catalyst for several colleges and universities to reevaluate their collegiate sports programs. And, that reevaluation has resulted in 90 sports teams being dropped from the athletic departments of 26 schools. All told, around 1,500 athletes will no longer be competing at the Varsity level. (Source: NBC Sports: College sports cuts in the wake of Covid-19 are clouding the future of Olympics participation)

As you might expect a number of people are very upset with this development. This includes the 1,500 athletes who in many cases have lost a partial college scholarship, the college coaches who have lost jobs and the Sports National Governing Bodies (NGB) that have lost multiple sources for the development of potential future Olympic athletes. Not to mention the entrepreneurial $30 Billion dollar youth sports industry that has sprung up in part to develop athletes to get those scholarships.

Many articles and comments are along the lines of what a shame it is that this collegiate support for “Olympic” sports is being lost. And, that it will inevitably impact Team USA performance in future Olympics. My gut reaction to all this hand wringing is…

Hold on a second…You’re not talking about “all Olympic” sports here.  Cry me a river and welcome to my world, fencing, shooting, etc.

This visceral feeling is well founded, both as a former college handball player and coach.  I’ve seen first hand the disparity in terms of resources and support with what an Athletic Department “Varsity” sport receives and what a Club Activity sport receives.  It’s night and day.  Varsity sport athletes have scholarships, full time coaches, dedicated practice space and substantial travel budgets.  Club sports typically have no scholarships, volunteer coaches, often compete for gym space and sometimes get a little funding to defray a portion of their travel costs.

As I started working on this commentary, however, I realized that I needed to go beyond the gut reaction and that it would be better to quantify just exactly what the financial disparity actually is.  This resulted in a trip down the rabbit hole only to discover that it’s even worse than I had imagined.

Ohio State University Support to Sports Programs

There are many colleges and universities in the U.S., but only 19 collegiate handball clubs in the U.S.  For my initial investigation I chose Ohio State University which has an extensive NCAA sports program and a team handball club. 

It took a little digging and some reorganization of available data, but here is a table which lists the total expenses for every varsity sports program and the team handball club. 

Sources: Ohio State University Equity in Athletics Data Analysis (EADA) 2018 submittal; Ohio State Handball Club Financial Summary (avg of last 2 seasons)

Time to Rethink These Allocations… You Think?

For me, this data was a real eye opener. I always knew that club sports were getting the short end of the stick, I just didn’t realize how short it was. Seriously, handball’s budget is over 1,000 times smaller than men’s ice hockey. Or, just 44 times smaller than women’s pistol. Pick your varsity sport. It doesn’t matter. It’s a big difference. A really big difference.

Does such a big difference make sense? Should there perhaps be some reimagining about how this funding is allocated?

Of course, there should be. And, I’m not alone when it comes to such thinking. Recently, the New York Times published an essay by Tom Farrey of the Aspen Institute, “Colleges Are Cutting Varsity Sports. That Could Be a Good Thing.” In the essay he make several great points about why indeed it could be a good thing. How such a shift could lead to fewer parents chasing scholarships for their kids and how club sports can often provide a better balance for students between athletics, academics and just being a college student.

Overall he concludes that:

“Reducing the number of varsity teams will mean fewer athletic scholarships, but also potentially less money spent pursuing them and more university support for other forms of campus sports.

I’ve added the italics and boldface, because the words “potentially more university support for other forms of campus sports” are music to my ears… except for that pesky word, potentially. Because such a reallocation is easier said than done.

In Part 2, I’ll take I’ll examine what it might take for the word potentially to become reality. At the same time I’ll try and play devil’s advocate to justify why sports like Ohio State’s Synchronized Swimming program should continue to expend resources at a $1.1M/year clip.