With the recommendation of the Committee on Women’s Athletics that NCAA members sponsor legislation to make triathlon the next emerging sport for women, it would be the 13th emerging sport for women since the program started in 1993. By many measures, the emerging sport program has been an success, giving a number of sports an opportunity to show sufficient interest before committing the NCAA to giving them full championship status. Some have succeeded, some have failed, and the verdict is out on others. But it is hard to say that the emerging sports did not get a fair shake.
But on the men’s side, the story is very different. In the same time period, no men’s sports have been added to the NCAA’s line-up. Men’s championships have, like the new Division III Men’s Volleyball tournament, but no entirely new men’s sports have achieved NCAA championship status.
There have been countless debates on whether or not the NCAA should add men’s sports, sometimes rational, sometimes very emotional. But not asked is whether the NCAA needs to add new men’s sports. Or put another way, does the NCAA’s lack of new sport offerings for men represent a threat or weakness to the Association?
The short answer (or at least shorter than the long answer) is no. The longer answer is that within the foreseeable future (15-20 years), it could be a decision the NCAA looks back on with regret.
The Short Answer
In simple terms, there is no demand from the membership for new men’s teams. Between 1981-82 and 2011-12, the average number of men’s teams sponsored by Division I institutions fell from 10.3 to 8.7, meaning schools discontinued 1.6 teams on average. Over the same period, women’s sports expanded from 7.3 to 10.3, and the total number of teams per campus grew from 17.5 to 19.
But the number of male athletes tells a different story. Starting with an average of 273.5 male athletes per campus in 1981-82, male participation grew to 318.2 in 1984-85, despite the average number of teams sponsored declining or staying flat. From there, male participation fell quickly back to 275.6 male athletes per school in 1987-86, and has then fluctuated between 260 and 280 since there. In 2011-12, all this movement resulted in an average of 273.8, almost identical to the numbers in 1981-82.
Participation in men’s sports has gotten more concentrated. Fewer teams now provide opportunities for the same number of athletes as were participating 30 years ago. There are a number of reasons and implications to be explored from this information, but the biggest is that Division I members have not been expanding their male sports offerings even within the options that the NCAA already provides.
Perhaps new sport offerings would generate or unleash pent up demand for male participants. But so long as schools seem uninterested in offering new or even more of the existing NCAA sports for men, it is not an issue that threatens the NCAA.
The Longer Answer
The fact that the NCAA has not added a sport does not mean the sport will not or cannot grow. Even sports that would be low down the list of those the NCAA might start sponsoring for men have experienced explosive growth over the last 20-30 years. This also includes sports that have support at the varsity level including rugby.
The NCAA enjoys a monopoly amongst its members when it comes to NCAA sports through Bylaw 126.96.36.199. That bylaw says that NCAA rules apply to all varsity sports in which the NCAA conducts a championship. In short, a school cannot have most of its sports as NCAA sports, but run its baseball team as a professional minor league team.
But Bylaw 188.8.131.52 is murkier when it comes to sports that are not NCAA championship or emerging sports. A school can count a non-NCAA sport for each gender as a varsity sport and apply NCAA rules, but it does not appear they have to. This presents an opportunity for experimentation. Non-NCAA sports could potentially be operated as varsity sports, but under a different set of rules. That could allow for experimentation with academic rules, amateurism vs. professionalization, financial aid models, or recruiting deregulation.
The threat to the NCAA from a possible competing organization is focused right at the top. If the new college football playoff grows an administrative or regulatory arm, it could eliminate some of the start-up costs and barriers to entry for an alternative to the NCAA. But it could also come from the bottom up.
Imagine a situation where schools create a competing multi-sport organization for sports the NCAA does not sponsor. An organization that sponsors men’s beach volleyball, men’s triathlon, archery, action sports, auto racing, or other endurance sports. Obviously this is not on the scale of the NCAA or College Football Playoff. It is a proof of concept: that schools, particularly the big schools, do not need to stick with the NCAA to operate tournaments or enforce rules, even across a variety of sports.
Combine the CFP and this theoretical organization and you have a real threat to the NCAA. A multi-sport organization that sponsors tournaments for non-revenue sports and oversees a major revenue-producing championship fulfills many of the functions for which schools currently rely on the NCAA. And many of the growing pains for an NCAA competitor could be sorted out with much lower stakes in sports like cycling, go-kart racing, and skateboarding.
Because of the shorter answer above, this is not an immediate threat to the NCAA. Until schools want to or are pushed to add sports the NCAA does not offer, creating a competing organization will be tough. Even an organization overseeing multiple club sports would not be considered a viable alternative to the NCAA. The threat is more existential, that areas where the NCAA is absent represent the possibility for the rise of a competitor.