Sunday Focus: College sports' stark future -- and a possible path for college soccer's relevance

College soccer is about halfway through its fall season.

The NCAA Division I season has been hugely scaled back with less than 60 women's programs and 20 men's programs having played at least one game. Most college programs hope to compete in the spring -- and the NCAA has approved plans for men's and women's national championships in the spring, at  least at the Division I level.

Predictions that the COVID-19 pandemic will force schools to make wholesale cuts in soccer and other non-revenue sports have not yet come to pass. Less than 100 sports have been dropped at Division I schools so far, and some of the decisions are being challenged in court or under the threat of a lawsuit.

Only two Division I men's soccer programs have been dropped -- Appalachian State and Cincinnati -- resulting in a net drop of one program. Chicago State will add men's soccer as a part of a reshuffling of its sports offerings.

But that doesn't mean college sports are out of the woods yet. Far from it, colleges face huge challenges responding to the pandemic -- and just staying afloat.

Speaking at the Aspen Institute's Project Play Summit on Friday, NCAA chief medical officer Brian Hainline said college sports are a metaphor for the problems American society is having with the pandemic.

"We think about the economic disaster that COVID brought with us, in addition to the health and safety disaster, " he said. "If we really wanted to open up our society -- and part of that is sport, which is a great metaphor for society -- well, we didn't do it in a way that maybe could have happened. We don't have still a good national syndromic surveillance system. We don't have a national oversight of contact tracing or testing. And so what's happened is that those with more money have been able to carry things out because they can afford what testing is available and those without, they're struggling."

Hainline presented a stark picture for college sports -- and colleges themselves, not just at the Division I level, where revenue distributions from the NCAA to colleges in 2020 were cut by 70 percent because of the cancellation of the NCAA Division I men's basketball tournament.

"We're probably at a place where 20-30 percent of Division I schools may not survive this pandemic," he said. "And that's a whole other thing that we need to think seriously about. At the D3 level, 25-50% percent of students are actually student-athletes. That's very different than, say, at a D1 school -- Ohio State -- where you may have 50,000 students, but only 700 student-athletes."

Hainline said the problems caused by the pandemic will extend into the future.

"Most of the financial projections -- and it's not just for the NCAA and for its schools -- are that things will probably start turning around in 2023," he said. "That seems like a long way away -- and it really is -- so, as a society, we're going to be struggling to keep up over the next couple of years."

The easy answer is to cut more non-revenue sports, but that flies in the face of what Hainline says is the essence of the NCAA.

"It really is not about two sports," he said, referring to football and basketball, the revenue producers. "It's about 24 sports. So my hope is that 24-sport vision is the one that prevails. And we understand that we're going to really continue to be who we are and offering opportunities across the board and that that's where we'll land. It's not going to be easy. I mean, these economic realities are stark."

Hainline says that sports need to think outside the box if they want to survive at colleges -- and points to the role national governing bodies can play.

"When you look at the sports that are being cut, it's the Olympic sports, the non-revenue sports," he said, "and one model, one opportunity is, how do we make these sports relevant? And to make them relevant, you need to make them financially independent."

Hainline cites tennis -- the sport hit hardest by Division I program cuts -- as an example because of the U.S. Tennis Association's active involvement in promoting tennis at colleges, making it a year-round sport and integrating college programs into local competitions. (He is the former USTA chief medical officer.)

Soccer is different from tennis because it is a team sport, and the size of its rosters is larger, but the same points play.

Right now, the big attraction of college soccer and the big money in the game is the athletic scholarship money. But what if you throw that out or it is no longer available?

Integrating year-round college soccer into existing leagues and competitions under the U.S. Soccer umbrella and helping make them year-round programs would be great for promoting soccer as a college opportunity and developing the amateur game that struggles at local levels.

8 comments about "Sunday Focus: College sports' stark future -- and a possible path for college soccer's relevance".
  1. Mike Lynch, October 18, 2020 at 8:57 a.m.

    Good overview Paul of both the challenges and opportunities facing the future existence and relevance of college soccer. As you mentioned, the financial reality world has mostly hit D1 athletics while less affecting D2 and D3 with the private school D2 and D3 programs the least as they have been largely living in financial reality world before the pandemic (revenue = expenses). Although we would like to have form follow function, it will always ultimately default to form follows financials so expect to see massive operational restructuring across the country or the programs will go away. 

    For the relevance argument, the programs who have played this fall and are planning to play again this spring who are basically demonstrating the upside of the two semester model - more training, better periodization, less missed class time, etc; all positives for keeping 60,000 motivated and skilled players in the player developement process between the ages of 18 and 22. The mere numbers and a greater than just a decent chance the product is good, keeps college soccer hugely relevant. And that's not even mentioning the value of co-curricular value. 

  2. R2 Dad replied, October 18, 2020 at 4:35 p.m.

    The pandemic presents NCAA with an opportunity to update the sport to become relevant, but because of the ossified nature of the organization and glacial decision-making, change looks to be the last thing on their minds. My question is, Why Must That Be The Case?

  3. Kevin Sims, October 18, 2020 at 2:25 p.m.

    Thanks, Mike Lynch.

  4. David Kilpatrick, October 18, 2020 at 2:39 p.m.

    Club soccer (NIRSA) is a viable alternative pathway to move beyond the excessive constraints and exclusions of NCAA D1&2. 

  5. Ben Myers, October 18, 2020 at 6:36 p.m.

    One issue, unmentioned as it pertains to soccer, is the relative paucity of scholarship money for college players.  Currently, NCAA D1 men's soccer allows a limit of 9.9 scholarships per team. NCAA D1 women's soccer allows a limit of 14 scholarships per team.  The averages here are compelling, but just over 1/3 of a scholarship for men and about 1/2 scholarship for women can distort the picture when two or three marquee recruits land full scholarships.  NCAA D2 is similar, and NCAA D3 schools offer no schilarships at all, but possibly grant money to attract a keeper, striker, tuba player for the marching band or first chair violinist for the orchestra.  As far as I am concerned, parents who get stars in their eyes about the possibility of a college soccer scholarship are completely misguided, maybe even delusional.

  6. R2 Dad replied, October 19, 2020 at 12:47 a.m.

    I think kids that went through that burst of club soccer activity 15 years ago will be having their own kids in 5 years or so, and we will see if they will be more demanding of club coaching than we were.

  7. humble 1 replied, October 19, 2020 at 1:35 a.m.

    A lot of kids play soccer on academic scholoarships, especially D2 and below. Anyway, it's not all about the scholarship, playing the game is fun, if you can do it while getting a higher education why not?  The folks that poo poo college soccer because they cannot see how it 'develops' players for MNT or MLS do not understand that youth and college soccer at is essense come down to individual kids, making their own decisions.  Most of them don't harbor illusions about going pro or to the MNT when they go to college any more than their parents.  My son started playing soccer in 2010, I looked around and learned right away there was almost nothing in my state for D1 mens soccer and what a desert soccer is for boys athletic scholarhips, but guess what, the kid loves soccer, what am I to do, tell him to stop loving soccer because there are more football scholarships?  Youth soccer is just that, youth playing soccer.  Let them play.  Could things be better? Yeah, but we parents have more pressing things to do than go fix the NCAA or USSF.  Carry on!

  8. R2 Dad replied, October 20, 2020 at 11:30 a.m.

    H1, we get the soccer organization we deserve. USSF and NCAA are relying on your carefree attitude and thus ignore you and your interests and concerns. You may find that acceptable--many do not.

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