Read Part 1 here: ACRA Enters a New Era, Part 1: The Formation of ACRA, and come back next week to read Part 3: Advice for All College Teams from an ACRA Veteran.
The Covid-19 pandemic forced many tough decisions, and few of us were surprised when in 2020 some athletic departments announced that rowing teams would be cut. The pandemic provided a convenient excuse for athletic directors who didn't personally or professionally value rowing teams. Rowing has long labored as a sport for recognition and legitimacy, at all levels. It is a sport the U.S. public often does not fully understand, but that is changing for the better.
Obviously, rowing isn't profitable for college athletic departments and that increases our challenges. Every year collegiate teams are removed and/or added to athletic departments throughout the country. Customarily it happens in waves, and frequently in response to a philosophical shift, a financial crisis, or a political movement. Even so, rowing teams do have passionate alumni who capably influence university development officers. Consequently, I wasn't shocked when enough pressure surfaced that budgets were reevaluated and a few of the teams were reinstated. Unfortunately George Washington University's men's rowing team was not among them.
TRANSITIONING FROM A VARSITY SPORT TO CLUB
In my career I have seen numerous rowing teams lose varsity status and either dissolve or convert to club status. I have talked about Rutgers. In my home state of Michigan, a small number recall that both Wayne State University and Grand Valley State had successful varsity programs in the 60s and 70s, and yet both institutions canceled their programs in the early 1980s. Despite a few attempts to resurrect it, Wayne State never continued as a club, and at my alma mater Grand Valley nearly all the varsity athletes walked away. It took 15 years before the program rebounded and produced some results.
I rowed at GVSU during this 15-year stretch and learned from this experience how NOT to run a club rowing team. Converting from varsity to club is a hard transition and during that stretch of time at Grand Valley we were trying to figure out how to best do things. It took many years to get that footing.
UCLA and USC had storied varsity programs for many decades. Along with other high profile Olympic sports, UCLA decided to eliminate their varsity men's rowing program in the early 1990s, and in subsequent years USC followed suit. In both programs, many good athletes immediately transferred or quit. Initially UCLA barely stayed afloat as a club and for years USC didn't exist at all. It wasn't until recent years that both programs have re-established themselves as competitive forces in the club ranks.
Older readers will remember that in the mid-1990s, Dowling College decided to build a varsity program. They even had scholarships and were quite fast in the late 1990s and early 2000s, winning the Dad Vail varsity eight in 2002, breaking Temple's thirteen year streak in the varsity eight by doing so. Several years later the school dropped rowing as a varsity sport and again all the best athletes left. 15 years after that event many current collegiate rowers have never heard of the school, let alone that they had a competitive rowing team once upon a time.
Bucknell's men represent the only team I can think of that successfully managed to transition from varsity to club and consistently maintained a reasonably good performance. But it is worth remembering that Bucknell had begun as a club and shifted to varsity for 12 years, before being returned to club status. Being a club was in their DNA.
Other than Bucknell, the following distinct pattern happens repeatedly: The university pulls financial support, and when things are no longer provided for them, the best athletes quit or transfer instead of staying and building the team as a club. At the onset, these teams struggle as a club, or possibly fold altogether. It takes many years before a new footing can be established as a club. Most of the best ACRA programs started as clubs and through years of building a solid, self-supporting foundation, now have consistent performance year in and year out. Being cut as a varsity sport is usually followed by an abrupt decline in performance, or no performance at all.
THE CHALLENGES NEW CLUB TEAMS FACE
Collegiate rowing clubs have the triple stigma of being an obscure sport, an elite sport for privileged people, and a club sport. Recurrently, a club sport's biggest battles are not against opponents, but within their own institution. Club sports generally are housed in the Programs Area of the Rec Sports Department. They are predominantly the lowest financial priority in that area, and the Programs Area is the least priority of the Rec Sports Department. At most institutions Rec Sports is housed in Student Life (or the university equivalent) and typically is the lowest priority area in Student Life. Of all the various divisions of a university, usually Student Life has the lowest status. To summarize, club sports are the lowest priority, of the lowest priority, of the lowest priority, of the lowest priority of the university.
Among the many adjustments to varsity status being eliminated, being the lowest priority in the university is the hardest realization for the personnel who stayed for the transition. In the eyes of university administrators, you instantly go from being a student-athlete to a "club participant." Competitive results aren't a priority of club sport administrators, as their primary job is to keep the university from getting sued. Competitive programs crave gobs of resources that aren't (nor will be) allocated, so a club sport administrator gets the endless and thankless job of telling you "no."
Because there is less oversight, restrictions are installed that ultimately prevent the achievement of maximal competitiveness. University risk management personnel realize that to be competitive people will increase intensity, and thus have concerns regarding club sports. These apprehensions are realistic. The sad deaths of collegiate rowers at Iowa State University and Northwestern University in recent years exemplify what can occur due to lack of professional oversight. As an aftermath, the university has taken a conservative approach with club sports.
The other adjustment new club sports contend with is internal governance. This adjustment is exceptionally wearing when the team is expunged unexpectedly, which is the normal scenario. For varsity sports the university makes sure there is competent, professional staff to oversee all aspects of team operations and performance. They may not be worried about favorable results, but, as a baseline an athletic department desires for its student-athletes to have a positive experience. When varsity status is retracted, there may be occasional provisions, such as the equipment and/or facility may remain for the new club - if they can provide the resources to maintain it.
That said, routinely the staff is terminated, and promptly the newly-formed student organization must go through the tedious and difficult process of figuring out "who is in charge." Who makes what decision is the most contentious issue in club governance. A volume of universities intentionally exclude from communication any coaches the new club has appointed. This is commonly their policy with all student organizations, and they will deal solely with a student officer as the liaison.
Various universities will tell the officers and coaches that coaches are specifically limited to coaching tasks and coaches should not be involved in administrative duties. University Student Life's related goal is to force a dialogue among the elected student leaders, fully realizing that there likely will be ensuing disagreement. They believe the process of working through those disputes and instigating cooperation is valuable. While this is true, it doesn't necessarily lead to good competitive results for club sport teams. Again, they don't value competitive outcomes as much as the pathway of learning how to lead.
It is this process of determining who has decision-making authority that turns people off. The conflicts and infighting are inevitable. Internal squabbles are a major reason that the varsity athletes say goodbye to the initial formation of the club team. It's why most teams mentioned above initially collapsed as clubs, and in certain cases folded altogether. No first-rate athlete wishes to heed orders from a peer. It demands substantial stamina to manage all the physical operations of a team.
The amount of overall support has a huge impact on team operations. Most varsity teams have a full-time staff of three to seven people devoted to overall operations. A student-energized situation has merit. Despite that, a truly student-run team, where professional coaches are excluded from part or all aspects of team operations, will eventually fail to build longevity into competitive results.
GEORGE WASHINGTON BUCKED THE TREND
With this awareness I was impressed when George Washington University made its introductory appearance at ACRA in 2022, at their first opportunity to compete there. While I have had passing conversations with their coach Nate Goodman and a few of their student athletes, I am not intimately familiar with the inner workings and challenges they faced when initially transitioning to club status. Their support sounds in line with what other club rowing teams have. But I do know that they had to quickly decipher on-the-fly - all while preparing for a season. Simply holding it together was an immense exploit considering the path that previous teams had followed when their varsity status was snatched. In 2022 they battled and earned a few gold medals, and they executed it in the more difficult eights events.
Congratulations to them. This is a remarkable accomplishment that embodies an incredible passion for our sport. These kids could have adhered to the route of many other student-athletes from former varsity-programs-turned-club who left the sport when the resources were no longer provided and had to be paid for by their service endeavors. Also, they could have transferred to another institution so that institution could provide the resources for them.
Instead, they stayed and began to work at this ever-changing puzzle of being a club sport, and continued to represent their school - even after their school left them to their own stratagem. As evidenced by their success, they did something no other new club had done immediately following their university withdrawing its support. Our sport needs more of this role-model competitive spirit.
Probably more men's rowing programs will lose varsity status over time, as well as some women's teams. That has been the tendency as evidenced by the graphs below. College athletics is entering a new age with Name, Image, and Likeness, as well as conference re-alignments. An analogous effect will be more resources steered to revenue sports. Large athletic departments have shown they value success in football and basketball over all other sports, even if it comes at the expense of non-revenue sports.
PLANNING FOR THE FUTURE
I had this article mostly written when it was announced that FIT was removing men's and women's rowing as varsity sports. After a lawsuit, the men's team has been reinstated. Athletic departments indicate that they value deep football and basketball programs. Nevertheless, they support as few sports as possible in order to increase profit margin and boost competitiveness for those teams.
This has been the trend for a few decades, and rowing is not a solitary sport feeling this pinch. The most recent scant additions to the varsity sport ranks on the men's side have all happened at NCAA D3 or NAIA schools who are trying to use rowing to attract students to their small student bodies. No Division 1 men's teams have been added. Even a few D1 varsity women's teams have been dismissed in the last decade.
COMPARISON OF ACRA, Dad Vail, and IRA GROWTH
(graphs courtesy of Sean McKenna)
A varsity program, particularly a men's program, is just one hire away from the same circumstance. It can happen when an ambitious AD builds strong athletic programs among traditional (particularly revenue) sports using a formula that has been employed at D1 schools so that person will be better positioned for attaining a job at a D1 institution. This formula involves shrinking the number of sports so more dollars can be invested in the remaining sports, and specifically the revenue sports at D1 institutions.
The goal is to build their athletic department brand. This is what happened at FIT. The reality is that D1 women's rowing teams at Power 5 conference schools likely will be spared because those institutions value football. Otherwise, they wouldn't have a varsity women's program either. In the 1990s the enforcement of Title IX forced these schools to buy into a sport they otherwise wouldn't choose for an investment.
Rutgers and George Washington, both varsity-turned-club programs, were welcomed to their first ACRA in 2022. They had taken two very different paths to get there, having taken different approaches in the immediate aftermath of losing varsity status. Each had fought to have varsity status reinstated, their strategies having been unsuccessful. In the third part of this series I offer advice to programs who may find themselves in this position in the future.
Come back next week to read Part 3: Advice for All College Teams from an ACRA Veteran.