Survival of the fittest: Decline in collegiate men’s gymnastics programs calls for drastic solutions

Photo of Male Gymnast Kyte Crigger
Maddie Fruman/Staff

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Just about an hour after he learned he’d been accepted to Stanford and would be able to compete with the men’s gymnastics team the next season, former Cal gymnast and U.S. national team member Donothan Bailey received even better news. The Cal men’s gymnastics team had been saved.

In 2010, the team learned that its program would be cut at the end of the 2011 season. With the help of a strong alumni core, however, the program was reinstated.

Ten years later, the Minnesota team encountered an almost identical situation. But despite widespread fundraising campaigns on social media as well as the support of alumni and the gymnastics community, the University of Minnesota Board of Regents voted Oct. 9 to cut the program.

In the face of recent cuts of men’s gymnastics programs around the country, coaches and athletes alike are seeking solutions. Among the most referenced success stories is the 2011 survival of Cal’s program. Though the team now operates within stricter financial constraints, it is one of the rare cases in which campaigns and a new cost-efficient model reformed the program while still maintaining its competitiveness in the gymnastics world.

After receiving news that the program was on the chopping block, alumni Neil Popovic, Steven Carlsen, Joshua Landau, Jim Lindstrom and Andrew Hampy worked alongside former head coach Harold “Hal” Frey, a figurehead in the gymnastics community, to develop a fundraising plan. Reaching out to fellow alumni and members of the gymnastics community, among others, they collected five-year donation pledges.

“It was amazing — the support we got from across the country,” Carlsen said. “Stanford, our archrival, was one of our biggest donors.”

In addition to fundraising, the group formed a business plan in which the program’s annual revenue offsets the costs to maintain the team, lessening the burden on Cal.

When the pledged funds came up short of the amount needed to keep the program alive, the group asked donors to extend their pledges to eight years. Though that garnered enough money to save the program, the team saw cuts to its scholarships.

“We’ve been able to maintain the cost-neutral part, to a large degree,” Landau said. “We have not yet been able to successfully create revenue enough to pay for more scholarships, … so there’s obviously still work to be done.”

Because talented athletes, especially those who need financial support to attend college, are more attracted to programs that offer scholarships, recruiting was largely affected. One of the strategies taken by Tim McNeill, the head coach at the time, was “targeted recruitment.” Rather than attracting many all-around gymnasts, whom other programs tend to target, he focused on the team’s deficits and recruited specialists of particular events to fill the gap.

“It was a really targeted strategy where we examined where the holes of the team were,” McNeill said. “We put all our effort into finding people who would fill these holes.”

Because of Frey and the alumni’s work, the gymnasts on the 2011 team were able to focus on what could’ve been their last season together.

“It kind of gave us an opportunity to just focus on that following season, which we thought would be our last, while they didn’t really even miss a beat to just jump on top of this and figure out what the next steps were,” Bailey said.

Cal men’s gymnastics assistant coach Bryan Del Castillo, who was on the team in 2011, also recounts the significant momentum of the movement.

“It’s really the support of alumni that has changed my perspective on Cal. Being part of the program, I wanted to do the same,” Castillo said.

Turning the clock forward to 2020, the rain of crisis has now passed, making solid ground for the team to grow. Though financial constraints are tighter than they were before the 2011 event, staff and athletes are adjusting to survival mode. They not only run the program frugally but also take part in fundraising efforts. Now more than ever, this Cal model is earning a spotlight in the gymnastics community.

The Cal program is striving to be as self-sufficient as possible. Fundraising events such as the Cal Benefit Cup and Camp complement the annual operational budget.

Head coach J.T. Okada, who attended UC Berkeley as an undergraduate, utilizes his years of extensive connections with the gymnastics community as well as Cal alumni to reach a larger donor population. Giving team updates on social media is also a crucial strategy to gaining fans and donors to support the team. With the majority of funds coming from donors, team members are constantly reminded to be thankful.

“They should be thankful and treat this opportunity with respect because there’s people out there donating to keep us going,” Okada said. “I remind the team every day, and they’re probably sick of me saying to them.”

Despite the many similarities between Cal’s 2011 and Minnesota’s recent bouts, a large difference is the state of collegiate men’s gymnastics. In 2011, Cal was one of 16 Division I programs. After the 2021 season, there will remain 11 programs.

One thing seems to be clear: The current collegiate men’s gymnastics structure is no longer sustainable.

Former Cal men’s gymnastics captain Kyte Crigger recognizes the problems that the sport is facing. Being involved in annual fundraising operations himself during his undergraduate years, he sees a need to dramatically change the form of gymnastics for the sport to survive.

“The problem right here is that (men’s) gymnastics is not attractive enough to Americans. … Our system is so long; it’s boring and confusing,” Crigger said. “You have to break up the status quo and figure out new ways to present it to the public.”

Acknowledging qualities of the sport that may be less appealing to spectators, the gymnastics community is creating a wind of change, making efforts to fundamentally transform the sport for its survival.

The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, USA Gymnastics and others in the community are forming a committee to develop sustainability initiatives. Among the ideas proposed are virtual meets, coed teams and competitions, new sustainable business plans and changes to the competition format to make it smaller and quicker and to create more upsets.

After the hardships the men’s gymnastics community has faced in recent years, the sport is nearing a seemingly inevitable transformation. Whether the change will be as simple as a restructuring of the competition format or as drastic as a departure from the NCAA, the men’s gymnastics community has made it clear that it will fight to ensure its athletes have the opportunity to compete and pursue their passion.

This is the second installment of a three-part series aimed to dissect the disappearance of men’s gymnastics programs across the nation.

Jocelyn Huang is the head of copy chiefs. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @jocelynxhuang.

Eriko Yamakuma covers men’s gymnastics. Contact her at [email protected].