Extinction to evolution: Men’s gymnastics community talks strategies for sport’s survival

Photo of Cal Men's Gymnastics
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Amid all of 2020’s chaos, collegiate sports have found themselves in precarious positions, with seasons canceled or shortened due to the COVID-19 pandemic and entire programs cut due to budget constraints. Collegiate men’s gymnastics, which is already on a steady decline, saw its number of collegiate programs drop further, to the point where members of the community started serious discussions about the sport’s viability and the possible changes that would be necessary for the survival of the sport at the college level.

Because financial concerns have recurrently endangered men’s gymnastics, the community has devised ways to make the sport as self-sufficient as possible. Cal men’s gymnastics, for example, solicited donations from its strong alumni community when it was put on the chopping block in 2011. Though the program is without scholarships and has limited funding, athletes, coaches and alumni continue to work to raise funds for the program.

With the COVID-19 pandemic further straining finances, however, other measures may be necessary to keep the sport afloat. As the number of teams decreases, so does the competition field and the sport’s presence both in conferences and in the NCAA.

“The impact of this pandemic is far-reaching and we won’t really know the full impact on intercollegiate athletics and the sport of men’s gymnastics for some time,” said MPSF Executive Director Al Beaird in an email. “The sport cannot afford to see anymore programs cut.”

While the NCAA has a bylaw exempting men’s gymnastics and other Olympic sports from the minimum number of teams required for there to be a national championship, the MPSF, which hosts Cal, Air Force, Stanford and Oklahoma, requires that four schools have programs for there to be a championship.

“At this time, I’m certain that the four MPSF teams are solid and don’t foresee any immediate impact to MPSF competition… unless attrition around the country continues, then all teams everywhere will be negatively impacted and sport would be in jeopardy at the NCAA level,” Beaird said in the email.

Athletes and officials alike have supported the possibility of adjustments to competition rules.

“Our format doesn’t necessarily help us,” said Jason Woodnick, vice president for men’s gymnastics at USA Gymnastics. “It’s not the most fan-friendly at times. It can be long and confusing and hard to understand the scoring.”

One potential change is the transition to a 4-4-3 competition format, in which only four gymnasts are allowed on each roster, all four compete and only three have their scores counted toward the total team score. Collegiate gymnastics currently employs a five-up-five rule, in which five gymnasts compete in each event and all scores are counted. This transition could reduce costs by decreasing team rosters. It could also make the sport more presentable on TV, as with smaller teams, gymnasts wouldn’t have to compete on different events simultaneously, making the events easier to follow. Because of the minimized time, 100% of each competition could be televised, which would appeal to audiences and potentially make the sport more televisable.

Beyond fundraising and competition format changes, there have been discussions about more drastic changes to the sport, including a shift away from the current Division I landscape and toward club operations and elite training.

One distinct trait of men’s gymnastics is the large role of collegiate programs: For years, the majority of the U.S. national team members have been NCAA gymnasts. Most of the other members train at the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic, or USOP, Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, including some who walked away from NCAA gymnastics.

As the sport sees a decline in NCAA teams, more athletes may pursue gymnastics by training at the USOP Training Center. This may mean earning their degrees through more flexible programs, such as DeVry University’s partnership with Team USA. Woodnick added that USA Gymnastics is working to develop a way for athletes at the USOP Training Center to receive an education while training, potentially through a scholarship program with the nearby University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. Another possibility for athletes may be forgoing or postponing a college education.

From a school administrator’s point of view, however, the sole pursuit of sport may not be an ideal option. Jim Knowlton, Cal director of athletics, believes colleges are responsible for enabling students to pursue both athletics and academics.

“For me, the beauty of college athletics is that you are a student-athlete,” Knowlton said. “When you are not in a NCAA school, and you are just focusing on a sport, you are either a professional athlete or something other than a student-athlete.”

In November, Knowlton was named to the working group of the USOP Committee’s College Sports Sustainability Think Tank. With nonrevenue sports facing extinction, the Sustainability Think Tank aims to create a sustainable model that will keep programs from being cut by athletic departments.

Out of the proposed changes on the table, transitioning to a revenue-generating model may be one of the most revolutionary. Efforts made to save the University of Minnesota program, though unfruitful, prompted some innovative suggestions.

Plans submitted to Minnesota’s Board of Regents included the construction of a community recreation center that would serve as both a college gym where the team could train and a community center. Not only would it host gymnastics invitationals, which would attract kids and families from across the country, but it would also offer various classes for the local community, including gymnastics, cheer and ninja, all of which have earned more TV exposure in recent years. Utilizing the rec center’s revenue, which is projected to be nearly $500,000 by the end of its third year of operation, the Minnesota men’s gymnastics program would be able to offset its annual expenses.

Some schools, such as Arizona State and the University of Washington, have self-funded club programs, which are not part of the NCAA but still in national rankings. Raising funds to meet annual operating expenses, though, requires a great amount of effort from athletes, which is time and energy spent away from both academics and athletics.

In the long run, however, this model of self-funding is not sustainable, as athletes will be forced to spend much of their time fundraising and not in the classroom or at the gym. Creating a sustainable plan that allows athletes to pursue both academics and their sport with minimal distractions is a top priority to the current gymnastics community.

Despite the challenges the sport faces, the gymnastics community generally remains hopeful.

“I don’t think collegiate men’s gymnastics is going to go away,” Woodnick said. “It may change, it may mold into something different, but I don’t think it will ever be completely gone. We have too many people that care too much, and we’ll put too much work in to stop that from happening.”

Fifty years from now, collegiate gymnastics may look completely different: The competitions themselves may be much shorter and easier; teams may be coed and run self-sufficiently; or academics may take a back seat during gymnasts’ young adulthoods. Regardless of the changes that occur, however, the community’s passion and commitment will almost certainly never waver.

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

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

Jocelyn Huang is the deputy special issues editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @jocelynxhuang.