Gymnastics back-flips to raise interest

By Blythe Lawrence

For the Deseret News

Published: Friday, May 29 2009 12:00 a.m. MDT

SEATTLE — Utah gymnastics coach Greg Marsden doesn't worry about filling arenas. The popular Ute gymnastics team sold out the Huntsman Center twice last season, and average attendance at home meets was 13,800 fans.

But Marsden is in the minority among college gymnastics coaches, and he knows it. Although the sport tumbles into the public spotlight every four years during the Olympic Games, gymnastics at the NCAA level is mainly a low-revenue sport that relies on football and basketball programs for financial support.

"What our athletes do is mesmerizing. That's what we have going for us. What kills us is how we present it," Marsden said. "Division I athletics are a business now, and we've got to be better at running our business."

At their annual coaches meeting in Seattle earlier this month, NCAA gymnastics coaches voted to adopt two new policies they hope will increase casual interest in the sport. If the changes are approved by an NCAA committee the second week of June, every score posted next year will count toward the final team score, and the NCAA Championships will move to a four-team final. The committee is comprised of seven individuals: one from each of the six Division I regionals and one representing Divisions II and III.

Coaches believe changing the competition format will make it easier for spectators who may not know much about gymnastics to follow the action at meets. Currently, six competitors perform on each event and the top five scores count toward the team score, which may lead casual viewers to wonder why the team where only five gymnasts performed well beat the team that turned in six hit routines.

"We have to come up with a format that's attractive to the average viewer," Marsden said. "I'm not talking about the hard-core gymnastics fan. I'm talking about the family that's never been to a gymnastics meet."

Utah has been successful in generating interest through splashy ad campaigns and the team's longtime success, and also by making meets fan-friendly. While competitions can run more than two hours with long lulls while scores are tabulated, Utah's meets often clock in at less than 90 minutes, and Marsden makes sure there's something to divert fans when the athletes aren't performing.

"There's always something going on," he said. "It's just an exciting place to be and it's affordable and you can bring your whole family."

The six-compete, six-count rule gives more potential for upsets, which most feel would benefit the sport. Only four teams — Georgia, Utah, Alabama and UCLA — have ever won the national title, and Georgia has won the past five in a row. Year after year, many of the nation's top recruits sign with one of those schools.

"The rich get richer," remarked Bob Levesque, who coached at the University of Washington until 2006.

The only way to break the recruiting juggernaut is for other schools to have success, Marsden said. Counting every athlete's performance could lead to upsets at regional meets and new teams making NCAA Championship appearances.

Under the proposed changes, the top two schools at each regional meet will still advance to the NCAA Championship meet. Six schools will compete in each session on the first day of the NCAA meet, and the top two teams from each session will advance to the NCAA final.

UCLA assistant coach Chris Waller hopes having a four-team final will lead to the NCAA Championships being televised live.

"I think it's going to be a much more marketable event," Waller said. "Somehow we need to become the March Madness of women's sports."

Florida coach Rhonda Faehn, whose team finished fourth at the 2009 NCAA Championships, voted against the four-team final at the NCAA coaches conference.

"That may produce the live TV and it may bring more fans and more understanding to our sport, and it may not," she said. "Anytime we're taking away from our female student-athletes, I struggle with that. I still need to be convinced of it."

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