Amy Donaldson: Gymnastics needs to evolve to thrive in changing college sports world
BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — In the middle of her floor routine Sunday, Becky Tutka noticed something odd.
“I was like, ‘Wow, it’s kind of quiet’” the University of Utah junior said after competing in Sunday’s individual championships at the Birmingham-Jackson Convention Center. “I was a little shocked.”
She wasn’t alone.
The NCAA has moved the gymnastics nationals to neutral sites a couple of times. This year, the closest participating college was just an hour away, so the site wasn’t really neutral. It also wasn’t on a college campus.
Some coaches want to see the sport’s national champion crowned in a packed arena — regardless of who the fans are cheering for. Others, however, see moving the championships to a truly neutral site as a necessary step in the evolution of the sport.
Everyone will find out if that’s a mistake in the next two years as the NCAA has decided to hold the championships in the Fort Worth Convention Center Arena in Texas. The closest college program is Oklahoma, which is a 2 1/2-hour drive.
“I’m one who believes the most important thing is to have fans in the stands,” Utah co-head coach Greg Marsden said, glancing around at the mostly empty arena Sunday afternoon. “I think it’s a mistake any time we create a situation that makes that more difficult.”
Florida head coach Rhonda Faehn, whose team earned its second consecutive NCAA championship Saturday night in a tie with Oklahoma, said she’s unsure if it’s the right thing to do, but she also holds out hope that it will work.
“We’ll see how it goes,” she said. “I hope it’s successful because I would like to see it turn into what the college (softball and baseball) World Series is, where you have that site and fans will always know it’s there, and it will continue to grow.”
With just 81 collegiate gymnastics programs left, evolving and growing are keys to the survival of the sport. In Utah, women's gymnastics is immensely popular and enjoys the kind of fan support that few women’s athletic programs do. Utah regularly leads the Pac-12 in attendance and is one of the best-supported programs in the country.
The interesting thing about Utah fans is that they show up when the meets are in Salt Lake, attending even when Utah isn’t competing.
They just appreciate gymnastics.
Marsden said preserving and creating more of those communities is critical.
“What we could have, what we do have is this performance quality and on a variety of campuses, we’ve shown that you can have a big audience, you can become popular,” he said.
He said the championships should be the best-attended, “not the poorest-attended events.”
In order to compete with all the options sports fans have nowadays, gymnastics has to make some changes.
“We could make gymnastics one of the most popular women’s sports in the NCAA,” he said. “But we’ve got to make some changes that we’ve been unwilling to make, at least up until now.”
Marsden said it isn’t so much a matter of where the nationals are held as it is how they’re structured.
“Coaches, in general, try to hold on to what they know,” Marsden said. “In men’s basketball, coaches were against the 3-point shot and the shot clock. In volleyball, 70 percent of them were against going to rally scoring. The changes that have made those sports better and more fan-friendly and more entertaining, the coaches were against. I don’t know how we’re ever going to get there if we’re waiting around for the gymnastics coaches as a whole.” That’s because differing priorities and philosophies make consensus almost impossible.
While some see taking the championships off of college campuses as a mistake, others see it as an opportunity to expose communities that may not have a college program to the product.
One thing most coaches agree on, however, is that officials need to do more to keep fans connected to what’s happening on the floor. It needs to be easier for a casual fan to watch and keep track of whose winning and why.
As for Marsden, he’d like to see no more than four teams on the floor at any time with scoreboards that keep fans informed on which teams are winning and by how much.
“I’d go five up, five count,” he said of the rule that drops the lowest score of one of the six gymnasts. “Make gymnastics look more like other sports. I would count everything, no mulligans.” He said it needs to be fast-paced and simple to understand.
“We’ve held on to this idea that we’re unique in some way and we’ve got to give as many people as possible an opportunity to be on the floor for finals,” he said. “It just doesn’t work.”
Faehn said the ability of fans to follow the scoring is critical — and easily fixed.
“There is not a running scoreboard,” she said, admitting that even with her understanding it can be baffling to her. “The fans are confused, I’m confused, and you just don’t know what’s going on. It would be one of the simplest things we could do to help our fans understand what we’re doing and make it more enjoyable.”
The issues aren’t insignificant. With the recent legal challenges to age-old NCAA rules and traditions, it could be a matter of survival.
“You’ve got to create an environment that is fan-friendly because it’s really important in this day and age, with, who knows where college sports is going to go, with the lawsuits against the NCAA, the mega conferences, the possibilities in football, we don’t know what college athletics is going to look like in 10 years,” Marsden said. “If gymnastics wants to be a player in that again, we’ve got to emphasize our strength. And that’s the performance and the ability to draw a crowd.”
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