SALT LAKE CITY — Utah tops polls!
BYU ranked No. 1!
National championships within reach!
Millions rejoice as Cougars, Utes mesmerize America!
OK, that last statement was an exaggeration. Millions are actually waiting for football, or at least March Madness.
Everyone else is looking for something to love.
Coming up this week is a key gymnastics meet, with No. 1 Utah hosting No. 4 Georgia. Meanwhile, BYU's top-ranked men's volleyball team awaits a Friday match against No. 7 Stanford. Both Utah gymnastics and BYU volleyball play to full houses. Part of that is due to success, the other due to cheap, available tickets.
Whether those sports actually matter can be summarized thusly: Yes, but only in specific places and spaces.
"I think Olympic sports matter a lot," says former BYU athletics director Val Hale. "It's not as broad as football, but it matters, especially in the dark, cold winter months when there's not a lot going on outside."
Which is all fine, unless universities can't afford to sponsor non-revenue sports. On the balance sheets and in the national consciousness, nothing doing.
"That is the ultimate question," says Hale. "How much can a university afford to do?"
National caliber teams are expensive, especially when they fail to bring in as much as they cost — which is almost always the case. So how important is it that BYU be ranked No. 1 in men's volleyball and Utah be No. 1 in women's gymnastics?
"It's a matter of importance to a select group of boosters and fans," says former BYU athletics director Rondo Fehlberg. "It's a matter of importance to students in the student body, more than a lot of people might think, because they really like to set a goal for what they view as the underdog."
The underdog to football, of course.
Fehlberg notes that non-revenue sports also appeal to a segment of the faculty that sees football as "the eggplant that ate Chicago" — an out-of-control venture that overwhelms academics.
In harsh reality, non-revenue sports are mostly an accessory. They might accent the outfit, but they aren't going to carry it. Still, universities continue to sponsor track, skiing, swimming, tennis, golf, baseball, softball and soccer teams, too.
Like ballet and opera, they cost more than they earn, but enhance the overall community.
"Over the years, universities have been cutting programs," Hale continues. "Football and basketball have typically paid the freight and subsidized Olympic sports. I don't know how much longer it will go on, or if somebody will say 'We just can't afford to do this anymore.'"
Sometimes there are crossover benefits. Stanford has a national reputation for fielding Olympic sports and now its football team is strong, too. BYU's golf and volleyball titles are noteworthy, as are Utah's gymnastics and ski championships. They're certainly important to those who are competing. But the number of sports is shrinking due to budget cuts.
Winning titles in non-revenue sports isn't like winning the NCAA basketball tournament, anyway. There are just 37 colleges sponsoring Division I men's volleyball, 64 sponsoring women's gymnastics. By comparison, there are 342 college basketball teams.
Fehlberg says when he was BYU's A.D., former volleyball coach Carl McGown was "constantly railing on me" about funding the Cougars like other top programs. Fehlberg finally proposed to fully fund volleyball if McGown promised to win a national title within three years.
McGown sat for a long pause before saying: "You're serious, aren't you?"
As serious as an obituary.
So was McGown, who won a title in two years and another shortly thereafter.
Still, if you want to gauge how visible non-revenue sports are, just ask someone at work about the gymnastics meet or volleyball match the previous Saturday. You'll invariably get a blank stare. College volleyball and gymnastics matter in the same ways as crew, soccer, volleyball, tennis, golf, baseball and track: in non-quantifiable ways. But in terms of revenue and scope, forget about it.
They're just elevator music in the skyscraper of life.
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