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USU’s club sports win national championships but get little support

May 2nd, 2013 Posted in Opinion

By Jonathan Larson

LOGAN — Players from the intercollegiate club teams at Utah State University have little hope of ever becoming  professional athletes in their sport. They receive little recognition, their events are sparsely attended and yet they continue to compete notwithstanding the fact that none of them receive athletic scholarships..

In fact,  club teams have won more national championships — six in the last three years — than all of the officially recognized, school-sponsored sports combined in the history of the school, the last being in softball in 1981.

Ryan Campbell, a member of the Utah State handball team, voiced his concerns at a recent team meeting about the fundraising his team will need to do in the next 10 months to finance a trip to the national championships in North Carolina next February. Handball is only a club sport at Utah State, which means that it receives essentially zero monetary support from the university, despite winning three national titles in as many years, and recognition in the school paper doesn’t pay for ten cross-country plane tickets or hotels, as student athletes on non-school sanctioned sports well know

Challenges for club sports

Club teams rely on numerous volunteer hours from coaches and others to put on single games, matches or competitions. The athletes and coaches are responsible for team rules, deciding what teams to play against, raising money for uniforms and referees or judges. They arrange and pay for their own accommodations, travel and manage the paperwork that entire athletic departments handle for school sponsored teams.

“Because the kids are so busy, we don’t make much progress in the fundraising aspect,” said Herm Olsen, Utah State handball head coach “It’s a challenge for students who already have a full schedule of jobs and work and family to keep things going. There’s no scholarship money here so it is all their own initiative and we still produce some darn good players.”

Collegiate club sports have been rising in popularity for many years.

In 1968 the club volleyball national championships only drew 20 teams. The same tournament hosted 258 teams in 2008 and in this year’s competition, the event drew more than 360 teams.

An intercollegiate soccer championship was founded in 1994 and had only 15 participating schools. In 2007 the tournament featured 75 different institutions.

The club tennis national championships were first held in 2000 with a field of 11 teams. In 2008 the tournament had blossomed to 64 teams with 20 others on a waiting list.

Why the growth?

One key factor that college officials say has led to an increase in popularity of  club sports is that more students are graduating from high school than ever before. They also say students have more interest and skill than earlier classes because of the expanding youth sports programs at early ages.

Because of this influx of more skilled athletes, the National Collegiate Athletic Association says that only 5.3 percent of those graduates will ever play for a varsity college team. The rest, who grew up competing at high levels, are left to find an athletic outlet if they want to continue playing.

“I started playing club sports to stay in shape,” Ryan Campbell said. “I also enjoy not having the pressure of being school funded because I like making my own decisions and living my own life.”

One of the draws of club sports is that it is up to the athletes to balance their own academic, athletic and social lives. Students are free to choose what they want to do and when they want to do it.

“As a part time student for my senior year, I am not even eligible to play on official school teams,” said Cory Decker of the men’s Ultimate team. “Nine is the minimum number of credits I had to take to play each semester. That means I don’t have to take unnecessary classes, I can work and still spend time with my wife.”

According to the Club Sports Manual, students participating in club sports have to maintain a cumulative GPA of 2.0 or higher as well as being registered for a minimum of nine academic credits.

Students who represent the school at the NCAA Division 1 level are required to maintain a cumulative GPA of 2.0 or better while being enrolled in at least 12 credit hours. Starting in the fall semester of 2016, the NCAA has announced that athletes will need to earn at least a 2.3 GPA to remain eligible.

What Utah State spends on athletics

In 2011, Utah State spent $68,164,690  to support the school’s teams while only recouping $67,514,665, which includes $10,808,865 that is state funding and student fees; a loss of $650,025.

Utah State president Stan Albrecht recently stated that the average Utah State athlete currently “receives four to five times the amount of financial support from the university than a non-student-athlete receives.”

The amount of money that fewer than two dozen teams spend is staggering. The combined salaries of  men’s basketball coach Stew Morrill and football coach Matt Wells are just a few thousand dollars short of $1 million per season, at $956,182.

What school support would mean for clubs

Campbell said that at the recent handball national championships he played against a student from Lake Forest College who complained that his school only gave him one shirt per year. Despite an enrollment nearly 10 times the size of Lake Forest College’s 1,500, Utah State provides no money for such things to its club athletes.

“It’s hard to say that I represent Utah State when they can’t afford a $10 shirt with the school’s name on it for me,” Campbell said. “I pay to practice. I pay for gas and hotels. I pay to play in tournaments and bring respect to the school. But with they can’t find $10 in their millions to respect me.”

As currently constituted by the Club Sports Manual, teams may apply for small grants to help assuage the financial burden of traveling for games and tournaments. The rules are strictly enforced however and each club is responsible for the appropriate use of funds, or else they may face consequences as severe as disbandment.

“We survive on a shoestring budget,” said Olsen. “I help fund the team a little and some other guys contribute a little bit of money here and there, but if we had some sort of steady source – even $5,000 – per year would be huge.”

Olsen said he would not have to worry about how to get his players to the national tournament in North Carolina next year if they were to receive support like that.

“I do appreciate the fact that the university struggles financially every year with salaries, budget limitations and new buildings,” Olsen said. “I do not think that it is any kind of lack of support for these sports, but I’m sure they would tell us that there just isn’t any money available to spread out to the non-sanctioned sports.”

Jeff Crosbie, former assistant athletic director for business operations, said, “We currently are at the minimum for the number of sports that we sponsor, to keep our status as members of NCAA Division 1.” He added that the school can’t afford any more.

For the time being, it looks like club sports will continue having to fend for themselves.

“We understand that we will probably have to fight for our survival forever,” said Colton Skousen of the rodeo team. “We’ll keep going out there though and competing. Aggie pride, man!”

Three national championships for the handball team, two for the rodeo club and one for the baseball team in the last three years represent the passion of Utah State athletes and their commitment to excellence; all for the love of their sports and their school.

“Those teams bring a lot of notoriety, publicity and benefits to the students without any expenditure by the school,” Olsen said. “I think that if and when money comes available, the administration will look at the successes and squeeze a little money over. That would sure help a bunch of really great student athletes who don’t get financial support from the university. ”

As Campbell sat down to discuss plans for the handball team’s trip to the national tournament next year, his main concern was his play. He said that money, while important, will never prevent him from competing on the world’s largest collegiate handball stage.

“Whether we have help from the school or not, we always find a way to raise the money we need. We don’t stay in nice places, we drive all over the country but it is worth it,” Campbell said. “Hopefully the school can help us out more in the future.”


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