Commentary

Emerging sports find success, struggles

Updated: July 21, 2009, 11:35 AM ET
By Graham Watson | ESPN.com

As budgets continue to be slashed across the NCAA and programs such as Wisconsin-La Crosse baseball, Nevada skiing and Bowling Green hockey continue to fight for their athletic lives, schools are also having to toe the gender-equity line.

[+] EnlargeCornell Equestrian
Cornell Sports Information for ESPN.comEquestrian isn't as close as some to becoming a championship sport as some but it is still important to schools such as Cornell.

Emerging sports, which were designed to give women greater opportunities and help balance the male-to-female ratios for Title IX, are also taking a hit; fewer are making the conversion from emerging to NCAA championship status.

"There are a number of emerging sports on the list that grew fairly quickly -- rowing, water polo, ice hockey, bowling -- that are now NCAA championship sports, but there are also a number of them that have languished, and a lot of it is because they were not very well-known sports," said Kathy DeBoer, the executive director of the American Volleyball Coaches Association, who has been working on making sand volleyball an emerging sport for the past three years, an effort that was approved in April. "And in this economy, a lot of schools aren't looking to add sports. I hear it all the time from [athletic directors]. They just can't add sports right now."

Emerging sports have been around since 1994 and were an initial recommendation by the NCAA Gender-Equity Task Force. Nine sports started on the initial list: archery, badminton, bowling, ice hockey, rowing, squash, synchronized swimming, team handball and water polo. Since then bowling, ice hockey, rowing and water polo have become NCAA-recognized championship sports.

Rugby, which was added to the emerging sports list in 2002, and squash are close to becoming championship sports. And sand volleyball, which is scheduled to become an emerging sport in August 2010, has enough support to become a championship sport shortly thereafter.

But the hope that some of the initial sports would give female athletes opportunities to increase awareness for sports that are popular worldwide has fallen flat.

Currently archery, badminton, synchronized swimming and team handball are up for being taken off the emerging sports list because they have not fulfilled the necessary requirements to be an NCAA championship sport.

Emerging sports are given 10 years to gain sponsorship by 40 institutions across all divisions, and funding to support the sport on a varsity level. Each emerging sport is different as far as competition, and the amount of participation and organization of each sport determines its postseason. Equestrian, for example has a national championship while squash uses the Howe Cup as its title game.

While there has been some interest by the governing bodies of emerging sports to make them mainstream, athletic directors haven't seen it the same way. And with the economic downturn, athletic departments are more in favor of cutting than adding.

Cornell, like many Ivy League schools, supports several former and current emerging sports among its 17 female sports, including squash and equestrian. The school also has a successful club women's rugby team. But athletic director Andy Noel said even though rugby is closer to becoming an NCAA championship sport than equestrian, he doesn't have the means to sponsor it.

"We're just not in a financial position to add sports right now," Noel said. "A sport being an NCAA sport is not something that would carry enough weight for us to break the hearts of 35 or 40 women who are at Cornell, participating and really enjoying their program. We have an outstanding [equestrian] coach in Chris Mitchell and we wouldn't discontinue something positive to bring on something else with great potential to be positive. Humanistically, we're not so focused on the NCAA part of it that we would negatively impact a group of Cornell students who are enjoying what they're doing."

But Noel said he understands the benefits of emerging sports. His school also supports women's rowing and ice hockey, two of the fastest-growing former emerging sports.

Rowing was the first emerging sport to earn NCAA championship status, in 1997, and has been the fastest-growing sport among the four successes. From the 1997-98 season to the 2007-08 season, 46 teams were added and more than 2,000 women joined teams. According to the NCAA Sports Sponsorship and Participation Rates Report, which details athletic participation numbers through the 2007-08 season, rowing was sponsored by 144 schools and had 7,024 participants. That's about 5,000 more participants than women's ice hockey, which is second among the four in growth. Women's ice hockey and women's water polo both earned NCAA championship status in the 2000-01 season. Women's bowling became a championship sport in 2003-04. All four have experienced growth.

[+] EnlargeJesse Vetter
University of Wisconsin Athletics for ESPN.comWomen's hockey is one of four former emerging sports to mainstream into a championship sport.

DeBoer said sand volleyball has the same kind of growth potential simply because court volleyball is the second-most-played NCAA women's sport in the country. According to the latest NCAA participation report, 1,014 of 1,070 NCAA schools sponsor volleyball, which is only 43 fewer schools than the number that sponsor women's basketball. Several court teams already spend their springs working out on the sand. The University of Nebraska, for example, has an indoor sand volleyball court.

"A lot of kids that I'm recruiting are currently playing in [sand volleyball] tournaments … but just to get more competition, and they just want to be able to play their sport outside," said Kevin Maureen Campbell, volleyball coach for North Florida, who has been instrumental in pushing for sand volleyball as an emerging sport.

While some contend that sand volleyball will become a regional sport played in Florida and California, the push for its NCAA inclusion has come from places including Nebraska, Tennessee and the University of Denver. Professional volleyball's AVP Tour has been widely popular in southern states and in centrally located states such as Colorado. And with the success of the AVP Tour, players have professional opportunities after college.

But most importantly, the cost of fielding a sand volleyball team is minimal. Games could be played at local parks or beaches where courts already exist, or a court could easily be added to a campus at a low cost.

Despite all the pros and optimism surrounding sand volleyball, DeBoer said there has been some apprehension about making it a new sport during these tough economic times. She said there has been discussion about pushing the debut of sand volleyball back a year to 2011 in hopes of a better economy and more support.

"We want to see this sport have a chance," DeBoer said. "There's such fear right now out there that, 'Hey, my opponent or a competitor might add this sport and I'm not going to be able to add it.' That's really what's fueling this move to override it. Let's get rid of it; let's not even put it on the list because we can't do this right now or we may never be able to do this.

"I would hate to have sand volleyball be the sport that the recession ate."

Graham Watson is a college sports writer for ESPN.com. She can be reached at gwatson.espn@gmail.com.

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College Football
Watson joined ESPN.com in 2008 after four seasons covering the Missouri Tigers and the Big 12 Conference for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. She also covered college football recruiting for the Dallas Morning News.