In 1969, NCAA men’s gymnastics had more than 210 programs compete that season. Today, just 15 teams remain as a Division I NCAA sponsored sport.
Those numbers represent a more than 92 percent decrease in just 51 years, and the reasons are complicated. With the introduction of Title IX in 1972 as a way to ensure gender equality coupled with the rising cost of athletic programs, the sport of gymnastics, for men specifically, has taken a tough blow.
A Lantern analysis of data involving both high school and collegiate support for the sport shows a steep decline at all levels.
Athletic programs are frequently being cut, and dreams crushed in the process. Male gymnasts have been feeling this unique type of agony for quite some time.
“When a team is cut, the head coach loses his job, there’s no more money coming into the team for expenses and no one is recruiting. The morale of the team was extremely low at that point,” Jesse Kitzen-Ableson, Temple University club gymnastics coach, said. “You spend your whole life training in your sport just to be on that college team and it’s taken away from you. Those kids were devastated.”
While collegiate support for gymnastics has been declining in recent years, women’s gymnastics has been doing so at a much less alarming rate. There were 61 NCAA Division I women’s gymnastics programs competing in the 2020 season, down from 179 in 1981.
But in the case of Temple University, funds from the axed men’s gymnastics program were reallocated to allow for the expansion of the women’s gymnastics staff.
Arizona State was forced to take a business approach, including setting up youth gymnastics meets and organizing fundraisers in order to fund collegiate gymnastics opportunities for its athletes.
Meanwhile, Ohio State is still operating with the backing of administrators, travelling across the country and utilizing extensive resources to support its athletes.
“Our athletic department is still supporting us as much as they can and we are very appreciative of that,” Drew Moling, Ohio State men’s and women’s gymnastics director of operations, said.
This trend isn’t just found collegiately; high school participation has plummeted along with the number of opportunities. According to the 2018-19 high school athletics participation survey conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations, just 104 schools supported boys’ gymnastics programs with a total of 1,580 participants while 1,578 schools funded girls’ programs with 18,658 participants.
Forty-six states in the United States offered no high school men’s gymnastics programs at all. Less than half of the country, 24 states, did not offer high school gymnastics to girls.
However, these figures may not be drastically detrimental to the sport. A study conducted by the NCAA found that 88 percent of female collegiate gymnasts had only participated in club athletics prior to college competition, while just 11 percent participated in both club and high school athletic programs.
The Big Ten boasts the most NCAA men’s gymnastics programs in the country with a contingent of seven teams. The other eight are split amongst the Mountain Pacific Sports Federation and the Eastern College Athletic Conference.
Many times, universities find themselves in a balancing act, trying to keep the athletic departments self-sustaining when possible while also staying in regulation with Title IX. These two reasons are often cited when athletic programs are cut.
Budget concerns and Title IX
As a whole, athletic department costs are continuing to rise, making it increasingly difficult to manage the books while staying compliant with Title IX. Institutions with successful football or basketball programs often bring in significant revenue and are often able to support more athletic teams on their campus.
The NCAA reported that in 2009, the median athletic expenses per student-athlete totaled $253,703. Athletic expenses as a percent of overall institutional expenses were 22 percent.
In 2018, the expense per student-athlete increased by 56 percent, reaching $395,972. Athletic expenses now account for over 27.8 percent of institutional expenses.
An NCAA analysis found that Division I institutions accounted for 83 percent of all collegiate athletic spending in the 2017-18 year and 97 percent of generated revenue.
Despite these impressive numbers, many athletic departments are still in the red, relying on financial support from their university to operate.
Title IX is a federal law that states no person in the United States shall, on the basis of sex, be excluded from participation in, be denied the benefits of, or be subjected to discrimination under any education program or activity receiving federal financial assistance. Institutions must meet at least one of the requirements in order to be compliant with Title IX.
Later in the 1970s, government officials created a test to show whether or not institutions were taking steps towards gender equality in athletics. Institutions must meet at least one of the requirements in order to be NCAA compliant.
The first requirement states that the balance of collegiate athletic opportunities for men and women must match that of the university’s enrollment. If this is not the case, universities must demonstrate either consistent program expansion for women or show accommodation of student interest or abilities.
Often, schools may be hesitant to claim Title IX as a reason for team cuts, as many programs have sued for discrimination on behalf of men’s teams. The University of Delaware men’s track team took an unusual response to their program being cut in 2011: They filed a complaint with the federal Office for Civil Rights, the office that oversees Title IX, alleging that Delaware was discriminating against its male student-athletes.
When men’s gymnastics was cut at Arizona State University in 1993, then-graduate assistant coach Scott Barclay initially thought the cuts came from Title IX.
“We asked flat out in meetings, ‘Does cutting us have anything to do with Title IX?’” Barclay said.
However, the administration said the program was cut strictly due to budgetary constraints, Barclay said.
St. Cloud State University, a small Division II college in Minnesota, announced in December 2019 that they will cut the football program for the 2020 season in order to stay Title IX compliant.
In 2018, Eastern Michigan University had to cut both men’s and women’s athletics programs due to financial hardship. However, teams needed to be reinstated after a ruling by Judge George Caram Steeh stated that financial hardship was not enough justification to cut women’s programs. Subsequently, women’s tennis was reinstated.
With the changing landscape of men’s gymnastics across the country due to Title IX and university budgets, Moling said he thinks there could be a rise in popularity for club programs that would boost the competition in recruiting.
“Times are changing, and the club programs are becoming more popular,” Moling said. “With Title IX and a lot of universities being unable to fund a varsity sport right now, I could definitely see club teams becoming more competitive in recruiting.”
Ohio State: A continuation of varsity tradition
With an athletic department that reported $205.5 million in revenue for the 2017 fiscal year, the Buckeyes had the third-highest revenue in the NCAA, behind Texas and Texas A&M.
Ohio State supports 36 varsity sports, more than any other Big Ten institution by seven. Many of the athletic teams compete for championships with an army of support staff behind them and train in state-of-the-art facilities.
Men’s gymnastics is one of those programs as the Buckeyes are consistently in the top 5 and have several individual national champions in the record books.
The program is working with such an abundance of resources that it had the means to create a position for Moling after his graduation in 2015.
“I was born in Ohio and both of my parents went to Ohio State, so I was literally born a Buckeye,” Moling said. “In 23 years, I’ve probably missed ten total Ohio State football games and I only missed those because of gymnastics commitments.”
He said it seemed natural to stay at his alma mater and continue to live out his dream of being a Buckeye. Moling has been director of operations — a position that didn’t exist before him — for four years.
“When I was on the team there wasn’t a Director of Operations. My senior year I asked if there was any way we could create a position,” Moling said. “I picked the brains of several other DOPs at the university and I gathered information, took it to our head coach and he said, ‘Done deal.’ The next day, he took it to HR and I basically just had to graduate and the position was mine.”
As the director of operations, he manages the budget, travel, facilities, acts as a liaison between many athletic department sections and ensures the team has everything they need to be successful.
The Ohio State men’s gymnastics program consists of 21 student-athletes. Rustam Sharipov has been the head coach for nine seasons, supported by two assistant coaches.
With 6.3 scholarships to be divided amongst the team, compared to the 12 that women’s teams are allowed to offer, the competition for a scholarship is tight.
A big perk of the varsity status is a brand-new performance facility shared with wrestling, men’s and women’s volleyball, and women’s gymnastics. Construction costs for the Covelli Center reached $48.9 million.
Moling said the team has access to what many of his professional counterparts only dream of.
“Obviously we have a huge Nike contract and scholarships for our athletes. But something that’s newer is we are also able to provide meals for the team,” Moling said. “We started to do that my junior and senior year on the team, but it was really only in the postseason. Now, we give them two or three meals every week and we are able to provide professional massages more frequently.”
Moling said he often speaks to alumni that are impressed by the support from the athletic department and the resources now available to student-athletes. In a world where support for men’s gymnastics is on the decline, Ohio State seems to be working in the opposite direction.
“I’m only five years out and I’m even amazed by what we have. Things are way different. They have so many more benefits and perks, above even the ability to just be an athlete at the Ohio State University,” Moling said.
Temple University: A new reality
In 2013, the Temple men’s gymnastics team was notified that their sport would be cut as the university transitioned from supporting 24 to only 17 programs. Included in the cuts were five men’s programs and two women’s programs.
These cuts affected 150 students and nine full-time coaches, abruptly ending their collegiate athletic dreams and incomes.
Kitzen-Abelson never dreamed of coaching as his primary gig. As a Temple University gymnast, he was elected co-captain twice, was an NCAA semi-finalist on the pommel horse and earned first-team All-American Scholar-Athlete status from 2008-11.
While coaching in South Africa in December 2014, he heard the news that his former team was being cut. The university stated it was trying to reduce the amount of sports it was supporting to invest more resources into other athletic programs.
After Temple made cuts that included the men’s gymnastics program, the women’s program was able to increase the salary for their head coach, add a paid assistant coaching position and build a new gym in McGonigle Hall which opened in 2015.
Kitzen-Abelson returned back to the United States in 2016 and decided to spend more time at his alma mater to see how he could help revive the program.
At the time, the team still had a facility on campus and there were just a few athletes remaining on the team. The individuals who were freshmen when the team was cut were seniors by the time Kitzen-Abelson arrived back in Pennsylvania.
He took inspiration from several programs while he began his quest to turn Temple’s program around.
“If you look up the University of Washington, they were cut in 1980 but they are very similar to an NCAA program. They are doing so well and training some elite athletes,” Kitzen-Ableson said. “Arizona State is similar, the assistant coach at the time was determined to keep it going and got a gym built within a few years. One thing led to the next and today they are beating NCAA programs.”
The staff consists mostly of Kitzen-Abelson as he wears many hats within the program, serving as a fundraiser, technical coach, recruiter and driver of the team van. He said he is fortunate to have the assistance of Fred Turoff, the former head coach of Temple, a few days a week.
Still, Kitzen-Abelson is dedicating much of his limited free time to the team. As a club coach, he is unable to be paid through the university and works a part-time job as a circus school instructor.
Kitzen-Abelson said he is grateful to have found a source of income that works with his coaching schedule. However, the first few years of rebuilding the program were draining.
“The balance is working out pretty well now, but the first two years were awful, really. The first year was me picking up the mess and broken pieces of the team. It was almost a dead team,” Kitzen-Ableson said. “There were about four or five competitors left. I was working seven days a week, four or five different jobs to make ends meet. I was getting to a near burnout. I was actually living with my aunt at the time to see if I could even afford to save the program.”
Fortunately, the team’s facility is still standing on campus and they are allowed to utilize it for practice. Without it, Kitzen-Abelson said he believes they would not be where they are. Still, the threat of the university one day wanting to reclaim the building and repurpose it hangs over Kitzen-Albeson’s head.
Kitzen-Albeson is still coming up with creative ways to fundraise and build the team up. The squad even sets up, tears down and enters data at youth competitions to raise funds.
He credits a supportive men’s gymnastics community in Philadelphia and a strong alumni base for the program’s success.
“We were cut six years ago, and our alumni were livid and angry and didn’t want to donate and people didn’t want to go to Temple anymore,” Kitzen-Abelson said. “To slowly put things back together and revive it has been really special.”
Arizona State University: A savvy success
Arizona State’s men’s gymnastics program was on the chopping block in 1993 after years of declining ticket sales for the football team. Spectators weren’t filling the stands and, in turn, the athletic department’s revenue expectations.
Eliminating men’s gymnastics, men’s and women’s badminton, and men’s and women’s archery would save the university’s athletic department just $350,000 per year, administrators said.
The athletic director at the time, Charles Harris, also justified the move to cut the program by claiming that the NCAA was on the verge of dropping the sport.
Scott Barclay graduated from the program in 1978 and stayed with the team as a graduate assistant coach while he was training for the U.S. national team.
After the announcement, Barclay helped create a nonprofit organization called Sun Devil Gymnastics with the hope of saving the program for at least a few years. He had the intention of staying to coach for one year while fighting to bring the team back.
Twenty-seven years later, he’s still taking the program to new heights.
“After one year, only one guy left. We still had a team so I said, ‘Well, I’ll train you guys another year.’ Then another year happened,” Barclay said. “We tried to start raising money so these athletes could compete and all of the sudden a couple guys showed up from high school. There were about seven guys with us in 1996 and now we have 48 guys on the team.”
As the program was cut due to budgetary constraints, Barclay said he looked into creative ways of financing the team.
“The administration said it was strictly budgetary. So, we said, ‘Fine, we’ll raise the money,’” Barclay said.
Country singer Willie Nelson heard about the team and agreed to help with a fundraiser. Accompanied by a few other public figures, the team was able to raise around $30,000, which Barclay notes is impressive for a pre-internet event of its kind, but they needed more.
With innovation and the right timing, Barclay came up with a highly unique way to raise funds for the club program.
When the University of New Mexico cut their program, Barclay purchased their floor equipment. He contacted local gyms about setting up the floor for their youth meets for a small fee. He was turned down a few times, but once teams caught wind of how much work it saved the parents, the concept took off.
Over the years, Barclay collected gymnastics equipment piece-by-piece and rented moving trucks for transportation.
Today, renting out the equipment and using the student-athletes as manpower for set-up and tear-down is the team’s main source of funding. With three semi-trailers loaded with two full sets of equipment each, the team helps out at around 40 Arizona youth gymnastics events every year.
Renting out this equipment accounts for about two-thirds of the program’s yearly budget.
“That money goes to operating expenses. Our philosophy is not to offer scholarships, but to provide opportunities,” Barclay said.
The team does offer book scholarships to reward for academic success and assists athletes seeking out scholarships from other associations and organizations.
Barclay said recruiting has changed as well. With just about $400 in the recruiting budget, he doesn’t have the financial ability to fly across the country. They do, however, visit regional and national meets and let young gymnasts know about the opportunity available to them at Arizona State.
Sun Devil Gymnastics is still a national powerhouse, often beating NCAA teams at regional competitions and winning the USA Gymnastics men’s collegiate national title 13 consecutive years.
Combatting the trend
The common denominator of these teams is simple: a desire to save the sport.
Groups like the Gymnastics Association of College Teams and the National Association of Intercollegiate Gymnastics Clubs and College Gymnastics Association try to combat the decline by sharing resources and offering alternative national competitions to the NCAA Championships.
These groups also serve as a meeting place for college coaches across the country to collaborate and discuss how to save the sport. Kitzen-Abelson said the most important prerequisites to being able to start — or revive — a club team is a facility, engaged alumni and a populated location and, unfortunately, not every prospective club has that.
“Right now, things are changing for the first time in probably 50 years,” Kitzen-Abelson said “Programs like ours, like Washington and ASU, decided we should band together and create another league, another association, to foster the growth of men’s collegiate gymnastics. We don’t fall within the NCAA anymore and since we’re not recognized, it’s our way of having a league where we can compete against each other. Beyond that, we can collaborate and discuss how we all fundraise and build team cultures.”
There are few industries and professions that COVID-19 hasn’t affected, but the sports industry has felt the strain cut especially deep.
Barclay said it’s unforeseeable how much of an effect the cancellation will have on club teams already struggling to survive. As many events move to the virtual space, coaches have also discussed the possibility of eliminating travel costs by doing the same for collegiate meets.
“The possibility of virtual meets has come up where you don’t travel. It was floated out by an NCAA coach. That is how hard things are getting right now. You would put on an event in an arena and you would have Oklahoma State competing on the screen and Ohio State competing on the floor,” Barclay said.
With the uncertainty of a season occuring in 2020, men’s college gymnastics could be in even more jeopardy.
Fifteen are left, and it’s unclear how long it will be until that number shrinks again.
Correction: A previous version of the story said, “Rustam Sharipov has been the head coach for eight seasons.” The story was updated at 8:06 p.m. Thursday, May 28, 2020 with Sharipov’s correct tenure at Ohio State.