The great competitive and commercial climax of the college sports season occurs this week in Indianapolis with the Final Four. Millions of dollars will be spent watching millionaire coaches and (a few) future millionaire players battle for the national basketball championship in a football stadium.
Final Fours, like the college football postseason, have done nothing but expand in scope and profitability in recent years. The amount to be spent on (and made off) those events seems to be limitless. Especially on the gridiron, where the College Football Playoff has broken the bank.
But more and more, the revenue geyser is meant to sustain only the two glamour athletic programs – football and men's basketball. The more money those sports make, the more gets plowed back into them in the way of opulent facilities and lavish coaching salaries.
Which is why some smaller cogs in the College Sports Inc., machine – the non-revenue athletes and coaches – will be watching this Final Four both wistfully and worriedly.
Their very existence is threatened. Even as football and basketball make record-breaking money, non-revenue sports – the pipeline to a strong American Olympic team – have never felt less secure. Men's non-revenue sports are the most at-risk.
"We are, candidly, very concerned," U.S. Olympic committee CEO Scott Blackmun told Yahoo Sports.
If you enjoy watching American men win gold medals every four years, enjoy a hearty "USA! USA! USA!" cheer, and enjoy hearing the "Star-Spangled Banner" played while athletes tear up, you should be very concerned as well.
Next week, the NCAA men's gymnastics championships will be held in Norman, Okla. Last week, the men's swimming national championship was held in Iowa City. The week before that, the wrestling national championship was contested in St. Louis. All those sports have been impacted by changing times in college athletics – and the future is even more challenging.
Blackmun said that 65 percent of America's London Olympics team was comprised of athletes who trained in college. But some of those feeder programs are on the endangered list.
Since the early 1980s, Blackmun said, college men's gymnastics programs have been cut by 75 percent. Wrestling has been cut by half. About 50 schools have dropped their men's swimming programs.
And that's before the next wave of expenditures hits university athletic departments.
There are full cost of attendance scholarships, plus enhanced meal plans and health coverage. There is the O'Bannon lawsuit outcome to be factored in, and the Kessler lawsuit as well, each of which seeks major financial windfalls for athletes in revenue-producing sports.
"We're not against giving college athletes much-improved medical care, four-year scholarships, full cost of attendance," Blackmun said. "Our concern is that the inevitable impact of these changes is coming down on Olympic sports. We've seen estimates that athletic departments will have to spend an additional $2 million to $3 million per year to cover these costs. That's the cost of operating two or three Olympic sports programs.
"If you're looking at your options, they are: raising more money or cutting more programs. If the answer is the transfer from the men's gymnastics program to fund these mandates, men's gymnastics is in trouble."
And men's gymnastics isn't the only one in trouble. Within the last few months, Chattanooga dropped its men's track program and College of Charleston shut down its swimming programs – men's and women's. Bigger schools have gone before them – Washington, it's worth noting, dropped men's and women's swimming when the school president was Mark Emmert, now the head of the NCAA.
With the changes in legislation and potential legal outcomes looming, there have been preliminary discussions in some power conferences about petitioning to reduce the number of sports Division I schools must sponsor (the current mininum is 14, with at least six of those mens' sports). That has induced some musical chairs-style anxiety among non-revenue programs, each trying to prove themselves worthy of a place within what could be shrinking athletic departments.
USA Swimming, the national governing body of club swimming, has extended a three-year, $375,000 grant to the College Swim Coaches Association of America to find ways to promote and support the sport.
"USA Swimming needs to take more of a role in promoting college swimming," executive director Chuck Wielgus said. "We've always been a little reluctant. We've seen our role as supporting club swimming. ... We felt it was time for us to get involved in a supporting role. Those of us who care about Olympic sports realize they are at greater risk than they ever have been before."
Joel Shinofield, executive director of the CSCAA, said his task is fairly elementary: "How do we keep swimming around? We need to find a way to help coaches sell their programs and athletic directors to keep their programs."
How do they do that, in an era where revenue sports command million-dollar assistant coaching salaries, and multimillion-dollar facility upgrades? By being their own fundraisers with prospective donors, and by examining ways to make their sport more viewer-friendly.
With college and pro football dominating January, and March backlogged with college basketball, some non-revenue sports are toying with the idea of trying to move their championships into the relatively fallow weeks of post-Super Bowl February. Swimming coaches have even discussed changing the format of their championships into a three-week, tournament-style series of dual meets (more TV-friendly) to crown a champion.
"A dual meet can be fan-friendly," California men's coach Dave Durden said. "It can typically fit into 90 minutes to two hours with [TV] production. We have a great audience for our sport every four years, but how can we grab that audience at other times? We've got to figure out how to make that every-four-year audience an every-year audience."
"It's a great sport and I love it, but it doesn't matter what I think. It's what the public thinks and athletic directors think. The collective of mens' and women's swimming, we've got to come together, get to the table and make some compromises on some things."
The ugly offshoot of all this could be interdepartmental cannibalism, with non-revenue sports pitting themselves against each other. That wouldn't benefit America's general Olympic health.
"The Olympic sports need to work together," said Penn State wrestling coach Cael Sanderson, a former Olympic gold medalist who was a college star at Iowa State. "We're all teaching lessons about teamwork, hard work, and how to be successful – probably the best way to learn those lessons is through college athletics.
"I believe it's very clear that our country needs to develop hard workers and people who know what it's like to get beat and to fight back, to dream big, to work at making the world a better place. College athletics is a place to learn that."
There is a great irony in a system that imperils non-revenue sports for the specific aim of gold-plating football and basketball programs. At these non-profit institutions of higher education, the most accomplished and serious student-athletes – with the high GPAs, graduation rates and diverse majors – tend to be clustered in the programs that are on the chopping block.
According to the NCAA's own research, sports with the highest "student-athlete academic identity" are swimming for men and gymnastics for women. Sixty-nine percent of male swimmers identify strongly with being both a student and an athlete, and 84 percent of women's gymnasts.
On the men's side, track was second-highest at 67 percent and tennis was tied with football for third at 65 percent. Basketball was at 61 percent, trailing only golf, lacrosse and baseball.
Given the academic credentials of many non-revenue college athletes – and their chances to become successful professionals who give back to their alma maters – it would seem counter-intuitive for schools to eliminate programs that bring them to campus in the first place. But counter-intuitive thinking tends to rule College Sports Inc., in modern times.
"If we lose [a substantial number of programs], then you really become about basketball and football only," Shinofield said. "Those sports do an incredible job of providing opportunities, especially to first-generation college students. But if it's only about making money, then it's not about education."