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Last week, I announced that Extra Points had acquired Out of Bounds, another excellent newsletter that covers the off-the-field stories in college athletics. That means that OOB's Andy Wittry will be a weekly contributor here at Extra Points.
Today, I'm happy to share his thoughts on a storyline near and dear to my heart...how will college athletics adapt to a changing America?
Let me pass the mic over to Andy:
If you want to build a college football team capable of winning a national championship, you’re probably going to need to load up with a roster full of players from the Southeast, or perhaps California or Ohio. If you want to build a championship squad in another college sport, you may need to cast your recruiting net much, much wider.
Baylor, the reigning Division I men’s basketball national champion, won the 2021 NCAA Tournament with a starting center from the Democratic Republic of Congo and his more highly used backup last season is from Cameroon, while Stanford’s women’s basketball team won the 2021 national championship with a rotation that featured reserves from Australia and Canada.
Texas won the 2021 women’s tennis team national championship with a No. 2 singles player from Italy, a Swiss No. 3 singles player and additional players from Chile, Serbia and Spain.
In May, Marshall won its first-ever men’s soccer national championship with a roster that featured 22 international players from Argentina, Brazil, Canada, England, Germany, Ghana, India, Kenya, Mexico, New Zealand and Spain. Florida State, the current top-ranked women’s soccer squad, features a roster that includes players from Bermuda, Canada, China, Ireland, Jamaica, Japan, Portugal, Sweden and the United Kingdom. In sports ranging from basketball to swimming and diving, from soccer to tennis, elite rosters are full of international athletes.
This diversity isn’t unique to college sports. In fact, these rosters may more closely mirror the U.S. population than you might realize.
Experts in cultural anthropology and U.S. demographics project that in the future – perhaps as soon as next decade – immigration will lead to greater population increases than natural increases, meaning births minus deaths.
Projections about increases in the U.S. population are based on an increasing immigrant population as birth rates decline
Susan Mazur-Stommen is a cultural anthropologist who lives in West Virginia – “even though there’s a fervent fan base here for the Mountaineers, you don’t get those (high school) powerhouses here,” she said – and she previously spent about three years living in Germany, where “[basketball is] bigger.” Her grandfather was the 12th of his parents’ 13 children, who were raised on a farm in Iowa, which is the type of familial story that has seemingly grown less common compared to previous generations.
“As we’re looking towards 2050, we’re looking towards fewer folks having kids,” Mazur-Stommen said. “It used to go by the name of the industrialized demographic transition, whereby the more sort of post-industrial society becomes, obviously the fewer kids we need.”
“So we don’t need a bunch of kids on the farm,” she said, laughing, as she mentioned her grandfather and his 11 older siblings.
The Wall Street Journal reported that the U.S. population grew by 7.4 percent between 2010 and 2020, which was the second-slowest rate of growth during a decade over the course of the last century, only faster than the Great Depression-impacted 1930s. A Pew Research Center survey found that 46 percent of Americans say people will be less likely to have children in 2050 than they are now, and seventy-one percent of parents younger than age 50 said they are unlikely to have more kids in the future.
In 2030, international immigration projects to be responsible for a larger population increase than ‘natural increase’
Jonathan Vespa, Lauren Medina and David M. Armstrong wrote for the U.S. Census Bureau in March 2018, “The year 2030 marks another demographic first for the United States. Beginning that year, because of population aging, immigration is projected to overtake natural increase (the excess of births over deaths) as the primary driver of population growth for the country.”
In 2030, international immigration is projected to add roughly 100,000 more people to the U.S. population than natural increase. That disparity is expected to become even more pronounced by 2050.
Data projections from the U.S. Census Bureau show that 16.8 percent of the U.S. population in 2050 will be foreign-born. Since 1850, the all-time high in the U.S. was 14.8 percent in the 1890s and the U.S. Census Bureau projects the country to break that record in 2028.
Those trends in diversity are mirrored in the college athlete populace. According to the NCAA’s demographics database, the percent of Division I athletes who are white declined from 62.8 percent in 2012 to 55.9 percent in 2020, while there were increases in the percentage of athletes who are of two or more races (+3.5 percentage points), international athletes (+1.8 percent) and Hispanic/Latino athletes (+1.2 percent).
That means in 2050, roughly one out of every six people in the U.S. could be born in a country where American football is not the No. 1 sport.
The other football – you know, futbol – will often take the mantle as the most popular sport in an American immigrant’s birth country. Sometimes, immigrant families may fall in love with American football, not just as a game, but as an Americanizing force – something that Matt has mentioned a few times, because when his mother moved to the United States from Brazil as a kid, one of the ways she learned English was from Cleveland Browns broadcasts.
But there’s no guarantee that futbol-loving fans will become football-loving fans, or hockey fans, or fans of anything else. Fandom can be tricky to predict. Mazur-Stommen wondered, rather than relying on regional fandom, will some members of Gen Z cultivate their fandoms based on their personal values, such as supporting diverse organizations that hire and promote people of color to leadership positions?
Ultimately, the sport that could be the real winner from an increasingly international U.S. population could potentially be basketball.
“You know how there’s more people who speak Chinese or Spanish than speak English but more people speak English as a second language than any other language?” Mazur-Stommen asked rhetorically. “It’s probably the same sort of thing in that what you’ll see is a lot of people coming to this country, maybe their predominant love is soccer but their second love is basketball. Soccer, the story is always ‘It’s coming.’ I think I was playing when I was in elementary school. It really never showed up.
“But basketball, I think, might actually be that second love that becomes the first love.”
According to the NCAA’s demographics data that spans from 2012 through 2020, the number of Division I women’s basketball players who are international students – they’re labeled “nonresident alien” in official NCAA parlance – saw a 138-percent increase during that span, from 192 to 456, while the number of international players in the DI men’s game increased by 68 percent from 296 in 2012 to 498 in 2020, which meant there was an average of 1.4 international players per team two seasons ago.
How will athletic departments respond to these demographic trends?
Every university administration in the country is aware of potential looming demographic shifts for undergraduates. If birth rates decline, and schools can’t plug in the gaps with international enrollment, then the country won’t produce as many high school graduates looking to enroll in college, which will make it harder for hundreds of schools to recruit and retain students.
But what are athletic departments doing about these changes? Are they thinking of new ways to market and promote their programs to communities that might look different than they did 50 years ago? Are coaches, from the prep to the college level, prepared to look for and develop talent from different places? Will there be an emphasis on hiring more diverse coaches and administrators in order to appeal to an increasingly diverse U.S. population? What happens when international athletes are by and large left out of NIL? How do you handle cultural or language issues? How do you blend a highly diverse team in a less diverse campus or local community?
And can commercial and community support of sports such as basketball and soccer grow as college football powerhouses consolidate in the SEC and the rest of the autonomy conferences?
“Whether we like it or not, we’re competing both with the local, niche, hardcore fans, and we’re competing at the USA Today, the Harvard, the national brand, the global brand [level],” Mazur-Stommen said. “Whoever we are, whatever industry we’re working in, we’re competing at both ends of that in some sense, so we have to find a way to create brands that have wide enough appeal to maintain that pipeline that we depend on, whether it’s a pipeline of readers, or a pipeline of students, or a pipeline of players.”
Not only could you assemble a good college football team – maybe even a Big Ten West contender – from kids whose parents were one of nine kids who were raised on a farm, but you could build a season ticket roster from that group as well. Those days, if demographers are correct, are numbered, if they aren’t over already.
“We’re all competing in this sort of global marketplace these days in a way that’s been long predicted,” Mazur-Stommen said, “but really now has come true.”
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To sponsor a future Extra Points newsletter, please click here. For article ideas, newsletter feedback, FOIA tips, athlete NIL sponsorships and more, I'm at firstname.lastname@example.org, or @MattBrownEP on Twitter. Andy can be reached at email@example.com or at @AndyWittry on Twitter.