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Here's what I told swim coaches about how college sports is changing

The highlights of my talk at the CSCAA annual meeting

Good morning, and thanks for spending part of your day with Extra Points.

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I am currently in Indianapolis, Indiana for the CSCAA (College Swimming & Diving Coaches Association of America) Annual Meeting, although I’ll be headed back to Chicago later this afternoon.

No, I didn’t suddenly change beats or pivot to a new career. I was invited to speak at the gathering to discuss some of the major external forces changing college sports, and how those forces may impact collegiate swim programs, large and small.

This was also a convention I was excited to attend, because I’m not quite as sourced up in the collegiate swim community as I’d like to me, and wanted a chance to talk to a bunch of coaches about everything from recruiting software, equipment challenges, international recruiting, and more.

I don’t think the talk was recorded (so y’all won’t get to hear me tell the story about the time I lost my swim trunks while doing the backstroke during a high school swim meet….which is probably for the best), but I do have the deck from the talk, and am happy to share a few of the bigger takeaways.

I believe that structural change in college sports is generally coming from one of three places: Antitrust litigation, employment classification, and demographic changes

You’re probably aware of the antitrust component if you’ve been reading the newsletter recently. Multiple national outlets are reporting that talks to reach a settlement of House v NCAA and potentially other antitrust cases are heating up.

A settlement in this case (which is centered around economic damages to athletes who were not able to exercise their NIL rights) will almost certainly cost more than a billion dollars…potentially significantly more than a billion dollars. It will also require schools to comply with antitrust law and create a pathway to direct revenue sharing for at least some college athletes.

For the largest athletic departments, this settlement will require tens of millions of dollars in new expenses. Such a dramatic change could be enough to force downward pressure on coach and administrative salaries, spur layoffs among non-coaching staff (like what recently happened at Texas A&M), or potentially even cutting sports programs.

For smaller schools, it may represent additional costs, depending on if their university wants to opt-in to any revenue sharing programs, or if their conference sees a decline in distributions from the NCAA.

There are many other implications that are still TBA, depending on the size and scope of any potential settlement.

Employment classification could extend to far more than just the largest P4 programs

Between Johnson (a federal case involving FCS football players in Pennsylvania) the Dartmouth MBB unionization battle with the National Labor Relations Board, and NLRB investigations at USC (and maybe elsewhere), there are plenty of opportunities for the court system to rule that at least some college athletes should be classified as employees.

I am becoming less certain that this distinction is inevitable for large swaths of college sports, given how the machinations of the NLRB can change under a GOP administration, and that a different Congress could decide to finally pass laws to codify non-employee status of some athletes. But I continue to believe that employment is more likely than not for at least some athletes, especially football and basketball players from the largest programs.

A world that defines the Dartmouth MBB team as employees, in my view, is a world that could also define nearly any college athlete at a DI, DII or DIII program an athlete as well. A world that concludes Ivy League basketball players are employees is clearly relying on arguments surrounding control, rather than profitability…and there’s little unique about the level of control an Ivy League basketball program requires compared to Horizon League softball or Northern Sun Swimming or OAC Soccer.

I’m not arguing that employment status is coming to a D-II basketball team near you in the next year or so…but I do believe all college athletic departments need to have conversations about what such classifications would mean for their program, and how they’d intend to deal with increased costs, international visa complications, and more.

Changing demographics can reshape athletic departments without anybody suing over anything

You might have heard of something called the College Enrollment Cliff. Thanks to a combination of lower birth rates, population migration, increased costs and competition of international students, political pressures and more…there just aren’t as many students attending US universities as there used to be. If anything, that trend is likely to get worse in the near future, not better.

The most elite private institutions and largest land-grant public schools are probably going to be fine, but everybody else now has to battle fewer students. Institutions that can’t recruit and retain enough students are going to close. And that’s exactly what is happening to some D-II, D-III and NAIA institutions.

Many schools, even at the D-I ranks, use college sports explicitly as tools to recruit and retain students. It isn’t uncommon for 40% or more of the student population at some D-II or D-III colleges to be varsity athletes, or for tiny colleges to sponsor more sports than some Big 12 or SEC programs.

That can be positive news for coaches (the importance of athletics as a student recruitment tool can be good for job security and options), but it can also mean that a university becomes far more invested in just enrolling bodies than it is about providing a high-quality athletic and academic experience. It can turn coaching into almost an explicit sales role.

Whether college athletics is actually a good way to bolster student recruitment and retention is worth continuous study, and very much depends on what sports, what kind of school, and how the school tries to execute the strategy.

My TL;DR message to the swim coaches: control what you can control…together

So many of the most effective college coaches I’ve gotten to know over the course of my reporting career are…to put it nicely, control freaks. It has to particularly frustrating to feel that so much in their industry is completely outside their control….being pushed by football, television, the legal system, or others who are not connected to their sport.

While there are always exceptions, I believe that campus administrators are generally too busy to devote enough intellectual and administrative horsepower to “saving” any particular Olympic sport. The most effective advocates for the interest of swimming, or track, or wrestling, or tennis, or almost anything else…will have to come from those coaches.

That doesn’t mean that other voices aren’t important….like sport federations, conference officials, athletes, university presidents, industry leaders and others. But if the coaches don’t get together to advocate for a vision of what they want their sport to look like…the Knight Commission might not get around to it.

I’m not going to sit here and tell you that I know exactly what that world should look like for swimming. I’m not a swimming expert. I hope to better understand that world over the coming months, along with other sports.

But I know enough to know that the outside cavalry probably isn’t coming at this point. If collegiate Olympic sport coaches want to advocate for a particular vision in Congress, at the statehouse, at the conference office, and in the community…they’ll need to be the ones to grab the bullhorn.

If not, football will be happy to do it for them.

I’ll be back at the ol’ home office in a day or two. Thanks for reading, and I’ll catch up more when I get off the road.

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