Utah decision to cut men's track/cross country doesn't add up

Posted Wednesday, 8 June, 2005

Jill Geer
Director of Communications
USA Track & Field
317-261-0478 x360

INDIANAPOLIS - USA Track & Field (USATF) and America's track/cross country coaches association, the USTFCCCA, on Tuesday jointly called for University of Utah to reconsider its decision to discontinue men's track and field and cross country.

Citing financial reasons, Utah announced its decision last month. Director of Athletics Chris Hill on May 18 stated that Utah will redirect funds to help strengthen other sports.

Utah's reasoning is at odds with the vibrant state of track and cross country, in Utah and across America. Not only are these sports less burdensome financially than most college sports, their overall NCAA participation continues to grow, especially among minorities.

Few sports are as strong in Utah, at the high school and collegiate levels, as track and cross country. Among high school athletes, track and field is #2 in statewide boys' participation, behind only football, while cross country is #5 in participation statewide, according to the Utah High School Athletic Association.

Utah's decision will leave it as the only NCAA Division I university in the state not sponsoring men's track and cross country, as Brigham Young, Southern Utah, Utah State, Utah Valley and Weber State all field teams.

Track and field continues to gain strength

Nationwide, nearly 25 percent of all NCAA athletes are track/cross country participants. Measured against the 1999-2000 season, the number of NCAA member schools fielding track/cross country programs and the number of male athletes participating in them have increased.

The prominent status of high school participation in Utah mirrors national trends. Track/cross country is the #1 high school participatory sport among girls and boys, witnessing growth of more than 5 percent since the 1999-2000 season.

Every institution of higher education makes administrative decisions that are specific to their situations, but Utah is taking action that puts them at odds with the statewide and national growth of track/cross country, said Sam Seemes, CEO of the USTFCCCA. Especially considering that their fellow institutions in Utah continue to field men's track and cross country, they are bucking a trend and failing where others seem to have succeeded with relative ease.

The decision to cut the program also is a rejection of the Olympic tradition that manifested itself at the school during the 2002 Winter Olympic Games. The University's stadium was the site of Opening and Closing Ceremonies, and the campus also housed part of the Olympic Village.

The University of Utah was a great host to the athletes of the world in 2002 and benefited significantly from the Olympics' presence on their campus, said Craig Masback, CEO of USA Track & Field. I am surprised to see that they are turning their backs on the marquee sport of the Olympic movement.

The University of Utah's decision is even more portentous for the minority community. Black, non-Hispanic males comprise 21 percent of all male NCAA track and field athletes, according to an NCAA study. Only football and basketball have higher participation among black athletes, and cross country is fourth at 9.2 percent. Volleyball is the next-highest with just 6.4 percent black male participation.

USA Track & Field is disturbed that some NCAA institutions have cut a sport that traditionally provides opportunities for black male athletes, and replaced those opportunities with programs which seem to attract largely white athletes, Masback said.

National movement

Track and field, cross country and road running are growing aggressively in the United States, from grass roots to the professional levels. In addition to the high school and college participation growth, more than 30 million Americans call themselves runners, 10 million of whom run more than 100 times per year. Those runners combined forces to raise more than $600 million for charitable causes in 2004.

Spectator interest in track and field also is high, with traditional events such as the Penn Relays registering record attendance figures three times in the four years between 2001-2004. USA Track & Field's seven NBC television programs in 2004 averaged a 2.5 rating, better than several major professional sports, and nearly 360,000 spectators combined attended the 2000 and 2004 Olympic Trials.

The 2004 Olympic Trials, meanwhile, fielded the strongest U.S. Olympic Team in more than a decade. In a squad dominated by youngsters, Team USA brought home 25 gold medals from Athens. The World's #1 Track & Field Team managed to increase their medal haul by 25 percent over the 2000 Olympics.

Missed opportunity

Utah's Hill noted that his university is in compliance with gender equity, yet the Utes will cut the five scholarships allotted to the men's program.

Due to the nature of the sport, the incremental cost of an additional student-athlete in track and field and cross country is minimal compared to those in other sports which require substantial investments in equipment and facilities, Seemes said. Even more particular to Utah's situation, their men's and women's programs share a coaching staff, so the monetary savings from cutting the men's program is decreased even more.

Utah will sponsor seven men's sports and 11 women's sports in the fall of 2005.