In the latest edition of the NCAA Participation Report, which covers a 30-year span from 1981-2011, the numbers are certainly not good, but they are not quite as doom-and-gloom for men’s swimming as is popularly believed.
These reports are full of tens of thousands of data points, but the one that I found interesting is that in the last 23 years (all of which have been after the introduction of Title IX), there have been a net of 3 men’s swim teams lost. So there are still as many men’s swimming opportunities in college as their once was.
The devil is in the details, however, and a further dig into the numbers shows what’s really scary – Division I has dropped 51 teams in that span, with the slack being picked up by a further 18 Division II teams and 30 Division III teams. That means a reduction by 51 scholarship-paying programs. That’s just over 500 scholarship opportunities lost in the last 23 years. The worst hit came in the 1997-1998 season, when a full 7 Division I teams were cut.
The women’s side of the sport, on the other hand, is holding up fairly well. There are exactly the same number of women’s Division I teams today as there were in 1988, and over the last 30 years, there has been roughly an 80% increase in the number of D-1 female swimmers.
At present, 40.2% of Division I schools have men’s swim teams. That’s compared to 60.5% during the 1981-1982 season. Still, things could be worse. Due to the explosion in the size of each men’s team (Big Ten, we’re looking at you) there were 3,837 D-I athletes during the 2010-2011 season (28.2 per team). That’s only a small decline from the 1982-1983 season, where teams had an average of 22.2 members, times 180 teams, for 3,991 athletes. In fact, there’s 200 more D-1 male swimmers today than there were a decade ago, and 1,500 more total male college swimmers than there were in 1981.
A fair question for men’s swimming programs is how much of the damage are they doing to themselves? In Division II and Division III men’s swim programs, which are generally run at much lower costs, there have been modest 1-1.5 increases in roster size in the last 30 years. In Division I, that jump has been 5.5 athletes per team. Perhaps some teams could stand to trim back roster sizes (there are plenty of athletes on Division I teams who could potentially thrive just as well, if not better, in a lower division) to help save more programs. A leaner, meaner program is more likely to survive.
Not all men’s sports have been hit equally by the economic realities of modern college athletics (where it’s at times hard to discern the life of a student-athlete from that of a professional one). Men’s swimming, tennis, and wrestling have been demolished (51, 54, and 52 net losses) at the Division I level; whereas ice hockey, lacrosse, squash and track have seen slight increases in program offerings.
Overall, the average NCAA school offers 1.5 more sports than it did 30 years ago, but this growth has come almost entirely from women’s sports (in D-1 10.3 women’s and 8.7 men’s is the average).
But hey, here’s for some positivity. Ultimately, the NCAA is doing its job. Graduation rates of student-athletes have topped 80% for the first time ever.
I could go on spitting out numbers from the report all day long, but instead, I’ll turn it over to our readers. Page 163 gives the best summary of statistics. Dig through, see what you can come up with, and head on over to this thread in the forums to discuss.