Over the past few months and years we have seen a steady decline in the funding and support of 'non-revenue' men's athletics—or 'Olympic Sports' as Steve Gladstone called them while serving as Athletic Director at Cal. This process began with Title IX in 1990, and has recently picked up speed with a number of the state-funded schools experiencing financial setbacks due to the state of the economy. Just recently, we saw the latest victims here in the Bay Area fall to the economic pressures of rebuilding California and restructuring University of California finances, as the Cal Men's Baseball team was cut from the athletics department, along with the Men's Rugby team. Both were programs with a long history of success—the rugby squad was the most dominant such program in the United States, but when it comes time to cut spending, men's athletics are often the first item on the chopping block.
In rowing, the few remaining varsity programs on the men's side divide up all the talent entering the collegiate ranks, and the result is an extremely high level of competition, for very few athletes. This can be seen in the increasing separation between the top club teams and the gold medal-winning varsity eight at the IRA. The difference is natural—programs that have advantages in terms of recruiting power and influence over admissions should always be more competitive than programs without those abilities. But how long will it last? Will we get to a point where the IRA becomes even more exclusive? How can we avoid shrinking the talent pool for the national team still further if varsity programs are diminishing and nothing steps up to fill the void?
A good illustration of this problem can be seen at the Pac-10 Championships at Lake Natoma, CA. Every year, Cal and Washington dominate everything by lengths of open water, with Stanford trailing (okay, sometimes Stanford is close), followed by Oregon State, and then, further lengths back, all the club teams. Cal and Washington have all the recruiting power, followed by the two teams trailing them, leaving the amateur athletes from unfunded programs well behind. For these reasons, there has been a shrinking number of club teams at the event. Many prefer the WIRA (Western Intercollegiate Rowing Association) Championships, which are held at the same venue, slightly earlier in the season, because the WIRA pits programs of similar size and influence against one another. From my perspective, parity among smaller programs appears to be the future of the sport. Programs like Cal, Washington, Stanford, and the Ivies will continue to be the most competitive into the future, because they have an incredible level of alumni support, and would most likely survive intact even if they were to be cut from their own athletics departments as long as they could keep their influence over admissions. However, outside of those schools, the movement seems to be toward an expanding ACRA program (despite US Rowing's attempt to derail the new platform in its infancy by introducing its own collegiate championships).
Looking at results over the past 10 years, there are 12-15 schools that consistently perform well at the IRA. Do those schools alone form enough of a base to field a competitive national team? What about wild cards like Bryan Volpenhein, who rowed at Ohio State, and became one of the best oarsmen in the history of the U.S.? It is my feeling that there is a great deal of talent that slips through the cracks due to the nation's under-developed, post-collegiate club system.
With women's rowing on the rise almost universally as an unexpected result of Title IX, men's rowing will expand alongside it in a club format, making use of the venues and equipment (when possible) of the funded women's program. What this means is that the competition will return to its roots, in many cases, as a contest between students qualified academically to gain admission, rather than recruited athletes, which is closer to true amateurism. It will also mean that for the U.S. to be competitive on the international stage, a new and much more competitive club system must emerge on the men's side, in order to make the most of the talent available after college. This is a system that works very well in Britain, and there is no reason why it cannot work, albeit on a much larger scale, in the US. British Olympic athletes are lottery funded—a great help—but the club system is such a part of the culture that talent is identified and developed long before the question of funding is raised.
The key is to continue to operate programs like the California Rowing Club (currently dormant), Vesper, Penn AC, NYAC, Riverside and others with elite level possibilities in each region. The varsity system is already failing the U.S. on the men's side in terms of development, since so many seats at the top schools are occupied by internationals. The post-collegiate club system has to step up and take on the role of development that varsity-level collegiate rowing once had, before its powers and size were reduced. CRC is a perfect example that this is possible—in only two years, McLaren and CRC were able to field a boat at the Olympics. In so doing, it took some of the talent from the ranks of varsity-level collegiate rowing, as well as top level talent from the unfunded collegiate club system. If what we are seeking are results on the international stage, CRC is a model that must be replicated across the US, and, if USRowing were smart, they might attempt to have a hand in developing that new system—not from a funding or logistical standpoint, but from the standpoint of guidance.
If USRowing can encourage the private club system as to where and how to train, it can do much more than any amount of money could accomplish in regards to providing an underlying structure, not only in terms of a development system, but also in terms of technical consistency across the board. Go to England, and regardless of whether you are at Molesey BC, London RC, or Evesham RC, you are likely to be taught very similar technique, and make use of training plans that the GB international squad uses. If you move on to the GB squad, having mastered the technique at your club, you are unlikely to find yourself having to relearn the stroke and completely change your approach upon arrival. Instead, it will be familiar, because you have taken part in an integrated development system that has prepared you to be there. This is not because the GB team has paid the clubs to teach a similar style, it is because the clubs themselves have an interest in placing members on the national team.
In order to accomplish something similar, USRowing must find a way to mend contentious relationships with clubs, and instead look to help clubs in gaining prestige by developing athletes in a consistent, universal way. As a result, athletes will begin to view the club system as a real avenue to the national team. With McLaren running the show, as someone familiar with a similar system in Australia, this might just be the perfect time to do so.
Impossible? I think not.