The Future of Men's Rowing: Varsity v. Club Sports

As a former collegiate club rower, I've grown weary of hearing the drone from out-of-touch alumni and journalists who are interested in the idea of club rowing programs being restored to their former grandeur by being reinstated into the athletic department. Here's the deal: it's not going to happen.

To talk about having club programs reinstated is worse than a waste of time -- it's insulting to the current members of the squad, and takes away from what should be the main objective of any program: to be as competitive as possible. Whining about funding that is not going to appear (where is it going to come from?) is destructive, and is just another form of making excuses. Universities have been paring down their athletic departments for years, and men's rowing was one of the first items on the chopping block following Title IX (more on this below). Now many universities are facing financial difficulties due to the current economic climate -- why would they want to reinstate a varsity program for men's rowing, when in the mind of the university, participation is all that matters? As long as there is a team in some form, the university club sports department will be happy, regardless of results. If you are a good coach, and you run a program that fosters competition, then you will be able to make it work in a club environment. This week's RR interviewee (coming Friday), Frank Biller of Virginia Men's Rowing, is a great example of this idea. So is Gregg Hartsuff. The key is to make sure that the main objective remains the same, regardless of funding or status at the university.

The most famous Varsity programs in the US are not going anywhere. Harvard's alumni, and Princeton's, and Cal's (backed by T. Gary Rogers), et al. will make sure of that. Even if the university were to cut funding to these programs, the endowments are such that there will be money to run them at an extremely high level. The only scenario in which programs like these could run into problems would be if the university wanted to siphon money from the rowing endowment for other purposes.

The only new men's varsity rowing programs that we're likely to see are at smaller colleges, without football teams or aspirations for building football teams. Some schools, like Oklahoma City University, have opted for men's rowing, being newly established, and having a vested interest in making use of the new facilities that OKC has to offer. Such examples are fairly few and far between, but they remain a possibility. Athletic departments, understandably, place a high value on what they feel to be high profile sports, which they hope will increase alumni participation and donation, and which will give the institutions that they represent more prestige, or fame, at least. If an AD decides that it isn't in the university's best interest financially to fund a men's rowing team, then that is his/her prerogative. The simple breakdown is usually this: 'revenue' v. 'non-revenue,' or Olympic, sports.

Inevitably in these sorts of discussions, Title IX comes into the equation. Despite the negative spin that many former male collegiate rowers might place on Title IX, it is easy to argue that it has, in fact, led to a net gain in rowing in the United States, though it may have led to a net loss for men's varsity programs. Even still, without Title IX, and women's rowing being seen as a way for AD's to balance the books with football on the other side, most men's programs would probably have been cut anyway, given their non-revenue nature (if you don't believe me, maybe you should check in on Cal's baseball team). Because of the proliferation of women's rowing programs, men's club rowing has been allowed to grow in many places where rowing programs were previously never considered, often shares boathouses and equipment with women's varsity programs, and is protected in that sense from worrying about being cut or needing aid from the university to maintain the very expensive facilities required to run a rowing team. This is not to say that there is always a perfect harmony between a women's varsity program and a men's club team, but that there can be, and there should be.

The latter two examples -- established varsity programs and newly created varsity programs at institutions without football teams -- differ greatly from the idea of 'reinstatement.' Again, no AD is sitting in his/her office, reclining in a leather chair, thinking, "You know what would really put us on the map? Making our existing club rowing team a varsity program again, and funding their 100k + budget." If the team exists, then club sports will be happy. First, it is up to the alumni to make sure that the program has a good coach, and here any leverage with club sports to fund a head coach's salary is extremely beneficial. It is then up to the head coach and the alumni to make sure the team has the best possible equipment, and makes proper use of the resources at hand, in order to be as competitive as possible. Period.

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