18 May 2015

Collegiate Cycling - varsity programs, the state of the union

State of Union

College cycling programs in the USA are either "sport clubs" or "varsity sports." As of 2015, 17 varsity programs have been approved by USA Cycling. "Approval" means that the programs have met various requirements set out by USA Cycling. These requirements primarily focus on the level of financial support provided to riders who attend the school and ride on the varsity squad. Nearly all varsity programs will pay for the costs to compete (team clothing, entry fees & travel expenses). Many offer at least $10,000 per year in scholarships. The bigger varsity programs also have various infrastructure items like team vans, trailers, on-campus facilities, and paid staff. Effectively, these varsity programs are supported on the level of many UCI Continental Teams.

Sports Clubs, on the other hand, are typically "pay-to-play," with the students picking up the tab for the majority of expenses. There are a few club teams that receive substantial financial support from their university or college, but most receive a small percentage of what is necessary to run a successful program. Club programs are also typically student run. While this is undeniably a great educational experience for the student leadership, it is the exceptional set of student leaders that can compete with paid staff for the long-term development and management of a competitive athletic program.

I have been told that the average varsity program has an operating budget around $150,000 per year. As I understand it, this does not include staff compensation, capital goods, or scholarships. The University of Colorado Boulder, as an example of a "sport club," receives about $5,500 per year from the school as part of the club sports program. Obviously, quite a difference in financial resources.

The emergence of varsity cycling programs could be reaching critical mass. New programs are announced each year and there is rumor of 10 new teams filing applications for 2016. USA Cycling is in the process of revamping the division structure that will eventually separate varsity and club programs. This restructuring is necessary to accommodate the new programs and especially to address the impact of the varsity program on the competitive landscape.

Varsity programs are recruiting and retaining the best high school talent. They are able to financially support larger programs with more riders. The recent national results illustrate the relative competitive advantage:  in the last 5 years no club program has won a national title in any discipline (Track, Road, CX, MTB, BMX) in either division (I and II, both have varsity programs). This is approximately 45 National Championship events! CU was the first to break this stranglehold by winning the 2014 MTB National Championship.

At 2015 Road Nationals, only one Division I varsity program placed outside of the top-10 (Lindsey Wilson College). The remaining five Division I programs placed 1st, 3rd, 5th, 6th and 9th. In Division II, 7 of the top 10 schools were varsity programs. The results clearly establish the relative strength of the varsity programs, but perhaps even more telling is the perception at the events themselves. Conference competitions often see varsity programs stacking the field and smothering the competition. Varsity teams also look the part with team vans, trailers, staff support and various other trappings of a well-financed program. The psychological impact of this reality is significant in its own right.

Additionally, the varsity programs are best situated to field quality teams in all 5 cycling disciplines. They tend to dominate the National Rankings (based on performance in all 5 disciplines) because they have the resources to send teams to 5 National Championship events during the academic year.

But this is a good thing

In the long-term, the growth of the varsity cycling "movement" is a good thing. This will mean more opportunities for promising athletes to continue developing while enhancing their future prospects with an education. With increased support at the collegiate level, the depth of the field will continue to improve and will eventually represent the majority of 19-22 year old talent in the sport. Inevitably, the collegiate ranks will become important in the national development pipeline and professional teams will take collegiate performances more seriously.

Additionally, collegiate cycling will continue to be a welcoming environment to athletes who come to the sport later in life. Collegiate cycling does a good job of bringing new riders into the sport because of the established structure and guiding principle of open participation. A well-developed collegiate cycling environment will identify and direct this new talent much quicker than the USAC open amateur racing circuit.

Up next...can collegiate cycling be relevant in the larger cycling arena?

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