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BY JACK ROSSI | APRIL 10, 2014 5:00 AM

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Mark Springett made a decision a year ago that altered the course of his gymnastics career.

The Iowa freshman avoided Temple’s demise when he committed to Iowa. The Dover, Mass., native had been stuck deciding between the schools but became uninterested in Temple because of what he sensed was its lack of commitment. Now that the school is preparing to drop the program at the end of the current season citing a lack of financial support, the College Gymnastics Association has gotten involved.

The decision will end the careers of many gymnasts who can’t afford to transfer to another competitive school.

Because in college, men’s gymnastics is in a bit of trouble. In 1969, the country had 234 men’s programs. Today, that number has dropped to 17, and the number continues to fall.

Starting today, those 17 teams will compete for the NCAA Championships in Ann Arbor, Mich., to continue to keep the sport alive.

But the men’s program at Iowa is proof of a successful operation in which money is not a big concern; as of 2007-08, Hawkeye athletics has received no tax dollars. Further, Athletics Department officials respect the sport.

“I think we need some excellent athletics departments that have the integrity, like Iowa does, that want to continue to offer Olympic sports,” Iowa head coach JD Reive said. “They have done a phenomenal job with their business. We are completely independent of the institution.”

Athletics Director Gary Barta oversees 24 sports at Iowa. He has paid close attention to the situation of men’s gymnastics nationally, and he said Iowa is in a good position.

“We’ve never had a conversation just about dropping it at Iowa other than the fact that there’s concern nationally. But no more at Iowa than anywhere else,” Barta said. “Bottom line, it comes down to our student-athletes and our coach, JD Reive.”

Reive has brought more to the team than just good gymnastics. Since his arrival in 2010, the team GPA has risen above 3.0 and continues to rise. This year’s freshman class has the highest GPA of any class that he has coached.

In the gym, Reive’s contributions to the team are also patently clear: Last year Iowa finished fifth in the NCAA finals, its biggest success in more than 10 years.

Becoming a successful team takes a lot of factors, including the Athletics Department, coaches, and athletes. But perhaps one immeasurable item is fans — and Reive points to a sport in which the energy and excitement surrounding the team is a part of its success: wrestling.

“We have a great model here with wrestling,” he said. “It’s fantastic, and everybody wants to be there. We need that support.”

Enter Mike Burns, College Gymnastics Association president and head coach at Minnesota. He said the association’s goal is to have an organization of coaches in the NCAA that can provide rules and regulations to benefit the sport and make it more popular. He is spearheading the fight against Temple dropping the sport.

The Temple program only gets four scholarships of the NCAA-allotted 6.3, he said, forcing the other 15 athletes to pay full tuition.

“… the university is making money on that program, so when you look at it that way, it’s kind of crazy to cut it,” he said.

The feud at Temple is ongoing, but the program has been salvaged — sort of. A club program demotes the sport to a more recreational activity. While the team can still compete against other schools, the time commitment posed on athletes is significantly less.

Two big conferences should feel safe. The power and prestige in college men’s gymnastics lie in the Big Ten and Mountain Pacific Sports Federation Conference — a lesser-known conference that houses non-revenue sports played by schools that used to compete in the Big 12 and Pac 12. A Big Ten or Mountain Pacific school has won every NCAA championship since 1987.

But those involved in trying to keep the sport alive are most worried about one important element: The Olympic level and sustaining men’s gymnastics at elite levels so the number of athletes heading toward the Olympic pipeline remains the same.

USA Gymnastics, based in Indianapolis, governs most of the sport in the United States, and it sees the vanishing number of men’s gymnastics programs as a threat to that pipeline. It wants to make the concern more public.

“[The gymnastics organization] is very aware that collegiate gymnastics is a big part of the USA men’s program,” Burns said. “A lot of the national-team guys come out of the college program. It’s their vested interest to be sure that we have longevity, because if the NCAA program goes the way of the dinosaurs, then I think the face of the U.S. men’s program might change.”

The number of those training at these elite levels remains small. The U.S. men’s gymnastics team numbers 13. The Olympic training center in Colorado Springs, Colo., works year round with approximately six gymnasts who have left college — the others typically further their training in their institutions.

The U.S. team looks to places such as Iowa for athletes, leading to perhaps an obvious point: If universities cut these programs, Olympic efforts would be further damaged.

Universities provide funding for the sport, medical attention when needed, and elite training as well as a quality education that club programs cannot typically afford.

Problems lie in that college athletics is a business. Around the country, men’s gymnastics does not generate revenue, so its budget usually requires coaches to raise funds so that they can improve equipment and, more importantly, promote themselves to the general public.

At Iowa, the budget is tight. But if needed, money is available for equipment or travel expenses. Reive points out there is no extravagant spending anywhere.

“Our operating budget, as far as I know from the rest of the country, is pretty good,” Reive said. “They give me the resources I need. There is no over-spending, and it is all fiscally responsible. If I ask for money, then I do it if I absolutely need it. It’s usually student welfare based for the kids.”

Holding meets in Carver-Hawkeye Arena comes at a cost, but the university needs fewer concessions and security workers for men’s gymnastics than, say, men’s basketball games. Overhead expenses are proportional.

“Everything comes down to money. It’s a business, no doubt.” Reive said. “We try to keep integrity with the student-athlete concept, and at Iowa, we do a great job of that, but overall, we’re talking decades’ worth of change here. It’s all going to come down to whether they can financially support it. No sport outside of the big two, football and basketball, generate revenue.”

The solution, then, seems simple. Sports need more participants to generate more revenue and fans. But there’s typically not enough revenue or a large number of fans to bring in more participants.

“USA Gymnastics releases its figures at the end of every calendar year, and participation is up across the boards, and enrollment in private clubs programs is up,” Reive said. “Every four years at the Olympics, we are one of the premier-watched sports. From a functional standpoint, everything is great. The problem in our country is where does it go.”

Most college programs will only recruit approximately six to eight athletes from high school. If all 17 schools were to host a maximum recruiting class of eight, then only 136 gymnasts would make it to the next level out of 12,961. In other words — a startling 1 percent of young male gymnasts today have a chance of competing in college.

The current men’s national team consists of seven gymnasts who are affiliated with NCAA programs — the remaining six are out of college. The problem becomes one of a bottleneck: All these gymnasts train for years to have no place to end up after their schooling.

There’s simply no place to go.

Officials in the know point to one solution for solving the problem: expanding the number of fans. Athletics departments won’t drop a popular sport.

“The more people that understand the sport and know about the sport will create more of a general liking,” Iowa assistant coach Ben Ketelsen said.

The College Gymnastics Association aims to make the sport more fan-friendly. Some suggest the answer lies in returning to a scoring system that makes it is easier for fans to grasp.

Since 2006, the scoring system the NCAA employs is from the International Gymnastics Federation, which dumped the easy-to-follow concept of 10 as a perfect score. The scores are now made by adding up the overall difficulty of the routine and the execution of those moves. Generally, these scores end up around 13 to 16.

“We are using the [international] scoring,” Burns said. “We have been using that for about eight years or so now. There’s kind of a push out there to return to a 10.0. I am not sure if that is necessarily the right answer, but it is an option to help with making things more understanding.”

Improvements in technology can also help promote the sport. For example, during the Hawkeyes’ March meet against Minnesota, a gymnast attached cameras to his chest so fans could follow on Twitter and YouTube.

“We strapped a camera on one of the [gymnasts] during practice — we recorded it and streamed a bit,” Reive said. “We are trying to figure out how to reach a little broader audience.”

The core of the program — the athletes — are excited to have a coach who is on the top of the game: Ketelsen, an alum himself, can attest to that.

“When I first came, people did not know very much about Iowa gymnastics, and it’s been a long time since we’ve had a strong program here,” he said. “Just in the last four years since JD has been here, we’ve been able to flip things around and get our presence known on campus. I think it’s been a complete 180.”


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