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  • Year in Sports : Along for the ride: Olympic sports take backseat in conference realignment

    first_img Published on April 30, 2012 at 12:00 pm Contact Ryne: [email protected] The whispers quickly made headlines in the sports world on Sept. 16, 2011. Syracuse and Pittsburgh, longtime members of the Big East, were discussing the possibility of joining the Atlantic Coast Conference.Talk of superconferences picked up steam again when the Southeastern Conference approved Texas A&M as its 13th member on Sept. 7. Nine days later, Syracuse was at the center of the latest rumors swirling around conference realignment.The news was unavoidable, becoming the top story on ESPN and local television stations around the country as experts and analysts weighed in on the future of college athletics.‘It was on every time you turned the TV on. Everyone was talking about it and analyzing it every way,’ SU men’s soccer coach Ian McIntyre said. ‘Not specifically from a soccer perspective at that time. But as a Syracuse fan, it was exciting to just start contemplating.’By Sunday, Sept. 18, the rumors became official. Syracuse and Pittsburgh accepted offers to join the ACC as the 13th and 14th members in the conference, respectively. The news set off a new round of debates, questioning loyalty and tradition in college athletics as universities moved to solidify their futures competitively and financially. Schools focused mostly on football – which generates the most revenue through television deals – and locking up a place in a Bowl Championship Series conference.AdvertisementThis is placeholder textFootball and men’s basketball stole the headlines, but Syracuse’s decision to leave the Big East for the ACC meant change for its non-revenue, or Olympic, sports programs too. Of the Orange’s 18 men’s and women’s teams, 16 will compete in the ACC when SU officially joins the conference on July 1, 2014.Though the non-revenue sports took a backseat and were overlooked in the big picture of conference realignment, McIntyre and his colleagues at Syracuse see the move to the ACC as an opportunity. The ACC is among the top conferences in the country in nearly every non-revenue sport, which will only push its Olympic programs to new heights, they said.Coaches have already seen gains in recruiting and have high expectations for the future, but with the move currently set for 2014, they said it’s hard to predict the challenges and obstacles that may emerge. Ultimately, they feel the potential growth caused by the additional revenue and exposure from the ACC make any risks involved worth it.‘The reality of it is it’s about dollars and sense,’ tennis head coach Luke Jensen said. ‘Can we make the dollars that make sense to continue to build the facilities, recruit the players to win? Our fan base wants to win.’For the coaches of the non-revenue sports, the ACC will largely present more competitive challenges. McIntyre and Jensen described the ACC as the elite conference in their respective sports. Field hockey head coach Ange Bradley echoed those statements as her team moves into a league that has produced the last 10 national champions. In women’s soccer, the ACC has had a representative in five of the last six national championship games, and the league’s softball programs are traditionally stronger nationally than the Big East.Though it may be tougher on the field, the conference will also aid the programs in recruiting a larger pool of talent on a national level.It’s something that excited McIntyre and Jensen when they first heard about the possible move in September.McIntyre and his team were in Akron, Ohio for a tournament when the news first broke, and the move to the ACC overshadowed the team’s games against Cal Poly and New Mexico. Off the field, the news was everywhere. Even opposing coaches were curious about the reports and their effect on the future.‘They also commiserated us because we were moving into the No. 1 conference in the country,’ McIntyre said, ‘so they told us to start hitting the ground, doing some work.’Jensen was surprised when his ESPN colleagues began asking him questions about the possible move. He had heard rumors about Syracuse going to the Big 10 in previous years, but never the ACC, which was a perfect fit for his rising program.Jensen said the Big East ‘wasn’t a legit conference’ because it didn’t have a mandated conference schedule. As a result, Syracuse only played Notre Dame once during Jensen’s six-year tenure, despite trying to schedule the Fighting Irish annually, he said.In the ACC, the team’s strength of schedule will help it move closer to qualifying for the NCAA tournament. Jensen acknowledges his program hasn’t won a Big East title, but he also said recruiting picked up the day after the announcement. The head coach can now focus on elite recruits to take the program to the next level, he said.Jensen said the combination of factors will help him move closer to his goal of making the Orange a national championship contender.And Bradley, the field hockey coach, expects her program to become a regular in the national title discussion each year, too.Compared to the Big East, where Connecticut is the only team on Syracuse’s level as a top-5 program, the Orange will be in for a battle every week in conference play. With an intense playoff atmosphere against conference opponents during the regular season, she said her team will be ready to get over the hump and make deep runs in the NCAA tournament.‘In our conference play, we’re in it about one week out of the year,’ Bradley said. ‘In conference play in the ACC, you have to bring your game because they’re quality opponents.’Quentin Hillsman, the women’s basketball head coach, has seen the biggest advantage on the recruiting trail. Hillsman brought in the No. 6 recruiting class in November, according to Collegiate Girls Basketball Report, and said the move to the ACC helped him finish the recruiting season strong.Hillsman landed Cornelia Fondren, a consensus top-100 guard from Memphis, Tenn. and Pachiyaanna Roberts, the state player of the year in Georgia, along with two McDonald’s All-Americans as part of a loaded class.With the move to the ACC, Hillsman said he has started to expand his recruiting to top players in the South.‘I think that is the biggest benefit to be able to recruit down South, also, because obviously, it gives you a larger pool of players to recruit from,’ Hillsman said.But despite all those advantages for non-revenue sports, the move comes with risks. With increased operational costs, specifically in travel, Syracuse will need to ensure its profits from the move outweigh the costs.The athletic department is currently starting to evaluate its finances and budget for the move to the ACC, said Jamie Mullin, associate athletic director for team services.‘We’re focused on our current programs benchmarking against our new peer groups in the ACC,’ Mullin said, ‘how their facilities are, number of coaches on staff, operational budgets. We’re just starting that process because the phase-in period’s over the next couple of years.’Syracuse will have to make more flying trips to compete in the South, which piles up expenses quickly, said Rodney Paul, economics and finance of sports professor at the David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics.Paul said nothing is certain and that those losses could cut into profits more than expected. But he also said locking up the security that comes with the television revenue deals in football will likely cover the additional costs in travel for all sports.‘The guess gets to be is that obviously, they thought the answer to that is yes,’ Paul said. ‘But we don’t really know that until all the cards are played and everything comes out.’For non-revenue sports, the travel is arguably even more taxing.Coyte Cooper, assistant professor of sport administration at the University of North Carolina, has conducted research focused on challenges for non-revenue sports and how administrators view them compared to revenue sports.Cooper said the Olympic sports are valued for strong academic performance by institutions, while fundraising and revenue production are emphasized more in the big-time sports.With that in mind, Cooper said it’s alarming that universities haven’t appeared to consider the effect of conference realignment on athletes’ educations.‘When you think about the reclassification even, for a place like Syracuse, is more travel, means that they’re going to be on the road more,’ Cooper said, ‘which means they’re going to be out of the classroom more, and that can’t be something that’s right when you’re considering you value those things in Olympic sports.’Though universities value the non-revenue sports, Cooper said it’s clear conference realignment ‘never really has anything to do with Olympic sports.’ Football and the big money attached to it take first priority.And Paul said that in the current landscape, that’s the only way for schools to survive and remain relevant in the future.‘It seems like, to be able to ensure those football revenues and be able to be on the big stage when it comes to college football, that at the time, at least,’ Paul said, ‘you’re kind of stuck unless you made that jump.’The Syracuse coaches think the jump will also solidify the futures of the non-revenue teams nationally. While the headlines and immediate implications surrounded football in September, each sport can now see how realignment will shape its program heading into the future.For Jensen and his fellow coaches, that future is bright.‘It’s a quantum leap for this program to move forward,’ Jensen said. ‘You’ve got to be evolving and innovative in all walks of life to be successful. … And this move to the ACC is a quantum leap in that direction.’[email protected] Facebook Twitter Google+center_img Commentslast_img read more