NCAA Skiing on thin ice?

The Division I Competition Oversight Committee plans to take a closer look this fall at NCAA Championship sports that have 50 or fewer sponsoring schools which includes one of Denver’s signature sports: skiing.

The NCAA emphasized that the purpose of the review is to “enhance sustainability”  and “not to undermine or eliminate a championship or implement policies and procedures that could negatively impact the student-athlete experience.”

Still, given the NCAA’s reputation, one has to wonder if the landscape of many of the NCAA supported non-revenue producing sports may change. 

NCAA basketball revenues pay for non-revenue producing sports championship costs (venue, travel, hotel) but there is more pressure than ever for sports to cover their own respective costs. And skiing is a relatively expensive sport for universities to sponsor with high equipment, travel, and training costs.

The other sports identified in the study for future ‘examination’ include fencing, men’s gymnastics, women’s ice hockey, rifle, and men’s water polo.

The University of Alaska recently reversed their decision to eliminate skiing after push back from university stakeholders. This past April, University of New Mexico athletic director Paul Krebs informed team members that the financial struggles of the school had led to the decision to eliminate the men’s and women’s ski team, winner of UNM’s first team national title in 2004. At the last minute, the ski team was saved. But both events reflect the fragile environment for non-revenue sports with a relatively small number of schools.

There are only 23 NCAA DI ski teams competing in three conferences –  the Central Collegiate Ski Association, Eastern Intercollegiate Ski Association, and Denver’s Rocky Mountain Intercollegiate Ski Association.

The committee adopted four overarching strategies as a framework to guide the review process: identify changes that can be made to support the sport, inclusive of regular-season competition; develop more ways to support current sponsors or encourage new sports sponsorship; review the championship format, championship season and other aspects of the postseason; and examine the finals site experience, sport sponsorship and other aspects of the event.

The challenge for collegiate skiing is visibility. With regular season meets and championships held far from most campuses, very few fans witness these events. There is no live TV coverage – even for the NCAA Skiing National Championships (the NCAA does cover the championships on a web feed).

On a positive note, there are probably additional revenue streams available for sponsorship to include ski resorts, equipment, and apparel manufacturers to cover additional costs. All of these parties have a vested interest in the success of college skiing.

College skiing could do a lot more to promote events. There are low-cost technology tools available which could add more visibility and fan interest as the season progresses with either live coverage or taped highlights. Offering travel packages for fans and night-time events (like Howlison Hill at Steamboat) would also provide added visibility and excitement for ski racing fans.

NCAA skiing shouldn’t feel too threatened by this “inspection,” but given the NCAA’s penchant for bucking public opinion and watching out for their own interests, skiing fans should be wary. The future of the sport is certainly on tenuous ground, to say the least. But if the sport could implement just a few small changes, the future would seem much more stable and allow the sport to grow.