Tuesday, April 14, 2015

Women's Golf Coming to UTA

Some big news came out of the UT Arlington Athletic Department today. When the 2017/18 athletic season begins, UTA will sponsor a new sport for the first time in over 30 years. Women's golf will bring the Mavericks to 15 varsity sports sponsored. On the surface, it may not seem like a big deal; a non-spectator sport with a very low national profile.

The timing was really important here. Once Jay Rees, the prior golf coach, retired it kinda forced their hand. I suspect they were looking at adding this, but maybe not quite yet. The delayed start time reinforces this point. By all accounts, women's golf shouldn't take this long to get up and running. It would if you have a new coach needing to get acclimated to the University.

However, I think there's more to it than just adding a sport.

There are two ways I have been able to see it. The first is the obvious, a new sport means a growing Athletic Department. It really doesn't tell us something we didn't already know. The facility upgrades, moving conferences during realignment and a budget that is increasing ahead of the inflation rate have proven the Administration, for the first time since the early 1980's, sees the athletic department as an amenity to the U.

The move also allows the Mavericks to fit into the Sun Belt a little better. UTA currently offers 14 sports. The SBC offers 18. UTA fails to offer football, which all but Arkansas-Little Rock plays, women's soccer, which all other teams play, women's golf, which all play, and men's soccer, where only three regular members play.

Last year, UTA finished 6th out of ten in the Bubas Cup, the SBC all-sports standings, without those three sports (they are near the top at this point now). The top two Universities sponsored every sport the SBC offered. The third and fourth place teams sponsored all but one. The team immediately ahead of UTA didn't sponsor two. The difference between UTA and the third place team was just 3.5 points. A fifth place finish in women's golf gives UTA the third place finish, it was that close.

UTA finished second in points per sport, and really, have always done more with less. The three Commissioner's Cups they won in the Southland were against similar odds, as they didn't sponsor three sports. If you averaged out the points per sport in last year's Bubas Cup, they finished second. I don't expect that to change with the new sport. So we should finish higher in the Bubas Cup race.

Now let's read between the lines and figure out what the addition might really mean.

What's gained by adding a sport where you can't sell tickets, build a student fan base and still have to spend money on scholarships, coaches and travel? There are four, common answers.

The first is to meet the NCAA minimum number of sports sponsored. The NCAA requires 14 sports, with a breakdown of six for men, eight for women or seven and seven. UTA already met this requirement, so adding women's golf does nothing for that reason. This is really only done for schools looking to move up from DII.

The second is Title IX, the federal requirement for equal opportunity for women to compete at schools receiving federal funding. In addition to giving equal scholarship dollars to both sexes and equal treatment, there are currently three general ways to meet Title IX. 1) Provide participation opportunities that are proportionate to enrollment, 2) demonstrate a history and practice of program expansion for the underrepresented sex or 3) accommodate the interests and abilities of the underrepresented sex.

Criteria one is the easiest to prove or defend. UTA's student body is about 55 percent female. Not counting women's golf, almost 60 percent of the athletic scholarships go to females. That number will climb to near 62 percent with the new sport. So Title IX is already met, even before the new addition. Still, let's look at the next two criteria.

The next two are far more subjective, and exactly how schools in FBS can be in compliance, since FBS football offers 85 scholarships and no womens sport even comes close. The underrepresented sex will almost always be female. Adding women's golf is how Georgia Southern stayed in compliance after moving up, despite adding 22 new men's scholies to the six for women's golf. It demonstrated a practice of expansion.

Some schools have used the third criteria by saying some female students and most males like football so the scholarship imbalance is reflective of their interests and therefore representative of the student body as a whole.

No matter which way you slice it, UTA was already in full Title IX compliance.

The third major reason to add a sport is to build student and/or alumni support for the University and the Athletic Department as a whole. Though there is a possibility of supporters getting excited over sport expansion, I have a hard time seeing how women's golf will do that alone, especially since it really isn't a spectator sport. So that isn't a likely reason.

There is just one other major reason for expanding a sport that doesn't meet the three reasons above, and that is to lay the groundwork for bringing in another sport (or reviving in UTA's case) that wouldn't meet Title IX but will provide that student and alumni support and excitement. Any other way of looking at it, this add just doesn't make sense.

In one of my earliest posts, I mentioned I think women's soccer would be good for the U irrespective of any football decision. There isn't a lot of activity in the fall and that addition would help remedy that, or fulfill the third reason above. With women's golf, eight of the 15 sports will be in the spring and as I have said a few times, it isn't a spirit generator. Doing well in competition is great for die-hards like me, but the average Maverick doesn't really care. But this would allow for expansion later for two fall sports.

While not expensive, women's golf is a financial drain. UTA studied the addition of football, women's soccer and women's golf in 2004. Chuck Nienas, the author, stated women's golf would cost roughly $145,000 a year. Adjusted for inflation, that would be about $180,000 today. The cost comes in scholarships, travel, equipment, an assistant coach and more pay for the main golf coach. There are really no facility upgrades needed. So the low start-up costs make this an ideal sport to start.

The addition of women's golf fits the pattern of decisions UTA has made that seem to make little sense on their own. Why move to the Western Athletic Conference and increase the travel costs from the Southland, a bus league? Then when the WAC begins to implode, why move to the Sun Belt, which has better travel costs, but moreso than the SLC?

I've heard some say that there is just a better desire for more marquee competition and postseason opportunities. The Southland is just too lower rung to provide that. I grant you that, but then why not make a move for the Summit or Missouri Valley Conference? They are good-to-high quality conferences with UTA in or near the footprint. In some cases, like basketball, the MVC is light years ahead. Yet, there were no rumors whatsoever except WAC and Sun Belt.

The obvious answer is that neither conference sponsors football. When the WAC imploded, they could no longer sponsor it and UTA jettisoned quickly. Of course, academically, most of the remaining and peer institutions in the WAC were not peer-level Universities. Regardless, UTA moved from the SLC to two FBS conferences. Coincidence? Possibly.

Another oddity was the Title IX study conducted a couple of years ago. I mentioned above why we were compliant. There's no way we weren't in any measure. Unless you are looking at sports expansion, there's no reason to study. If you are only expanding only women's sports, again why study it? There's only one logical reason to do so.

I remember reading somewhere many years ago (and can't find it now) that President Spaniolo laid down a loose timeline after the student football vote in 2004. Get existing teams facilities upgraded and up to par, expand the women's sports, look into football.

Well, both basketball's and volleyball play in a top notch venue, check. Add the fact that it offers academic support and training facilities for all the sports too.
Softball is playing in a rebuilt-from-the-ground-up Allan Saxe Field with a new clubhouse and indoor practice space, check.
Baseball has a new clubhouse and indoor facility as well as other stadium upgrades, check.
(NOTE: I don't think renovations are done for either of the last two venues)
The six track and field teams saw minor upgrades to Maverick Stadium, sorta check (though I can think of another big reason to renovate The Mav).
Tennis, unchecked. I would like to see a clubhouse type space for the UTA tennis center, though I'm not sure the feasibility of that. It has been reported the UTA Tennis Center could be next in line.

So largely, the upgrades are done or ongoing. The next step in the timeline is the addition of the women's sport of golf and soccer. One down.

Ultimately every signal I get from the administration on down is one of increased competitiveness regionally and nationally or moving to football. And the two aren't exclusive. I offer the following quotes officials with the U have made or those by others pertaining to the U about UTA and football.

"We have not closed the door to football, but it's not on our immediate horizon," Spaniolo said. "We will look at that some time down the road, but we've got some other immediate priorities that need attention."

This whole article, written by Art Garcia, who is now the Assistant Athletic Director for Communications.

"There is no expectation regarding the possibility of adding football," Benson said of UTA. "We know that it is something that is on their list to consider and if and when they go down that path, I'm sure the Sun Belt would welcome that."

“If you want to have football here someday, the first thing you have to do is take care of what you have,” [Kevin] Fralicks [associate athletic director for external affairs] said. “We’re going to be improving these locker rooms. It will truly look Division I when it’s all said and done.”

UT Arlington does not play football, although the school intends to explore building a football program after completing an upgrade of the baseball and softball facilities.

Bottom line, this is not the first step, obviously not the last step into reviving the program. The program's revival is a marathon and it takes time and many steps (not to mention money). This may be the first step in mile 15. No matter how you slice it, this is a major positive if you are a UTA Maverick.

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