Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Next New Sport?

I've been hearing some interesting rumors and wanted to wait until the summer to begin the discussion out of respect for the sports in play, as well as give me some fodder for the summertime lull.

The UT Arlington Athletic Department will begin women's golf intercollegiate play following this coming academic year. The sport will be the first addition since 1983. By all accounts, that will not be the last sport as the department is in the very preliminary stages of looking at another sport.

I thought about creating a tease indicating something else, but thought that just might be a bit cruel, so I'll just come out and say it. It is not football. But before the reveal, let me give some context to the thinking in UTA land.

Every since I was a student more than a decade and a half ago, Maverick Athletics has prided itself on equitable funding for all sports. From top-to-bottom, UTA can win a conference championship in any sport. This was evident when UTA won three of six Southland Conference Commissioners Cup in the late 1990's to early 2000's, with no worse than a third place finish for the first eight years. One constant through all of the Commissioners Cup's UTA has competed for is that the Mavs have been deficient several sports. Even when the won the SLC, they offered only 14 of the possible 17.

In the lone year the Mavericks competed in the WAC, they were competing in a conference that scored 19 sports. UTA's first year in the Sun Belt was similar to the SLC, where they competed in 14 of 17 possible sports. When Appalachian State and Georgia Southern entered the Sun Belt, they joined with Georgia State and three affiliate members to offer an 18th sport, men's soccer. [hint]It looks like UTA would like to join their ranks.[/hint]

I always thought the next sport would be soccer, but for the women's side, not the men. But the reasoning is sound. Since I've already brought up the Commissioner's Cup, called the Bubas Cup in the Sun Belt, UTA finished third in 2014/15, just two points behind the winner. Had they fielded a men's soccer team, they likely would have finished at least tied if everything else were the same (Howard is awful and is the perennial last-place team). If they finished third worst in men's soccer that year or better, UTA would have brought home the Bubas Cup.

Men's soccer is unique in that only three regular members play it, meaning the other eight do not score points, no matter where UTA finishes. If UTA finishes last in women's golf the first year the play for a conference championship, they will not gain in the Bubas Cup standings as every other team will also get an extra point. This past year there were nine members that played, meaning first place gets nine points. Had UTA played and finished last, first would have received ten points, negating UTA's gain of one.

Coastal Carolina will join the league and they do sponsor men's soccer. So four out of the 12 will sponsor. That will mean a gain on at least eight other member's, including South Alabama and Texas State, who have both finished ahead of UTA in every Bubas Cup.

But offering a sport solely for the all-sports consideration is a little silly, so let's look at Men's Soccer as it relates to UTA.

First, here is the pros of adding the sport.

UTA is in a devoid area for Soccer. Out of 206 teams that competed in Division I for the NCAA, four compete in Texas: SMU, Houston Baptist, Incarnate Word and UT-Rio Grande Valley, formerly UT-Pan American. I'm not an expert on this, but I'm told there is a lot of soccer talent, both in the DFW area and state as a whole. As it stands now, most of the talent that competes in college is leaving the state to do so. Add in the fact that only one of the Universities listed is a public school and it seems UTA has a chance to build a winner.

According to the final RPI rankings from this past season, SMU is the only real nationally-competitive team. The Mustangs came in 9th. After that, HBU was 130th, UIW was 142 and UTRGV was 194th, though that was their first season since resurrecting the program. None of those rankings surprise me. I have never known Houston Baptist or UTRGV to offer nationally-competitive teams. Incarnate Word maybe the wild card, as they are transitioning from Division II, but with a 10,000 student enrollment, 20 sports offered and a $10 million budget, I don't know how much better they'd be able to do.

Expand the geographic area out to the surrounding states and the list of schools doesn't get much bigger. There are no Louisiana schools, two Oklahoma schools, Tulsa and Oral Roberts, one Arkansas school, Central Arkansas and one New Mexico school, the University of New Mexico. Of that list, only Tulsa is in the top 50 of this most recent year's final RPI (28th). New Mexico is the highest public school (54th) and I feel that school, as well as the entire state, is far enough away to be fairly inconsequential to any effort UTA might put forth.

If you draw a circle around UTA with a radius of a little over 200 miles, there will be four states in the area. Those states have a combined population of 39 million, or 12.6 percent of the U.S population. Yet, those states have only 3.5 percent of the NCAA DI soccer programs. There are 23 Division I programs in the state. 17.3 percent of them have a men's soccer program. Only 6.2 percent of the public schools offer a program. Certainly seems to me to have the ability for a well-run athletic department to grow a program.

Success isn't uncommon in DFW. I've mentioned how SMU is high in the RPI. They've consistently been winners, with an all-time winning percentage above .700. Their 30 appearances in the NCAA tournament dwarfs any other sport at the school.

But what amazes me is North Texas. They fielded a team from 1976-1993. It was also quite a successful program, beating ranked opponents and finding their way into the top 25 polls or rankings fairly regularly.

With the upward trajectory of the entire athletic department, plus the history of success in the area, that success is certainly possible at UTA.

There is no power conference competition. This kinda fits in with the first point. I list it separately because men's soccer would be in a world where no other sport at UTA can say the same thing. Only West Virginia in the Big 12 has a men's soccer team. The SEC has a couple of closer teams in Kentucky and South Carolina. But neither is going to be a big enough school, or close enough school, to draw a recruit that would be on the fence. That is part of the reason UNT and SMU had/have such success.

No big facility upgrades are needed. Maverick Stadium can accommodate soccer matches right now. With baseball and softball teams exiting the locker rooms for their respective clubhouses and much of the Athletic Department relocating to College Park Center, there should be plenty of space available for a soccer team, coaches and staff. With a roster of 20-30 players, a head coach and three to four assistants, plus trainers and managers, there isn't a huge demand for space when you consider that baseball and softball need much more than that combined. It may not be the best space, more on that in a moment, but it is there and ready then needed.

It's not a terribly costly sport to finance. The NCAA maximum scholarship level for men's soccer at the highest level is 9.9. Approximating one scholarship at $20,000 per year, the cost per year there would be $200,000. $25,000 per scholarship would cost $250,000.

Coaching salaries at this level should top a few hundred thousand either.

The only wild card I can't really compare is recruiting costs, but I can't fathom that expense being too high either, especially if UTA is recruiting heavily in DFW and Texas.

All expenses added together shouldn't top $1 million in the short term.

There's a void to be filled in the fall. I've said it before, though for a different gender. The principle is still the same. Fall is a lonely time to be a UTA athletics fan. When other schools have many team sports: football, volleyball, men's and women's soccer, UTA just has volleyball and a countdown until basketball season. Would be nice to have something else to root for at that time of year.

The Sun Belt is quickly becoming a stable conference. When the SBC first started sponsoring the sport, it was more out of a need for three schools. Georgia State's first year in the conference saw their team play as an independent. When Appalachian State and Georgia Southern entered, they needed a home, as their former conference would not let them in as affiliate's. The SBC looked around and found three schools in the general area who had teams that played as independents, Hartwick, Howard and New Jersey Institute of Technology. NJIT has played its last year and moves to the Atlantic Sun this coming year. Thankfully for the sport, Coastal Carolina moves in. There seems to be no desire to disband the program at any of the new schools as has happened with other Universities that moved football up a level.

Hartwick is a DII school that houses its soccer program at DI, similar to Dallas Baptist's baseball program. The difference between DI and DII is just .9 scholarships, so it seems unlikely to me that they'd have big issue staying at DI. Howard is a school with financing and competitive issues. They may be the most likely to drop the sport, but their all-sports conference doesn't field a championship and won't any time soon and Howard doesn't seem like a likely expansion candidate for a conference that does. Having a stable home will relieve the pressure of disbanding the sport.

There is a conference that could be on the verge of collapsing. UTA's former home, the Western Athletic Conference is in constant rumors to have members wanting to leave for other conferences and one school even shutting down. NMSU houses a very competitive department overall and there's been talk of them moving to the Horizon League. Constant rumors seems to have UMKC showing a desire to move back to the Summit League. It is not hard to imagine Bakersfield or Seattle turning down the West Coast Conference, Big West or Big Sky (disclaimer: not saying any of those conference are in contact with the schools or are even interested, just displaying the instability of the WAC). And of course, consistent cellar-dweller Chicago State's future could be in doubt. I don't know that there are enough schools out there to replace any departures. For an eight-team conference, that would be the end.

That's relevant to this discussion because the WAC has a fairly robust men's soccer contingent. There are five affiliate members to go with six regular member who sponsor men's soccer, including three in Texas. Should the WAC fold, they'll need a home somewhere. Sun Belt makes as much sense as anywhere for those Texas schools, especially if full-time SBC member UTA has a team.

It is a growing sport. This was one of the reasons told to me. And it does make sense to some degree. I don't know how much stock I put into this one, though. That has been the soccer's mantra since the 1970's. Yes it is popular with youth, but has been for a while. I don't know why it doesn't translate to a following in later years, but more on that in a moment.

This wouldn't automatically rule out a football revival. I hate that I have to include this, but that will automatically be what many folks will first think about when this is broached. Of the 206 schools that play soccer, 116, or 56 percent, also field a football team. There are 128 Football Bowl Subdivision teams, of which 58 play men's soccer. That number should grow by one with Coastal Carolina, who is planning to be FBS in two years.

Every Group of Five conference, of which the Sun Belt is one, sponsors the sport save the Mountain West, but they actually have four member who play men's soccer. Three are in the WAC and one is in the Pac-12 (can't imagine they'd want the MWC to start it and lose that spot). Only the SEC and Big 12 don't sponsor it at the P5 level.

Now a look at the con's.

Attendance just isn't that good. Aside from a few programs, there just aren't many NCAA teams that have a big attendance draw. Average attendance for a NCAA men's soccer match this past year was in the hundreds.

SMU fields a top-25-caliber team. In 13 home games, they drew 7,062, an average of 543 per game. That average was good for fourth in the American Athletic Conference, which has eight teams competing. Going over to the WAC, UTRGV actually drew the most at 507 per game (4,564 in nine home games), good for sixth in the 11-team WAC. Houston Baptist 2,489 in eight home games. Their 311 average was good for eighth. UIW drew only 1,469 in seven home games, an average of 210 per contest, and placed last in the WAC. Compare the soccer numbers to men's basketball: SMU averaged 6,907, UTRGV 1,134, UIW 924 and HBU 750. UTRGV had the best ratio, 44.7 percent.

Not much to brag about in the Sun Belt either. Appalachian State was the attendance champ with 4,568 total fans, 571 per game. NJIT - 3,743 & 468, Georgia Southern - 2,183 & 437, Georgia State - 1,173 & 235, Hartwick - 1,442 & 206 and Howard 421 & 70. Soon-to-be new member Coastal Carolina drew 3,514 & 390 (their team was also a top-25er). App had the best finish with a placement of 120 out of 206 teams. Coastal Carolina was in the 20's playing in the Big South.

Across all schools in the NCAA at Division I, men's soccer averaged 763. That number is heavily influenced by the top schools. Only one-quarter of the teams were at or above that average. Median average is close to 520.

But it isn't just an NCAA issue. Americans aren't flocking to men's soccer games. A look at the some global hotspots reveal a big difference in following. Manchester United plays in a 75,000 seat stadium. Rio de Janeiro can seat 78,000. Azteca Stadium in Mexico City seats 87,000. Those venues are usually near capacity on match days. The largest soccer venue in America's Major League Soccer is in Seattle at 40,000, though it is actually an American football stadium with capacity reduced for soccer. The largest soccer facility in the MLS is L.A. at 27,000.

I'd like the next sport to be a bigger attendance draw than what I'm seeing out of most NCAA men's soccer teams.

Maverick Stadium is not an ideal soccer venue. Ironic since I listed Maverick Stadium's existence as a benefit. Most soccer players prefer natural grass, though the newer artificial surfaces are deemed okay. It is also quite common for American football and soccer venues to be separate, allowing a cleaner soccer surface (and a football-only venue). Maverick Stadium will likely still be used for high school football, so the "clutter" of an American football field will be there.

Another reason soccer is getting their own venue is for seating capacity to be more in line with what the sport draws. Going back to the Texas teams, SMU plays in Westcott Field, a natural-grass surface which has a capacity of 4,000. Even averaging 543 leaves smaller Westcott Field 86 percent empty. UTRGV recently built the awkwardly-named UTRGV Soccer and Track & Field Complex. Their capacity is 1,250. Their stadium is 41 percent filled on game days. HBU plays at Sorrels Field, a natural grass venue with a capacity of 500, 62 percent full this past year. Incarnate Word is the only Texas team that plays in a football stadium with artificial grass. But even Benson Stadium is smaller than Maverick Stadium with a capacity of 6,000. Still, imagine what a 211-member crowd looks like in a 6,000 seat stadium.

The soccer venues in the Sun Belt are the same. App plays at Appalachian Soccer Stadium, capacity 1,000 with artificial turf. Georgia Southern plays at Eagle Field, bleacher seating for 500 around a natural grass surface. Georgia State calls the GSU Soccer Field home, 1,892-seat, natural grass venue. Elmore Field is the home of Hartwick College and seats 2,000 with a natural grass field. Howard plays in the artificial-turfed Greene Stadium, an American football stadium that seats 7,086 (imagine what 70 fans looks like in there). New member Coastal Carolina plays in a soccer-specific stadium, that seats 2,300 around a a natural grass field.

I don't know how this would translate to UTA, but two of the worst performers in terms of competitiveness that I just named play in American football stadiums.

Men's soccer programs can be shaky. Another ironic statement. I listed UTA's isolated position in this part of the U.S. as a positive in terms of attracting talent and starting tradition. One of the reasons that there aren't many teams isn't for a lack of trying. Texas has seen at least five DI, varsity teams get pulled - UT San Antonio, North Texas, TCU, Houston Baptist and UT Pan American. Sam Houston State may have as well, though I can't find definitive proof either way. The SMU media guide actually lists UTA as an opponent, though I don't know if it was anything more than a club sport in the 1970's. Little Rock in Arkansas also had a team once, as did Louisiana-Monroe. Western Kentucky and South Alabama also fielded a team as a member of the Sun Belt conference. It seems men's soccer in the south is never stable. Not saying UTA would fold, but finding relatively close opponents could be challenging due to the ever changing landscape of the sport.

Allow me to get on a my soap box for a minute. North Texas was one of those schools that dropped the sport. I mentioned that from 1976 until 1993, the Mean Green fielded a men's soccer program and had a fairly successful team. Supposedly, the reason for cutting the sport was Title IX considerations. They needed to funnel money toward women's sports for gender equity. I'm sure it had nothing to do with the fact their football team was two years away from moving from I-AA to I-A, thereby increasing scholarships by 22. Their baseball team was pulled after the 1988 season, but at least they had a pitiful performance on the field. Their men's soccer team was nationally-relevant. But they supposedly canned those two sports for Title IX considerations. Guess which is the only sport that men have more scholarships than women? Football, but you never hear about that being pulled for Title IX. Nor do you ever hear about it as the reasons for other sports getting pulled. Collegiate wrestling fans blame Title IX for the sport contracting. Same can be said for men's soccer. I've never heard football being blamed. There is not another sport in the NCAA that has a ratio of four scholarships to 1 starting position. Even the National Football League, an entity that makes billions every year, has a roster half the size of NCAA schools. No, UNT canned men's soccer for financial reasons and to try and keep football viable, no more, no less.

Alright, thanks for that. Moving on.

No regional rivals. This is also another one that comes out of the positive of being in a dead zone. I look forward to UTA playing Texas State in conference play or North Texas in the non-conference portion of the schedule in other sports. But those teams don't play men's soccer. Can't say I feel anything for UTRGV, HBU or UIW. SMU to some degree, but we aren't that alike and their pompous attitude about not playing us in other sports kinda suppress any increase in desire to play. No rivalries could certainly develop. If all of a sudden UTA is battling, say Coastal Carolina for conference championships and positioning, then that certainly could spill over. But as of now, no one would appear on the schedule where there would be a mutual desire to beat and draw interest from fans.

Higher travel costs versus other sports. I seem to be finding a lot of cons coming out of the pro of being in a men's soccer island. There are 16-20 regular season games. Assuming a round-robin in conference play, there would be 10-14 OOC games to fill. Half at home mean 5-7 road games in non-conference and another three in conference. Every SBC school that plays soccer is on the east coast.So a minimum of eight road games with few bus trips mean higher than average travel costs. Trips to Dallas, Houston and San Antonio are drivable, maybe even down to Edinburg or Tulsa, OK, but certainly not all of those would be road games as the Mavs would host them too. No matter what, they were be more flights than normal as the concentration of men's soccer are on both the coasts and the midwest.

There are a few Division II schools in relative close proximity. I don't like the idea of guarantee games, as I'd rather UTA keep the money as best as possible, but it could be more cost efficient in the long run if it brings in some ticket revenue and avoids the cost of a road game with it's almost guaranteed flight, hotel and food.

Unlike their DI counterparts, there are several DII teams in Texas: Dallas Baptist, Lubbock Christian, Midwestern State, Saint Edward's, Saint Mary's, University of Texas of the Permian Basin, Texas A&M-International and West Texas A&M. There are also four teams in Oklahoma and two in Arkansas. There is more than dozen Texas men's soccer programs in the DIII ranks as well.

In the end, I'm all for adding men's soccer. I think the pro's outweigh the cons. And regardless, I'm going to pull for any team that has a UTA logo. Either way, it sure is nice to have an expanding and aggressive athletic department.

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