Nearly 80% of U.S. athletes at the Tokyo Olympics shared a common attribute (beside their insane athleticism): They all starred on NCAA teams first.
But there’s concern that recent changes within college athletics could lead to widespread cuts to programs that train future Olympians but aren't as self-sustaining as football or basketball, typically the only programs that generate profits.
“The anxiety is real around every sport,” Mick Haley, former women’s volleyball coach at the University of Texas, University of Southern California and for the U.S. Olympic team, told NBCLX. “If [money from football and basketball] doesn't get distributed [to Olympic sports] ... some programs are going to fold.”
“All this new stuff coming, this is just an unraveling,” he added. “If you don’t have the collegiate pipeline, you won’t have Olympic teams representing the United States.”
One of the most notable changes causing college sports financial uncertainty is the NCAA's new name, image and likeness (NIL) policy, announced in June, which allows athletes to share a piece of the profit pie. Many colleges are also spending more on football and basketball amenities, and ongoing litigation could require schools to treat student athletes as employees, which would increase costs dramatically.
“The idea of student-athletes designated as employees or even independent contractors is a really scary one for athletic departments,” said Kristi Dosh, founder of BusinessOfCollegeSports.com. “It changes your whole model. Right now, it's all about providing opportunity to as many student athletes as possible.”
In 2020, schools cut 289 teams across the country, according to the NCAA. Since 2001, the NCAA has added dozens of Division I schools, but in that time, the number of men’s swimming and diving programs has dropped from 149 to 131. There are also 40 fewer men’s tennis teams, 13 fewer wrestling teams and seven fewer men’s gymnastics teams than in 2001.
Two-time Olympian Erik Shoji, a Stanford men’s volleyball alum, called the situation that "non-revenue" sports programs are facing "a really big mess."
“We're seeing [the NCAA] is more of a business these days, and the money in football and basketball are just more important than the experience the [rest of the] athletes are getting,” he told NBCLX.
Many sports programs live in fear they'll be on the chopping block the next time their athletics department needs to save money, Shoji said, and he knows from personal experience. The team that launched Shoji to the Olympics got cut in 2020 along with nearly a dozen other Olympic sports teams. He helped raise $10 million in private contributions to save Stanford’s men’s volleyball, and the effort helped convince the university to reinstate all of its terminated programs.
America’s not-so-secret Olympic weapon, aka the NCAA, is a model unlike any other in the world. While most countries run or fund their athletic development through government programs, America has relied on its universities for decades.
“Most countries don't understand our system, and most Americans don't understand theirs,” said Karch Kiraly, head coach of the USA women’s volleyball team that won the country’s first-ever indoor gold medal last year in Tokyo, as well as a three-time Olympic gold medalist himself.
“[Other countries] test kids 8, 9, 10 years old … and they'll just put them into sports schools. It's not even really high school and college. It's strictly about developing the athletic side of that person."
“The ground underneath everybody in college sports, especially in the Olympic sports, is so unstable right now," Kiraly added. "There are challenges and benefits, but it's just a radically different world than it was 10 years ago for collegiate coaching.”
The brightest hope for Olympic enthusiasts may be new collaborations between the NCAA and the US Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC), partnerships that were lacking until now. The goal? Finding ways to make non-revenue sports more self-sustaining so the NCAA can continue to develop Olympic talent, said University of Florida athletic director Scott Stricklin, who's also part of USOPC's College Sports Sustainability Think Tank.
“Instead of having a national championship that's run by the [sport's] national governing body and a separate one run by the NCAA, let's combine those and streamline that," he suggested.
Other sustainability ideas that came out of the think tank include: reducing recruiting and travel to cut down on costs; allowing college teams to offer summer camps and coaching to generate revenue; and creating different compliance and scholarship rules for revenue and non-revenue sports.
The NCAA will also treat the USOPC as a formal liaison for the first time.
“The partnership between the USOPC and the NCAA is one that you would think was already happening, but they were just separate entities simultaneously coexisting,” said Chaunté Lowe, another member of the USOPC think tank, as well as an Olympic bronze medalist and former Georgia Tech track and field star.
“Now they're finding ways to work together and ... it can be mutually beneficial to both entities and the representation of our country.”
The NCAA did not provide comment on all the changes taking place within college athletics, but its new constitution, approved in late January, will give universities and conferences more power to organize how they see fit.
Despite all the uncertainty, Lowe sees some bright spots in the new era of college sports for future Olympians.
"For these athletes to be able to profit off their name, image and likeness is amazing," she said. "I think about the time when I made my first check overseas, and I had to turn the money over. ... I'm sitting at home, starving, and I'm having to turn over several thousand dollars ... so to know athletes won't have to do that [anymore] is great."
Noah Pransky is NBCLX’s National Political Editor. He covers Washington and sports business stories for NBCLX, and his investigative work has been honored with national Murrow, Polk, duPont and Cronkite awards. You can contact him confidentially at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter.