How Ultimate Could Become An NCAA Sanctioned Sport

Over the past few weeks, a petition has been circling asking the National Collegiate Athletic Association to “make ultimate the next NCAA sanctioned sport.” However, the road to NCAA sanctioning requires more than just accumulating a lot of participants (or petition signatures).

NCAA logo.Over the past few weeks, a petition has been circling asking the Executive Director of the National Collegiate Athletic Association to “make ultimate the next NCAA sanctioned sport.” The petition, which nicely explains just how many participants ultimate has at the college level and why sanctioning would help the sport grow (more financial resources), now has over 2,500 signatures. If it reaches 5,000, it will be delivered to the NCAA. When it arrives, it will most likely be ignored.

The process for becoming an NCAA sanctioned sport is unfortunately not as easy as accumulating a lot of participants (or petition signatures). It requires years of work, committed players and universities, and a high degree of coordination between schools.

But the payoff can be quite big. Schools would be more likely to add the sport as a varsity option, which usually comes with huge financial benefits to players since the schools generally fund the cost of participation. Top players could also receive scholarship money to help pay for their education. Unsurprisingly, many sports are interested in becoming NCAA sanctioned.

John Infante, the author of the Bylaw Blog and a former NCAA compliance officer at Division I schools, is one of the leading experts on the topic of NCAA rules. He explained to Ultiworld how ultimate could one day become an NCAA sanctioned sport.

The baseline requirement for any sport hoping to join the NCAA is to have 28 schools (40 for an individual sport) with a varsity team, sponsored by the university. “A varsity team is generally going to be paid for by the athletic department,” Infante explained. “There will be at least one professional coach who is paid. Athletes are going to have access to the training room and academic support resources. The school is typically going to pay for the travel, uniforms, and all the expenses.”

Many universities — facing thin budgets — can’t afford to promote a club sport like ultimate to varsity status. One way of circumventing the problem is for a team to fundraise on their own, give the money to the athletic department, and then “be paid for” by the university.

That 28 team threshold qualifies a sport for “championship status.” That means that the NCAA will consider the sport for inclusion and, if it is approved, draft rules and regulations, and host a championship event (basketball’s March Madness, e.g.).

However, there are two paths of getting to that 28 school base — one for men’s sports and one for women’s sports. Women’s ultimate actually has a much greater chance of becoming an NCAA sport through the “emerging sports for women” category. It requires that a sport has at least 20 varsity teams (or competitive club teams), which easily qualifies ultimate. A proposal then has to be submitted to the NCAA that shows other support for the sport (things like intramural sponsorship, high school sponsorship, etc.) and suggested rules, regulations, and budgeting. Ten NCAA member colleges must also send in commitment letters that say they will sponsor ultimate as a varsity sport.

Do all that and women’s ultimate can join the emerging women’s sports program. The NCAA itself will not host a championship (that would remain with USA Ultimate), but it would become NCAA sanctioned. The sport would then have ten years to gain 28 varsity teams to advance to championship status. “Basically the NCAA gives the sport a ten year trial period,” said Infante.

Unfortunately for men, no such program exists for them. “One of the reasons we haven’t seen a men’s sport added in quite a while is that it needs to come in as…a championship sport,” Infante explained. Men’s sports have to have all 28 varsity (or very near varsity) teams set up before even submitting a proposal.

That proposal has to come from a group within the NCAA, usually one of the conferences. So, all of the schools in a conference (say, the Ivy League) would have to sponsor their ultimate teams as a varsity sport and then submit legislation to the NCAA asking for championship status.

That’s a difficult prospect for a lot of reasons. Perhaps the biggest is due to Title IX regulations, which require that schools give equal opportunity — and equal funding — to sports for both sexes. “If you think that most schools are running pretty close to Title IX compliance, and then you add a men’s sport that they would like to add, in many ways they might be doubling the cost because they might have to make that up with an additional women’s team or an additional investment in existing women’s teams,” said Infante.

But, hypothetically, if both men’s and women’s ultimate players were able to drum up enough support within their universities to reach the thresholds of varsity teams required for inclusion, could they become NCAA sanctioned sports? The short answer is yes, but it will take a while.

The NCAA has currently shut down its legislative process to review its rulebook, so no new sports will even be considered until 2014. At that point, if proposals were submitted promptly, it’s feasible Ultimate could be an NCAA sport by the Fall of 2016, but it would probably be years later.

However, according to Infante, “Ultimate would seem to stack up pretty well. You’re not going to have the same sort of medical injuries that you would in a contact sport, you have existing field space for this, it doesn’t seem like there’s a lot of equipment, and your base expense is probably going to be traveling a decent sized team to a bunch of events. But if its run as tournaments rather than a bunch of one-off events, then that expense is going to be reduced.” That low expense combined with a big club following (which ultimate has) are keys to being adopted by the NCAA.

Along with the financial benefits described above, ultimate could also get some less obvious boosts from inclusion. “The intangible benefit is that being an NCAA sport is – I don’t want to say it’s just a status symbol, because there’s a lot more than that, but it is in some ways,” said Infante. “Being marked as a varsity NCAA sport, those are the sports that are the most popular and are considered to be the most legitimate.”

Would Ultimate need referees to be admitted? No, said Infante, but said it could be a “hurdle in perception.”

“I think more likely though is that becoming a varsity NCAA sport would push ultimate to adopt officials, at least at that level,” he added.

What about the downsides? There are strict regulations on NCAA sports. There would be recruiting rules and academic eligibility rules. There would be regulations set on the allowed amount of practice time, the length of the season, and the allowed number of competition days. Scholarship limits would also be in place.

However, club ultimate would still be an option. Not every university would have to have a varsity team (and could even have both). Club teams would not fall under NCAA rules.

Ultimately, the challenge falls to teams and leaders in the community to work together to move ultimate towards more varsity support at universities if NCAA participation is desired. On the men’s side, a strong Ultimate conference (like the Atlantic Coast Conference, which already holds an intraconference tournament in early Spring) could take the lead and eventually sponsor a proposal. On the women’s side, it would just take ten dedicated teams to convince their universities to commit to making them a varsity sport.

Whereas Ultimate has little chance of becoming an Olympic sport, it has a real opportunity in the next decade to become an NCAA one.

  1. Charlie Eisenhood
    Charlie Eisenhood

    Charlie Eisenhood is the editor-in-chief of Ultiworld. You can reach him by email (charlie@ultiworld.com) or on Twitter (@ceisenhood).

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