The Olympics and NCAA try to find even ground

Illustration by Ariana Gonzalez/The Pioneer

Christina Bleakley,

College athletics are critical to the success of American Olympic teams. But the pipeline of athletes from NCAA Division I schools to U.S. Olympic teams is threatened by mounting financial pressures among those schools.

On May 5, the USOC hired a college athletics administrator to organize help for financially strapped and threatened NCAA lower-profile sports programs. The goal is to find new ways to save money and help protect the sports that the USOC needs to stay competitive at the Olympics.

Colleges and universities, such as Stanford, Berkeley, and UCLA, have increased spending on coaches’ salaries, costly facilities, and student scholarships for more high-profile sports, such as basketball and football. The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) is concerned that this could pose a threat to their lower-profile Olympic sport teams.

Sarah Wilhelmi, a member of the West Coast Conference’s staff since 2008, is the first USOC director of collegiate partnerships. Her job is to bring attention to widely-discussed efforts with the USOC, national sports governing bodies and an assortment of college campuses to keep this pipeline of athletes active.

Wilhelmi will work directly with the NCAA’s executive staff, their schools and different conferences, and also various coaches. Wilhelmi comes in during a time where these NCAA athletes in Division I schools in the U.S. are facing the threat of financial pressures as they try to stay as competitive as possible in the world of sports.

Expectations were that the new hire would coordinate engagement with national governing bodies (NBG’s) in all the NCAA championships. That includes the signage and sponsorship agreements, developing metrics and data to determine the impact of different initiatives to help better understand the future directions and the return investments for the NBG’s and the USOC, according to a USA Today article.

“Colleges and universities provide the foundation for many individuals to develop as high performance athletes,” said Alan Ashley, USOC chief of sport performance, during a Team USA conference. “These athletes then go on to find great success at the Olympic Games as part of Team USA, highlighting just how important collegiate sports are to the Olympic Movement. With a deeply rooted background in college athletics, Sarah will be a key driver of increased collaboration between the USOC, NGBs, and all of the NCAA member institutions and conferences.”

Scott Blackmun, USOC CEO, said in a speech in 2014 that the USOC needs to develop partnerships with the NCAA that will keep lower-profile sports such as men’s and women’s gymnastics and wrestling alive.

However, some college administrators fear that through restrictions on athlete compensation within the NCAA, rules will cause some universities to drop lower-profile Olympic Sports.

Since 1981, college men’s gymnastics teams dropped from 59 to 16, women’s teams from 99 to 62, and wrestling teams from 146 to 77, a CBS Sports report stated.

Blackmun stated that it was necessary for the USOC to develop a partnership with the NCAA to help keep lower-profile sports alive. He urged that the USOC wants a group working with NCAA to develop and train athletes who have the will and want to participate for the United States at an Olympic level.

“Can we use our great Olympic brand or the event experience of our national governing bodies to build revenue-generating properties for conferences and schools?” Blackmun asked in his speech. “Can we find a way for colleges to use their Olympic identities to recruit athletes and coaches and perhaps build facilities? Can our national bodies host national championships and conference championships in our sports?”

Wilhelmi’s new job position is to bring attention to the discussed efforts at coordination among the USOC, NBG’s, various college constituencies, and the NCAA’s executive staff with plans to reduce expenses associated with sponsoring sports while also maintaining a high quality experience for their athletes.

Her goal is to help maintain high level athletes at the collegiate level so they are able to step up and compete for our country once they have left college. But in order to pursue those ideals, Wilhemi has to help the college maintain the lower-profile sports first.