With so few teams, extinction is nearing

The Big Ten is the only conference left in men’s gymnastics.

Mark Heise

As strong as the Minnesota men’s gymnastics program is this season, it might be on the verge of extinction along with men’s collegiate gymnastics as a whole.

“As an NCAA sport, we have such a small number of programs left,” Gophers coach Mike Burns said. “I’d say we’re an endangered species, of sorts.”

In 1969, the Minnesota program was one of 230 in the nation. As the team started competing this season, the Gophers were one of 19.

And even Minnesota’s program threatened to shut down in 2002, when men’s and women’s golf, coupled with men’s gymnastics, were on the chopping block in an effort to solve budget problems.

So to keep all three sports, members of the community put together a campaign to raise money, amassing $2.7 million to help run the three programs.

Since that time, the effort to save other gymnastics programs has become a priority.

In college sports, two-thirds of the conference need to sponsor a sport in order for there to be an official conference for it. The Big Ten’s six teams meet the minimum requirement, making it the only remaining conference to sponsor men’s gymnastics.

That alone was a big reason why threats to programs like Minnesota’s raise national attention.

“I can’t believe how any administrator would believe that the best solution would be to deny opportunities for student-athletes,” said Kurt Golder, coach of the top-ranked Michigan team. “That goes directly against the NCAA’s mission, and it causes a lot of problems within our sport.”

Should the Gophers, or any other Big Ten school, drop their program, there would be very little in the way of other schools in the conference dropping their programs, according to Bob Wuornos, founder and executive director of the Men’s Intercollegiate Gymnastics Support Program.

Wuornos has been working to keep the remaining programs afloat, and called the preservation of the Big Ten conference critical to the survival of men’s collegiate gymnastics.

“It’s extremely important for the Big Ten to hold together,” Bob Wuornos said. “If even one school drops, there’s potential for the other schools to drop theirs, since the conference championship would be lost. And if that happens, I could see the rest of the schools following suit, kind of like the domino effect.”

Starting as a high school gymnast in 1963, Wuornos has already seen the high school program die in Minnesota and has expressed concern not only for men’s gymnastics, but for women’s as well.

“Women’s gymnastics and a lot of other sports are starting to see their opportunities erode,” he said. “It’s not as if there aren’t enough athletes wanting to become college athletes; there are still plenty of students wanting to compete. There just aren’t enough opportunities anymore.”

From money troubles to Title IX to a general lack of interest in the sport, which has led to a smaller fan base, men’s gymnastics nationwide seems to be just barely hanging on.

But Burns said he thinks the lack of numbers can be used to the program’s advantage.

“Because there are so few programs, you’re getting to see a lot of all-star type lineups,” he said. “The quality of the program is really high right now, and I think something like this can really help get people excited about our sport.”

One way Burns can get people excited is during Minnesota’s extra opportunities to host the conference championships, featuring six of the top eight teams in the nation.

The Gophers host this year’s event in March and, assuming the conference is still intact, will get to host it again in 2013.

“Having the Big Ten here every six years is great because it is an awesome meet, and it gives us a chance to showcase what we can do here in Minnesota,” Burns said.

“But even with that advantage, I would prefer to host it every 10 years, because then that would mean that we have more teams and our conference would be more stable.”