What does NCAA acceptance mean for tri in the U.S.?

NCAA has accepted triathlon as an NCAA women’s "emerging sport” in D1, D2, and D3, with official start date in the Fall of 2014. Brad Hecker, a 15-year veteran of NCAA sports, operations and governance, currently in charge of women's basketball at the Athletic Coast Conference (ACC), took this on as a personal and professional challenge 4 years ago. He got it done with an assist from former USA Triathlon executive Jeff Dyrek.

What does this mean for the sport of triathlon, both in terms of Olympic pipeline development and for the health and growth of the sport in general?

Here are the history and mechanics of this. Twelve schools signed a letter of intent, triggering a vote by athletic directors first in Division I, followed quickly by votes in D2 and D3 schools. It successfully passed with all 3 divisions voting with, in each case, more than 90 percent of ADs voting “yes.”

This vote means that now each and every university has the ability to count the sport of triathlon as an official NCAA sport. For it to become a full time NCAA sport 40 D1/D2 schools need to adopt the sport and field teams, along with 28 schools from the D3 ranks, where it can then sanction a NCAA National Championship. There is a 10-year window inside of which these thresholds must be reached.

This is a women’s-only initiative. The trigger for these yes votes are the Title IX requirements each of these schools must meet. Not just scholarships, but all opportunities for which there is a price tag – coaching, equipment, travel – must be equally distributed by a college or university to men’s and women’s programs. Certain sports – football most notably – are very expensive and the benefits accrue entirely to the men, so offsetting sports and expenses must be in place that allow women to “catch up” financially. Triathlon is seen as one such sport. Accordingly, gender equality within the sport is not the focus, rather gender equality among the entirety of athletic departments. Thus at this time, triathlon for men is not an option. Title IX's requirement that all funding for sports must be equal explains why this is important for D3 schools as well. Even though D3 does not provide athletic scholarships, they do provide coaching and other services, and to the degree men's programs get this support and women's programs don't, even D3 schools need Title IX remedies.

What happens next?

Schools will be in the planning phases of starting their programs. The sport will most quickly establish a coaching commission/council that can help oversee the programs, and then each school has to decide when they want to start hiring staff. Some may start as early as this Fall, but I also know of schools that are going to delay the process until at least 2016. The racing structure will follow the Olympic Games, and be draft legal racing. This will allow for athletes to continue developing the necessary pack racing skills, while also allowing the multi-lap racing format the best chance of obtaining viewership. The actual distances are still unofficially decided on, but it’s likely that it will be a sprint distance triathlon on a closed-course venue. This will allow for some great race viewing for fans.

Who would coach these teams?

Each university will hire its own salaried coach. Should coaches be expected to have NCAA coaching experience or will it be high level "triathlon" coaches who may or may not have NCAA experience? These are questions each institution must answer. Each institution has compliance officers, so a thoughtful, organized, thorough triathlon coach without NCAA experience would not be without compliance help. The alternative is to hire a single-sport coach with NCAA experience.

It’s important for these coaches to either have, or quickly accrue, triathlon experience, as the NCAA is going to cede to the coach’s committee all decisions regarding distances, formats, rules and so forth. These are not decisions made at the national federation level, or by private industry. The NCAA will retain control of all decisions regarding triathlon as it is expressed at the NCAA level.

The sport will look a little different than it does anywhere else, because the NCAA is very team-oriented. Triathlon will be scored like cross-country, but instead of 5 scorers and 2 placeholders on a 7-person XC team, it’ll be teams of 5 in triathlon with 3 members scoring. This means teams may well employ team tactics, not so much to propel one of their own to a win, but to make certain 2nd and 3rd across the line finish as high up as possible.

Why does it matter that it's an NCAA sport?

This might be an important link in the elite development pipeline for U.S. athletes. The United States has a very strong junior elite program. I've been a part of that program for the past 3 years now (head coach of a junior elite high performance team), and have seen the development of athletes and racing improve mightily in just the 2 years that I've been to junior elite cups throughout the United States. In the past, however, the sport has usually lost those top athletes to single sport scholarships where they then had to primarily focus on said sport. This is great for improving that single-sport skill, but you come out of college having to play catch-up. Being able to keep triathletes in the sport during those 4 to 5 developmental years will only increase the athletic pool to help the United States win medals.

NCAA support supplies this for the U.S. women’s programs, assuming that the scholarships and aid go toward helping U.S. rather than foreign women.

What about the men? They will have to continue the format they are currently under. Either hope to obtain one of the very few triathlon specific scholarships that schools offer now (Elite Triathlon Academy for example), attend college on a single sport scholarship, and try and work it out with the coaching staff to allow the athlete to use triathlon as cross training, or attend a university and race under the club team. Or forego college.

The club programs at universities have grown a lot over the years. USAT Collegiate Nationals is growing in numbers, but they will always lack the financial means to give out scholarships. I do not see this as the death of the university club program. I actually see this as potential to grow even larger, because I think you are going to see the rise in youth/junior programs. Only so many athletes can attend school on scholarship, and those athletes that don't make the varsity team (or do not want to train to that level), but who still want to be in the sport, can race the club level.

A lot of details still have to be ironed out. Who pays for the equipment? How much variation will there be among the different divisions within the sport? How will the NCAA rules affect year round training in respect to coach/athlete communications? Will the incentive be there to bring top level coaches to these programs? Some worry about what will happen when the NCAA takes over and the programs have to follow stringent rules and regulations. I think that’s a fair point. I however think it’s a small price to pay for what I think will be a bigger development pipeline in the future and a good step for the sport in the United States.

What does this mean for age-group racing?

One question not tackled above is, “Who puts on the events?” In all likelihood it’s going to be private contractors, since producing a triathlon is no simple matter. Some of these will be pool triathlons, some open water. But the skill, the equipment needed, to produce a race is not going to instantly sit inside a university’s walls. In talking with Brad Hecker and Charlie Patten – owner and producer of the Rev3 series – it seems likely that a seasoned race producer will be brought in to produce these races. But these are not cheap races to produce. Likely will be a venue that will feature an age-group race that will “fund” the production of the NCAA race. The age-group race will likely be a no-draft race and probably not be on a small, closed circuit.

This both defrays the expense of the NCAA race and grants an audience for the NCAA event, which would take place immediately after. The silent benefit of this is the lubricating of the permit “machinery” when the RD approaches a community seeking road and space access or closures on behalf of the university, which is very likely the prime economic engine in that community.

How many of these AG races are we talking about? Theoretically, a lot. If there are 4 or 5 schools in a region, or a conference, each with a women’s program, that’s probably 4 or 5 races each produced by one school, with all 4 or 5 teams hosting one home event and traveling to each other institution’s home event. It’s that, times however many of these regional paradigms exist around the country. Times 3 NCAA divisions.

Brooks Doughtie is USAT Level 2 coach and a current board member with the USAT National Coaching Commission. He also is the head coach of the N.C. State University triathlon club team, and the head coach of an USAT high performance team, All Out MultiSport, that specializes in ITU specific development.