As Iowa, Minnesota programs end...what is the future of U.S. men's gymnastics?

Michael Moran, representing the University of Minnesota, competes during the Winter Cup gymnastics event Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021, in Indianapolis. A junior from Morristown, New Jersey, Moran admits there were people within his inner circle who discouraged h
Michael Moran, representing the University of Minnesota, competes during the Winter Cup gymnastics event Sunday, Feb. 28, 2021, in Indianapolis. A junior from Morristown, New Jersey, Moran admits there were people within his inner circle who discouraged h

Only 11 Division I universities in the country still have men's gymnastics programs.

Posted: Apr 9, 2021 4:15 PM

(ASSOCIATED PRESS) - The death of a 117-year-old program, one that captured championships and produced Olympians, ended with a gasp. And then a vote.

The fact the former did not alter the outcome of the latter offered a stark glimpse into the steadily eroding support for men's gymnastics at the NCAA level, one that will eventually have a ripple effect up and down the food chain for a sport struggling for relevance inside the U.S. Olympic movement.

That gasp. John Roethlisberger could hear it during a University of Minnesota Board of Regents meeting last fall. At one point someone asked how much money the school's athletic department would save by approving the proposal to cut men's gymnastics, men's tennis and men's indoor track and field, a move athletic director Mark Coyle called necessary to help offset a $45 million to $65 million deficit due in part to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The answer? $1.6 million. Or just more than 1% of the athletic department's $123 million budget.

“Everyone was appalled,” said Roethlisberger, a three-time Olympian and a three-time NCAA champion for the Golden Gophers. "It didn’t make a lot of sense. ... (We hoped) maybe we can reconcile and at least save our sport and they were like, ‘Nope, let’s vote.’”

And they did. Seven in favor of cutting men's gymnastics, men's tennis and men's indoor track at the end of the 2020-21 academic year. Five against.

Minnesota's decision came two months after Iowa announced it was dropping men’s gymnastics, men’s tennis and men’s and women’s swimming and diving. Again, administrators pointed to the long-term financial impact of the pandemic.

The losses will leave just five men's gymnastics programs in the Big Ten and just 11 at the Division I level overall, not including the three service academies. And it leaves the USA Gymnastics men's program in the precarious position of trying to reclaim a spot among the world's elite while dealing with a diminishing talent base.

There are 11,000 boys or men enrolled in USA Gymnastics, down from over 13,000 in 2007. With only 6.3 scholarships available per school at Division I, opportunities to compete and have at least a portion of their college education paid for are becoming more and more scarce.

Unlike women's gymnastics in the United States, where athletes typically peak in their late teens before moving on or being pushed aside by the next wave, most male gymnasts don't hit their prime until their mid-20s, making the NCAA level the perfect feeder system.

For decades USA Gymnastics has stuffed its Olympic team with NCAA veterans. Gymnasts that competed in college or trained alongside collegians have accounted for nearly 75% (26 of 36) of the U.S. Olympic spots (alternates included) this millennium.

It will almost certainly be the case again when the 2021 team is announced this summer, a group likely led by NCAA champion and U.S. national champions Sam Mikulak and Yul Moldauer.

It's a group Shane Wiskus plans to be a part of, one of the reasons he left Minnesota last fall for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado. It was a move he felt necessary to give him the best chance at making it to Tokyo. It was also a matter of survival. The USOPTC will be around in a year. The Minnesota program will not, at least not at the Division I level.

“(Support at the NCAA level) is definitely dwindling and I fear that if this isn’t a wake-up call and if this doesn’t get some real change to happen within NCAA then I fear that more programs could be cut and NCAA gymnastics could go extinct,” said Wiskus, a senior who studied remotely this semester and tied for the Big Ten all-around title last week.

Wiskus is lucky in that he had options. Things are far murkier for teammate Mike Moran. A junior from Morristown, New Jersey, Moran admits there were people within his inner circle who discouraged him from competing collegiately because they viewed his chosen sport as a “dying entity.”

Which makes the pain of its end all the more acute. Moran is a longshot at best to make the 2021 Olympic team, but his passion and dedication are an important part of the recipe it takes for Olympic programs to thrive.

“Less than 1% of college athletes go to the Olympics but they get pushed by the masses,” said Brett McClure, a 2004 Olympian and former college head coach at Cal who now serves as the high-performance director for the USA Gymnastics men's program.

And the masses are shrinking.

“USA Gymnastics looks at the NCAA like the NFL looks at college football,” Roethlisberger said. "Each team is like a mini-Olympic training center. When all that goes away, you have two coaches at USOTC that can carry 15 guys. Look at what that is going to do to your feeder pool. You’re going to see a stream of guys falling out because they have to worry about their future.”

A decision that — like the one Moran faces — could come in their early 20s. It could also come far earlier.

McClure and everyone else involved in the sport understands the metrics. Football and men's basketball pay a massive chunk of the bills. Athletic directors are increasingly concerned about what the shifting economics mean to Olympic sports. Nearly 80% of the 558 U.S. athletes at the Rio Games in 2016 came out of an American college program.

Most of the 85 programs cut by Division I universities since the coronavirus pandemic hit last year have involved Olympic sports. Next on the horizon are proposals being debated by the NCAA and in Congress that would allow players to cut sponsorship deals and make money off their names, likeness and images (NIL). A more far-reaching bill proposes revenue sharing between the sports programs and athletes.

That likely means even more money funneled into revenue-generating sports, an idea that clashes with what the ideal of the college athletic experience is supposed to be. Or, at least what it used to be.

“College athletics as we know it for a long time is no longer going to be the way it’s been,” Minnesota coach Mike Burns said. “Downsizing and streamlining is probably the direction they’re all thinking.”

Mark Williams, the longtime Oklahoma coach who also led the 2016 U.S. Olympic team and has guided the Sooners to nine national championships, is fearful of what lies ahead if the NCAA model no longer becomes sustainable.

“Our budgets are not going to be easily replicated by the USOTC if we go away,” he said.

It's an “if” that will become a reality at Minnesota and Iowa later this month. Ironically, the Golden Gophers will host the 2021 NCAA National Collegiate Men’s Gymnastics Championships on April 16-17.

Wiskus will be out there. Moran and the rest of his Minnesota teammates, too. At some point, Moran will look out across the arena and ponder his future, and maybe his sport.

“It’s kind of a morbid way to approach it, it’s the same for everything else in life, how do you approach life when you know there’s death at the end?” he said. “It makes the year more special, that reality is approaching. I don't have any fear towards it. I’m 21 and I’m not sitting here afraid to die. I have that growing appreciation for whatever the moment ends up being.”

Even if it's the last one.

Minnesota Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 593622

Reported Deaths: 7379
CountyCasesDeaths
Hennepin1228171731
Ramsey51446875
Dakota45976452
Anoka41782439
Washington26948283
Stearns22266222
St. Louis17787304
Scott17296124
Wright16082140
Olmsted1325598
Sherburne1173087
Carver1050745
Clay816392
Rice8063107
Blue Earth751541
Crow Wing666290
Kandiyohi656283
Chisago601351
Otter Tail575478
Benton571697
Goodhue478572
Douglas468575
Mower466232
Winona455050
Itasca439156
McLeod424559
Isanti422464
Morrison419660
Nobles408048
Beltrami397059
Steele388715
Polk384868
Becker380953
Lyon361051
Carlton345654
Freeborn342029
Pine329022
Nicollet326243
Brown305440
Mille Lacs305053
Le Sueur292423
Todd282432
Cass273428
Meeker256640
Waseca236322
Martin230732
Roseau209419
Wabasha20613
Hubbard190041
Dodge18513
Renville180343
Redwood174337
Houston171916
Cottonwood165823
Fillmore156510
Wadena155922
Pennington153719
Faribault152419
Chippewa152338
Kanabec144726
Sibley143810
Aitkin135036
Watonwan13289
Rock128319
Jackson121812
Pipestone115926
Yellow Medicine114120
Pope11056
Murray10639
Swift105618
Stevens91411
Marshall88117
Clearwater86916
Koochiching83615
Wilkin81612
Lake81120
Lac qui Parle75322
Big Stone6004
Lincoln5813
Grant5788
Mahnomen5539
Norman5399
Unassigned49293
Kittson48622
Red Lake3977
Traverse3705
Lake of the Woods3253
Cook1640

Iowa Coronavirus Cases

Data is updated nightly.

Cases: 367236

Reported Deaths: 5940
CountyCasesDeaths
Polk57666626
Linn20892335
Scott20060241
Black Hawk15824308
Woodbury15138228
Johnson1449183
Dubuque13380208
Dallas1118398
Pottawattamie11132168
Story1062348
Warren577988
Clinton555893
Cerro Gordo540689
Sioux514474
Webster512293
Marshall483075
Muscatine481399
Des Moines458066
Wapello4303122
Buena Vista424840
Jasper419372
Plymouth401280
Lee376055
Marion362875
Jones299057
Henry291937
Carroll285752
Bremer284860
Crawford266240
Boone265034
Benton256655
Washington254050
Dickinson248543
Mahaska230451
Jackson222142
Clay215725
Kossuth215564
Tama209871
Delaware209741
Winneshiek196835
Page192722
Buchanan191432
Cedar190023
Hardin185643
Fayette185141
Wright184737
Hamilton180049
Harrison179673
Clayton169556
Butler165034
Madison162519
Mills162422
Floyd161142
Cherokee158938
Lyon158241
Poweshiek154934
Allamakee151451
Iowa148824
Hancock148434
Winnebago142531
Cass138654
Calhoun138513
Grundy136333
Emmet134240
Jefferson132435
Shelby131137
Sac130419
Union128333
Louisa128149
Appanoose128049
Mitchell126442
Chickasaw124116
Guthrie121530
Franklin120721
Humboldt119126
Palo Alto112823
Howard104622
Montgomery103338
Clarke100224
Unassigned9710
Keokuk96031
Monroe95329
Ida90435
Adair86532
Pocahontas85522
Davis83024
Monona82730
Osceola78716
Greene77710
Lucas77223
Worth7478
Taylor66012
Fremont6229
Decatur6089
Ringgold55824
Van Buren55818
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