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Confronting the challenges of a tiered athletic program

This is an excerpt from Athletic Director’s Desk Reference by Donna Lopiano and Connee Zotos.


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Athletic Director’s Desk Reference.

4.3 Management Tip

A number of challenges are created by adopting a tiered athletic program model: (1) creation of a class system, (2) difficulty in defining the true varsity experience, (3) finding a conference with homogenous competitive aspirations, and (4) denying top-tier designation when teams succeed.

Creation of a Class System

A tiered model in athletics does create an economic class system. The athletes in the top-tier sports are often treated like royalty. They receive many perquisites, practice and play in state-of-the-art facilities, and have access to outstanding coaches who can dramatically affect team and individual success. Simultaneously, athletes in lower-tiered sports may be driving to contests in vans, have part-time coaches, and wear older uniforms. These class systems often create dissonance among student-athletes, coaches, and athletic administrators, which is one of the primary reasons why athletic administrators have failed to formalize the existence of the tiers. But the reality is that student-athletes and coaches have always known which teams were considered flagship programs that have privileges and perquisites and which teams were funded at moderate or base levels. A more sensible approach is to educate the athletes about why these tiers exist rather than pretend that they don’t.

Defining the True Varsity Experience

The presence of a tiered model raises concerns about the quality of the student-athlete experience for members of teams that are placed in the lowest tiers. Administrators and coaches have to wrestle with the issue of defining the difference between a club sport and a varsity sport experience. When does a varsity sport really become a club sport that relies more on student or volunteer coaches, student fees, fund-raising, and out-of-pocket spending by participants? What minimum amount of funding or support should a high school or university give a team so that student-athletes have a true varsity experience? The line is not always clear. Many institutions struggle to preserve participation opportunities without totally compromising the quality of the experience.

Finding the Right Conference Affiliation

For universities and some private high schools, a dilemma of administering a multitiered model is finding the right competitive fit for all sport programs with regard to conference affiliation. Conferences provide a route to championship competition, guarantees of games, and a sense of identity. An institution may have one or two flagship sports that would be best served by playing in a highly competitive conference. But if the other schools in the conference support all their teams at either a tier I level or tier I and tier II levels, the institution that has four funding tiers may find that their lower-tier sports have no chance of success. Because each institution creates a unique athletic model, finding a set of institutions to compete against in all sports is difficult. If some teams are being continually embarrassed, the administration faces pressure to compress the tiers by providing better funding or it risks igniting the question of quality versus participation opportunities.

Denying Top-Tier Designation to Successful Teams

When a lower-tier sport team exceeds the performance expectations of one or more sport teams located in higher tiers, the system feels immediate pressure to elevate the team’s status or defend not doing so. In such situations, the administration must reflect on the variety of reasons why sports were placed in different tiers. Winning cannot be the only criteria for tier placement. The other reasons for such placement must be resurrected to remind advocates of the overachieving sport that other considerations are involved in tier assignments. Frequently, lower-tier placement is simply a matter of economic limitations.


Read more from Athletic Director’s Desk Reference by Donna Lopiano and Connee Zotos.



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