Utah Women's Gymnastics Team: The Greatest Show On Mats

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What women’s college sports program draws thousands more fans than the WNBA? It's also regularly outdrawing most Division I men’s college basketball games. And did we mention this program also boasts the nation’s highest grade point average? John Branch of the New York Times joined Bill Littlefield with the answer.

BL: John, the program in question is?

JB: Utah gymnastics, just as you would've guessed I'm sure.

BL: I hope somebody out there guessed it. You spoke to Greg Marsden, the longtime coach at Utah, and he said, “I just want gymnastics to make a noise.” How noisy are Utah gymnastics meets?

JB: They're pretty fun. They take their model from the NBA. In fact, they may have done this before the NBA. There is never a dull moment at these meets. They fill the in-between moments between routines with, you know, things up on the video boards, with cheers, there's a pep band; it feels a little like a pro sports arena because there's 15,000 people there. It also feels a little like a college arena because there are cheerleaders and pep bands. But there's always something going on.

BL: And this isn't all just theatrics. Somehow in all this noise Utah has managed to put together four decades of winning gymnastics squads. How has the coach done that?

JB: Well you know what, it's interesting. He started the program back in about 1975, shortly after Title IX. And Utah was looking to add women's sports as they were mandated to do, and he was a PE teacher. And they asked him if he would start a gymnastics program. He didn't know a lot about gymnastics. And so he was really one of the first ones to get the proverbial ball rolling, and within a few years was winning national championships and was also realizing the marketing potential. And so it's been, you know, 20 years since they've been averaging more than 10,000 fans and it just keeps going up and up and up.

BL: Utah is the only program to have reached the national championships in every year of that event’s existence, but those events attract a far smaller audience than the average Utah home meet. If Marsden was in charge of the national championship, what changes would he make?

JB: He would make it smaller, actually, in terms of the number of teams. You know what they do is they bring these teams in and they narrow it down to six teams. Well, six teams on four events--women's gymnastics has four different events--doesn't make a whole lot of sense because there's two teams that are always sitting out. If you're ever watching it in the arena, or if you're watching it on television, you can't really tell who's ahead at any one time. He says "Let's forget the six teams. Let's just do four teams and make it so that everybody's on the floor at the same time, like a circus, and you can always tell at any moment who's winning and who's losing." He thinks that gymnastics is a little in the dark ages in terms of trying to promote itself and to think forward that way.

BL: You know the way you're describing that event, that is something that I would go to see. It sounds great. 

[sidebar title="High School Boys Gymnastics Fighting For Survival" width="630" align="right"]In 2013, the Massachusetts Interscholastic Athletic Association stopped sanctioning high school boy's gymnastics.[/sidebar]

JB: And it is great. I was there on Saturday night, at their event against Stanford. They had 15,202 people there. They had standing-room only at their arena there in Salt Lake City. They asked everybody in the middle of the event if they could scoot over up in the upper decks so they could accommodate more people. I don't think the fire marshal was there, thankfully. They're marketing toward a lot of kids, a lot of families. They give away a lot of cheap tickets to get people in the door. And they believe once people are through the door, they'll soon sign up for season tickets. They have sold, this year, 7,500 season tickets.

BL: Colleges are under pressure to add more women’s sports, and Utah gymnastics is one of just a few women’s programs in any sport that breaks even financially. But the number of Division I gymnastics teams has held steady for the past ten years. Why haven’t more schools tried to reproduce the sort of success that you've seen at Utah?

JB: Yeah, I think it's kind of a magic question. I think part of it is there are some expenses involved here. You know, you do need all this equipment for gymnastics, you do need an arena to hold these meets in, so you need a lot of space and a lot of money. They also--the teams are only about 12 members big. And for a lot of these universities that are trying to add sports, and to try to get their numbers--their equality numbers--up under Title IX, they will sometimes add sports that attract a lot more women. Fresno State for example, when I still worked in Fresno 10 years ago, they added equestrian. And almost instantly they had 75 or 80 women there. Well, that was great for their quotas, but certainly they're not drawing fans.

BL: I'd just like to point out that horses aren't cheap either.

JB: That's a very good point. Most of the sports we've seen added are things like lacrosse and crew. I suppose somebody might argue those are sports that maybe have--are a little more forward-looking; that they see growth potential in as opposed to gymnastics. But gymnastics, you know, Utah's not the only one. Places like Florida, and Georgia, and Alabama are regularly getting eight, 10, 12 thousand people there.

This segment aired on February 28, 2015.


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