116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
With the end of the men's gymnastics season looming, no one needs to remind Iowa Coach J.D. Reive 'the countdown to the end of my employment with athletics” is imminent.
Seven months ago, the University of Iowa announced plans to cut four sports, including men's gymnastics (women's swimming has since been reinstated since a lawsuit was filed accusing the UI of violating Title IX). The Big Ten Championships were held Saturday and the NCAA Championships are April 16-17. That will mark the final meet for the program founded 99 years ago.
But Reive has hope for the program's future, albeit in an unconventional form.
Iowa is among the programs pursuing a self-sustaining budget model to keep competitive, collegiate men's gymnastics in Iowa City.
Reive is looking to do something similar to what Minnesota men's gymnastics coach Mike Burns has proposed.
Under the proposal designed with help from the College Gymnastics Association, the development of a youth club program affiliated with the team covers the expenses. It then operates as a club team outside the purview of the athletics department and NCAA.
'Why don't we just take the profit from a gymnastics club and redirect it to supporting a collegiate club program, a collegiate varsity program?” Burns said.
Joshua Gordon, a sports business professor at the University of Oregon, said it's an 'intriguing” business model.
'I like what they're trying to do,” Gordon said. 'They're trying to create a broader network of stakeholders that can help prop it up and diversify where money comes from.”
Iowa would still be able to compete against the remaining Division I teams with NCAA affiliations, including Big Ten rivals such as Nebraska or Illinois.
There is a precedent for this type of business model. Arizona State's athletics department cut men's gymnastics in 1993, but it has operated with a self-sustaining budget since then.
The club team still competed against California, an NCAA-affiliated team, in 2021.
Reive said Arizona State's success outside of its intercollegiate athletics department is the 'gold standard.”
Minnesota and Iowa have looked at Arizona State's model while building their plans although the Big Ten schools don't have quite the same benefits.
'He's got palm trees,” Reive said with a laugh. 'We have snow.”
Palm trees aside, the financially-independent cost structure is not easy to implement. Burns described it as a 'labor of love.”
Along with coaching gymnastics, the model requires the coach to essentially launch a business at the same time.
'I've never had to think about what I'm thinking about now, so I've evolved,” Burns said. 'In this situation, if you don't evolve, you're not going to survive.”
Iowa men's gymnastics spent $999,586 and made $76,813 in revenue in the 2019 fiscal year - the most recent year with financial numbers unaffected by COVID-19 - according to public records obtained by The Gazette.
Along with bringing in revenue as a youth club, the Minnesota model projects a budget about half the size of what gymnastics spent in 2019.
'It seems a little rosy in spots if you dig into the numbers,” Gordon said. 'It's a lot riding on a lot going right, and that should be a little scary.”
Burns is farther along than Reive in the process of converting the program into a financially-independent option.
Leadership from Minnesota's recreation and wellness department is 'bending over backward,” Burns said, to help.
Minnesota also has a much larger pool of youth gymnasts in the area.
The Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolitan area has more than 3.6 million people. The Iowa City and Cedar Rapids metropolitan areas have less than 500,000 people combined.
'There are some barriers to entry for sure,” Reive said. 'If you try to scale that down to Iowa City, I think it's possible you can do it, but you need to be a lot more creative in terms of marketing and spacing and what does that facility look like.”
Reive thinks it could take five years to implement the model in Iowa City. He said COVID-19 has slowed progress. Otherwise, he said it might've taken three years.
'The pandemic has put such a limit on hypothesizing what business models are going to look like and how many people are going to want to come back and do activities like this,” Reive said.
His athletes are willing to stick around, though, to start the transition.
After Iowa and Minnesota are cut after this season, the NCAA will be down to 13 Division I men's gymnastics programs in the country, limiting transfer opportunities.
Reive said he's received support from the athletics department, including athletics director Gary Barta, which is a 'big part” of making the transition work.
'Athletics still carries a whole lot of weight and authority around campus,” Reive said.
His wife, Doni Thompson, owns Eyas Gymnastics, allowing Reive to dedicate significant time to developing the self-sustaining model.
Reive believes the addition of more youth gymnastics in the area would help, not hurt, other clubs in Eastern Iowa.
'I've always been a believer in rising tides lift all ships,” Reive said.
Reive, who founded a gymnastics club while he was an assistant coach at Stanford, said ideally the self-sustaining model will drive more interest in the sport and therefore help other clubs.
Paige Roth, the owner of Iowa Gym Nest in Coralville, said she typically has three boys in the club competitive enough for consideration at a Division I program like Iowa.
Most of her customers are looking for ways to stay active or training for other sports, especially wrestling.
'The majority of our kids who come through here are not going to be kids - whether they're male or female - who are going to be looking for a college scholarship,” Roth said. 'The number of kids who aspire to do college gymnastics has always been a very small percentage.”
Roth still has a stake in the future of Iowa's men's gymnastics program - albeit more emotional than financial.
'For someone who has been involved in the sport of gymnastics since I was 2 years old, it's very sad for me to see these programs going away,” Roth said.
Burns believes lower high school participation rates for boys' gymnastics may have put the sport more so on the chopping block than other non-revenue-generating NCAA sports.
The National Federation of State High School Associations indicated 1,580 boys participated in school-sponsored gymnastics in the 2018-19 school year - 225 more boys than in school-sponsored canoe paddling and 342 fewer boys than in school-sponsored bass fishing.
But the vast majority of boy gymnasts compete through clubs like Roth's or Thompson's that are not affiliated with a high school and therefore not included in the NFHS report.
'These kids go to high school, but they don't compete at a high school,” Burns said. 'They compete for private clubs. That's just the nature of our sport.”
As unfortunate of a reality as this is for Reive and Burns, it doesn't come as a surprise. Burns has seen plenty of other programs fold during his 40-plus years of coaching, which includes an 11-year stint as an assistant coach at Iowa.
'I've always kind of woken up every day looking over my shoulder, going, ‘Yeah, we're still here. This is good,'” Burns said. 'So it's kind of this black cloud that sort of follows everybody around in the sport.”
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