The prevailing term, “minor sports,” seems inherently demeaning. One popular alternative, “Olympic sports,” is not quite accurate, now that softball and baseball have been bumped from the Summer Games.
So we’ll go with the ever-popular “nonrevenue sports” to describe the dynamic teams that are rocking the University of Washington.
They might not get the crowds or scrutiny of football and basketball, the acknowledged kings of the hill in any athletic collegiate department. But if you’re willing to look under the radar, you’ll find a compelling story in nearly every corner.
“It’s like your children – you love them all, and you love them differently,’’ said UW athletic director Scott Woodward.
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On one memorable day last weekend, the Huskies’ softball and men’s golf team advanced in the NCAA playoffs, the Husky men’s crew won the Pacific Coast Rowing Championship, and two members of the track team won Pac-12 track championships.
At the same time, six sports were ranked in the top 10 nationally: men’s and women’s crew, men’s and women’s golf, baseball and softball. The women’s cross-country team, national champions in 2008, had a top-20 national finish. Combine that with thriving sports in other seasons, most notably soccer and volleyball, and the Huskies have a particularly good thing going across the board right now.
“I think the conditions here are very good,’’ said volleyball coach Jim McLaughlin, who won the 2005 national title and last season led the Huskies to their fourth Final Four appearance. “We have great mentors, a great university to recruit to. Like Dr. (Mark) Emmert said years ago, we are a university that can be great at everything.”
The push toward beefing up the nonrevenue sports began in earnest when Barbara Hedges replaced Mike Lude as UW athletic director in 1992. Under Lude, the Huskies’ football program thrived at unprecedented levels, but it was perceived by some that he didn’t care about women’s sports or the so-called minor sports.
“I have three daughters, I care about women and women in athletics,’’ Lude countered to The Seattle Times’ Blaine Newnham in 1998, upon his election to the Husky Hall of Fame. “But I also know you have to fund it. You can’t do it magically.”
That tug-of-war is keenly recognized by Woodward. Football provides the vast majority of the department’s revenue (85 percent), with 15 percent coming from basketball. In that regard, an athletic department’s business model can be perplexing, aptly described once as partly a multi-million-dollar operation, and partly a charity.
Woodward has been aggressive in his efforts to maximize the prosperity of the football program, most notably with the renovation of Husky Stadium. Hedges greatly advanced the overall facilities upgrade parade under her watch, but left a football program that was in turmoil following Rick Neuheisel’s stormy departure.
Last year, the football team won nine games, their most since 2000, capped by a victory over BYU in the Fight Hunger Bowl, and the hiring of Chris Petersen to replace Steve Sarkisian. The basketball team is in a down cycle, missing the NCAA tournament the past three years, yet its place near the top of the financial hierarchy is indisputable.
“Our coaches (in nonrevenue sports) tell recruits’ parents: The best way to support our program is to buy season tickets to football and basketball,’’ Woodward said.
It’s a classic trickle-down approach, but Woodward puts a different spin on it.
“Not only trickle down, but the notion that a rising tide lifts all boats,’’ he said. “Football is definitely a rising tide. It helps everyone across all the sports programs we have. We all realize that.”
Indeed, McLaughlin said that his volleyball team, when they’re on the road in the fall, makes a point of finding a restaurant where they can watch the Husky football games.
“It gets the vibe going,’’ he said. “When they’re good, everyone’s good.”
The next project for the athletic department is upgrading the practice facility at Alaska Airlines Arena to help the basketball and volleyball teams get more court time. Just about every venue, from the crew house to the softball field, has received a facelift, most recently (and dramatically) the new baseball stadium that has galvanized Lindsay Meggs’ program to a likely NCAA berth.
That is a locale where Husky teams have visited with frequency. The “minor” status of these sports is in the eye of the beholder; it’s certainly not minor to the participants or their followers. Yet McLaughlin doesn’t take offense at the term.
“Because it’s true,’’ he said. “We’re not football, and we can’t pretend we’re football. We’re not basketball. We’re not bringing in the millions they are. But to have the opportunity we have to win championships and represent Washington all over the country, it’s an honor and a responsibility that we take at the highest degree.”
Larry Stone: 206-464-3146