Noticing the Nontraditional

As attitudes and interests of today's youngsters change, some administrators are starting to wonder if athletic offerings should change, too. Here's a look into the crystal ball of high school athletics.

By Dennis Read

Dennis Read is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management.

Athletic Management, 13.6, October/November 2001,

When a young physical education teacher in Springfield, Mass., nailed a couple of peach baskets to the walls of a local gymnasium back in 1891, he probably received many quizzical looks. And when he directed his students to throw a ball into those baskets, the looks likely got stronger. After all, no one had ever seen anything like this before.

James Naismith was searching for a new indoor sport, one that would increase participation among students tired of the traditional winter sports of skating, skiing, and sledding. Now, 110 years later, basketball stands as one of the most popular sports in the world. More importantly, Naismith's model of innovation has reached new heights. From snowboarding to drag racing, new ideas in athletics have mushroomed over the last 10 years.

As a result, today's kids have a host of new athletic options to choose from. Many excellent athletes are picking up a skateboard over a baseball mitt, and when it comes time for high school sports, they don't participate. But, is this the high school athletic director's concern? Should today's athletic programs take a closer look at non-traditional sports?

With constant funding challenges, campaigns to keep traditional sports alive, and Title IX ramifications to consider, adding non-traditional sports to your offerings may be a low priority among your daily tasks. But, as students continue to embrace new sports not typically offered in high schools, some administrators feel it's imperative to examine non-traditional offerings--especially for those schools having trouble filling the rosters of traditional sport teams or those wanting to reach a broader range of students.

Reaching a New Audience
While, nationwide, the number of boys' and girls' high school athletic teams has increased significantly over the last decade, most new teams formed have been in traditional sports. For example, lacrosse has enjoyed a recent growth spurt, expanding beyond its traditional hot beds of Maryland and New York. But, while adding sports like these do increase participation numbers, some administrators are concerned that they do little to reach new students.

"If you offer boys' volleyball, for example, you're probably going to pick up a lot of kids who already play another sport,"says Bob Ottewill, Commissioner of the Colorado High School Activities Association. "You'll pick up basketball players, and you might pick up some football or soccer players.

"If you offer inline skating or roller hockey, you might pick up some kids that haven't been in your program,"he continues. "Or how about other sports like Ping-Pong or fishing. These are sports that don't duplicate the same physical attributes that are needed in the traditional ones. I tend to think there's a different kind of kid who might participate in some of those sports."

Ottewill is not the only administrator talking about reaching out to new audiences. The Illinois High School Association (IHSA), for one, is considering a study of whether to add non-traditional sports under the association's umbrella.

"The idea is to see if we can develop athletic events that would impact the students who ordinarily would not be involved with traditional team and individual sports,"says Jim Flynn, Assistant Executive Director of the IHSA. "Some possibilities are things like fishing, skateboarding, and sports along those lines. Roughly 60 percent of the students in IHSA schools participate in our activities. The intent is to create avenues of participation for that 40 percent who do not."

"The more we can get students participating in any activity--whether it's drama, the arts, clubs, or sports--the more these students will benefit,"says Jack Stephenson, Athletic Director at North Andover (Mass.) High School, "simply by being more well-rounded and getting the experiences of goal setting, competing, and reevaluating."

It's obvious that non-traditional sports already have a large following. The Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA) annually studies participation in sports and recreational activities. For the year 2000, the SGMA estimated that more than 10 million children aged 6-17 participated regularly in recreational biking and another 7.8 million participated in inline skating. Only basketball topped those sports with 11.1 million participants. Other top draws were freshwater fishing (10th with 3.1 million participants) and skateboarding (15th with 2.4 million participants).

In addition, "extreme"sports such as motorcycle jumping, skateboarding, and snowboarding have grown in popularity over the last five years, thanks to television broadcasts of the X Games on ESPN and ABC and the Gravity Games on NBC. This August, the 2001 Summer X Games drew more than two million viewers.

While none of these figures points to an end to traditional sports, they do show opportunities to tap into new areas. "It's like any business,"says Ottewill, "you can't keep offering the same products forever. McDonald's comes up with new sandwiches, but we're kind of slow in coming up with new activities. I'd like to see it, but I certainly know the realities."

Accommodating Change
For administrators, those realities are many. From funding to facility space to more work on your desk, the logistics of implementing unfamiliar sports can seem immense.

"There is still some resistance because this job is already overwhelming at best," Stephenson says. "I think most people are looking at it and saying, 'I don't need to add anything more to my plate. I'm having a hard enough time dealing with what's on it already.'"

The problem with ignoring new trends, however, is that parents and students may start requesting non-traditional sports through the board of education before you're ready to respond. Such was the case at Williston (N.D.) High School, where Athletic Director Tom Christen has been working to accommodate a wide variety of interests, while not burdening the budget. The result has been to offer sports in for different classifications: traditional varsity and sub-varsity school-sanctioned teams, teams that operate under a memorandum of understanding with a sponsoring organization, clubs that have letter-winning agreements, and affiliated teams.

The teams operating under the memorandum of understanding were added after the district froze the activities roster during a 1989 budget crunch. Any sports added since then, including baseball, boys' ice hockey, and boys' swimming, were added based on the memorandum of understanding. This stipulates that the school will sponsor and field the team, but the existing club organization will fund the team.

After years of putting aside a request to make taekwondo a varsity sport, the Williston district created a new category governed by a lettering agreement between the school and the club. This allows club members to receive varsity letters for their participation, but leaves responsibility for the operation of the team outside the athletic department. Others sports at Williston operating under a lettering agreement include karate, rodeo, girls' gymnastics, girls' ice hockey, and Special Olympics.

"Teams submit a list of their lettering requirements, which I and the school board have to approve," Christen says. "Part of the agreement is that they have to fulfill the academic and eligibility requirements set out by the state association for other sports, but they hire the coaches and they arrange their scheduling. They even pay for the letters that we issue."

Most recently, Williston added affiliated teams to its lineup. This came about after a newly formed drill team wanted to participate in a state competition.

"We didn't want to sanction the team, but in order for the team to be in the state competition, we had to fill out a form saying all the girls went to Williston High School," Christen says. "That's basically all we had to do and now we accept the drill team as school affiliated."

To Letter or Not?
While having all these different sports gets more students involved in school activities, it also makes Christen's job more difficult. "I keep a lot of files because I'm one of those people who has to categorize things,"he says, "but it's not easy."

And it wasn't easy for him to accept the new additions at first, especially the letter agreements. "My personal feeling is that you shouldn't be lettering unless you're in an official sanctioned sport," Christen says. "To me, the fact that you're involved in something and getting some satisfaction from it is enough. I don't need a letter for that. But that's because I'm an adult. Kids might want something that says they've participated in taekwondo and been successful in it.

"The school board has made this decision and I guess I reconcile it in my mind by the fact that there are more important issues than whether we're giving a letter to this kid or not," he continues. "That's minor compared to finances, hiring coaches, and everything else we do to keep things going."

Even Eric Schultheiss, Coach of the snowboarding club team for Hood River Valley (Ore.) and Summitt Christian High Schools, was surprised by how much earning a letter meant to his athletes. "One of the biggest things athletic directors can do to help is allowing it to be a lettered sport," says Schultheiss, who is also President of the Oregon Interscholastic Snowboard Association. "I know it sounds weird, because when I was going through high school and snowboarding I never cared much about letters, but the kids today do. A lot of teams have had a letter ceremony or banquet, and the kids are really happy to get a varsity letter for snowboarding."

Schultheiss says that his snowboarding athletes want to--and should be--recognized for their achievements. "Skating or snowboarding is just as much a skill as playing football or basketball," explains Schultheiss, who also played football in high school. "Anybody who watches these guys go over a 60-foot table, spin a 720, get a grab, and land it perfectly will see it's pretty amazing. Some guys make it look like poetry in motion.
"I have a problem whenever I see someone saying, 'Those kids do this,' and 'Those kids do that,'"he continues. "If you're not willing to at least give it a chance, that's pretty narrow-minded to me."

States' Roles
While athletic directors examine the best route to take at their individual schools, some state associations are looking for ways to promote non-traditional sports. The IHSA recently held a wheelchair basketball competition and through its planned study hopes to find other ways it can better reach students.

"We need to learn what the kids are doing and how we can have a state competition in those activities," Flynn says. "And then it's a matter of who can we work with? Is there a skateboard association? Is there a wheelchair association? And, who are the people who could help officiate it and conduct it? For example, in fishing, Peoria used to host a national bass tournament, so the infrastructure for hosting a huge fishing tournament already exists. The questions involve whom to contact and how to organize a state-wide competition in fishing, as a singular example."

There are also efforts at the state level to ease the acceptance of sports not normally embraced by the traditional high school sports structure. For several years, John Bandimere has hosted a drag racing event for high school students at Bandimere Speedway in Morrison, Colo. But he was bothered by reports from some participants that schools weren't letting them use the school name or announcing the results over the PA. So Bandimere met with state association officials who came up with a Youth Contributor Status, which allows the state association to support his, and similar, efforts without actually sanctioning the events.

"It says to the schools that we recognize this group as one that is providing activities to young people," Ottewill says, "and that they do it in an educational way with eligibility rules and safety rules. We'll send out a mailing about the high school drag racing days or the high school rodeo, and the schools might give someone time off or let them letter in the sport because the state association sort of recognizes it. If they get a mailing from our office, they might send a kid, but if it comes from the drag racing association, they often decide they don't want to be involved."

However, Ottewill also emphasizes that the state association is not in the business of telling its members what they should do. "The schools are struggling to manage what they've already got and they don't need a state association pushing things down on them," he says. "We've had a long-term discussion about the boys' volleyball association here. I think it would be a great sport, but if the schools don't buy into it, I'm not going to waste my time pushing it. The schools don't see that as my role."

No one expects changes to happen overnight. But odds are, some of the non-traditional sports of today will be the mainstream sports of tomorrow, and athletic directors will have to adjust sooner or later. After all, it wasn't that long ago when soccer was considered a new sport in many high schools.

"I think there are a lot of traditionalists who say, 'We didn't have this when we were young, why do we need to have it now?'" says Christen, who admits to feeling that way himself at times. "But times have changed dramatically and kids have changed dramatically, so we have to be a little more open minded than that."

Sidebar 1:
Culture Clash?

While athletic directors ponder the possibilities of bringing non-traditional sports under their umbrellas, some question the culture of these activities, especially in extreme sports, such as skateboarding and freestyle biking. These sports often operate under a very different structure than traditional high school athletics, and both the students and the athletic program might need to compromise some of their traditions.

The first hurdle may be your own perceptions of these students. "As traditional as skiing is, sometimes we think a snowboarder is going to be a kid with long hair or an alternative lifestyle,"says Bob Ottewill, Commissioner of the Colorado High School Activities Association. "But, then, I think to myself, 'Those are some of the kids we need to get into our programs.'"

A second hurdle may be the extreme sport athletes' perceptions of the athletic department and all its rules and structure. "With lacrosse, I saw the people here get organized because they wanted this structure,"Ottewill says. "They wanted the recognized state championships. They wanted officials. They wanted eligibility rules. But I've never once heard from an inline skater. It may be that those kids like a more non-structured environment. Part of the appeal of these sports may be that you don't have eligibility rules and you don't have coaches."

As President of the Oregon Interscholastic Snowboard Association (OISA), Eric Schultheiss has seen many snowboarders dismiss the idea of joining an organized school team only to change their minds after they watch some meets. "Initially they aren't interested and say, 'I don't want to be a part of that if I have to abide by all those rules,'"Schultheiss says. "But when they see the teams having fun, getting into it, and supporting each other they get excited. And over the last three years we've seen a lot of those kids who said 'No way' now joining teams."

Sidebar 2:
Helping Hands

Even if a non-traditional team does not fall under your umbrella of responsibilities, there are easy ways to offer a helping hand. Advisors of club teams often struggle with questions and problems that athletic directors deal with every day and can benefit from a quick word or suggestion.

Jack Stephenson, Athletic Director at North Andover (Mass.) High School, does not the have the funds or facilities to make the ultimate Frisbee club at his high school a sanctioned sport, but he does serve as a resource to the club's advisor. "Being in athletics all my life as a participant, coach, and administrator, I'm aware of things that a young teacher who is going to be a new advisor may not be aware of," Stephenson says, "such as the need to have physical examinations, provide proper transportation, or make safety checks on fields to ensure they're properly set.

"These are things we do as second nature in the athletic business," he continues. "But they're things that somebody new to the area really has to be aware of."

As the Oregon Interscholastic Snowboard Association (OISA) has grown from four to 36 teams in four years, Association President Eric Schultheiss has found himself learning organizational lessons the hard way. "One of the things that we can use the most is help from the ADs because they know how this all works,"he says. "We're doing the best job we can, but I'm new to committees and things like that."

Schultheiss says one area where some athletic directors have been extremely helpful in is transportation. OISA rules require teams to adhere to whatever transportation rules are set by the districts, which range from professionally driven buses to student-driven cars.

"At the OISA, we're leaning toward trying to get them all to have a chaperone driver," Schultheiss says, "since they're driving on snowier roads with less than ideal driving conditions sometimes. And some of the schools have been helping out with bus support."

SideBar 3
By The Numbers

Most Popular Sports for Youth (Ages 6-17)
1. Basketball 11,107,000
2. Recreational Bicycling 10,695,000
3. Inline Skating 7,679,000
4. Recreational Swimming 7,649,000
5. Soccer 7,255,000
6. Baseball 4,751,000
7. Recreational Walking 4,481,000
8. Calisthenics 3,448,000
9. Running/Jogging 3,368,000
10. Freshwater Fishing 3,106,000
11. Stretching 3,031,000
12. Touch Football 2,901,000
13. Slow-pitch Softball 2,785,000
14. Court Volleyball 2,730,000
15. Skateboarding 2,440,000

Source: 2000 Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association (SGMA) Superstudy, Based on "Frequent" Participation