Lessons learned in adding a new sport
Bloomsburg University was faced with a serious problem — it had a need to increase sport offerings for the underrepresented women.
Adding a new sport to an already crowded landscape, both within your institution and your conference, is not as easy as one would think. Sure, there are the knowns: budget, playing venue, recruiting, coaching and a locker room. Then there are the unknowns: effect on all other programs, burden on equipment operations, athletic training, event staff and general scheduling concerns. A new program, while welcomed and necessary to advance your institution, comes with growing pains and challenges.
Here are six lessons learned when NCAA Division II institution Bloomsburg University added women’s volleyball.
Adding a new sport
1. Plan, review, change, plan, review. Is the budget identified? Is the budget enough to cover the expenses? What’s the right roster size? How about playing area and locker room? What impact does the new sport have on other programs? Do you have storage space for the equipment and uniforms? The questions are endless.
The key is understanding that not every question has an answer without first determining what the growth for the program will be, and what impact it will have on the existing sport offerings. Bloomsburg first benchmarked intercollegiate women’s volleyball programs within our conference to determine how each institution handled its operations. Upon reviewing the information, we developed our overall operating budget plan and scholarship four-year plan (incremental growth year-to-year for each recruiting class). Yet, while we looked at best practices and compared budgets to like-sized programs, there were still a host of unknowns.
We learned one thing from the development process: Plan for the unexpected. The unexpected may not even relate to budget or items that you know may be placeholders until more definite details emerge, like the exact salary for the head coach versus the salary range. An example of the unexpected included the relocation of our softball team locker room to a location closer to their field, and providing the new volleyball program the softball locker room. We knew this was going to take place. What we did not take into consideration was that internet access was not available at the satellite locker room for the softball team. That forced us to purchase Wi-Fi equipment so student-athletes were not negatively impacted and had the ability to study prior to practice. This prompted us to review our plan, make changes and evaluate a new plan.
The operating budget is another area where flexibility must be designed into a program’s launch. We opened year one with line items for recruiting and limited coaches gear. This seems simple and spot on for a coach to represent the program and recruit a first-year team. However, the department did not have a volleyball sport-specific logo. No funding was set aside to create the logo, so we adjusted and provided the coach and program with proper branding for improved visibility.
With year two and the first year of competition, we created a budget based on similar sports travel, meals, lodging, officiating fees, uniforms and supplies. What we learned almost immediately is that with a new roster of players, the travel costs exceeded expectations. This forced an evaluation and budget recalibration for year two of competition.
Planning, reviewing the plan, adjusting and making changes is critical to a successful launch of the new program. Expect the unexpected, and be prepared to adjust in support of the student-athletes. That way, the entire athletic department will benefit with the addition of a new sport.
2. Hiring the right coach. As easy as this may sound, it’s critical to hire an individual who aligns with the institution’s goals and athletic mission. It’s also important to note that the right coach needs to blend with an established staff. Everything the program will do is new, and the program and coach will be looking to merge in while getting a slice of the pie.
Balancing a new sport, new student-athletes, fitting into the scheduling puzzle, and creating a culture to align with existing efforts is difficult. The right coach must be able to navigate the challenges and create a niche within the other established programs. There needs to be ongoing discussions and give-and-take from everyone in the department. This helps the new sport gel and provides a successful platform for the coach.
One lesson learned was outlining the roster goals for the first two years of the start-up program. Bloomsburg wanted to ensure that the program would have enough student-athletes, so we increased the roster size to 28 for years one and two. We were intentional with this number to establish a full roster that would allow for matriculation, melt through injury, burnout or lack of playing time. We learned that with the correct balance of student-athletes the roster size — minus an injury bug — would remain intact. Bloomsburg hired the right coach who believed in the direction we wanted to go regarding the team bench, which made the roster size a non-factor.
3. Comparative programs. Establishing goals is important, but be ready to adjust them. Do your homework to understand what it takes to be competitive, and build your program with those benchmarks in mind.
You will not win a national championship in year one. Provide your student-athletes with the necessary tools — budget, equipment, facilities, staffing — so that they’re ready to do battle. Our first year ended with a 6-22 record; this is not where we will be in one or two years. The key is that the student-athletes tasted victory but also the spoils of defeat. At the same time, the program developed a new sense of pride and belonging as “the new kid on the block” through its visibility and engagement.
Not only is it important to review and benchmark against competing programs, but it’s also critical to benchmark the program against other sports. For example, they must jump right into the Student-Athlete Advisory Committee (SAAC), displaying leadership as new members of the group. The student-athletes also must adhere to the same policies, procedures, fundraising and overall design of the athletic department. Without becoming part of the program athletically and academically, the quality and effectiveness would fail internally and externally. Building the framework to be successful must occur while the competitive success will come with on-court experience.
4. Align with the mission. The new program, and everyone associated with it, must understand that the program and institution have established missions, goals and rules. For existing teams, there is a learning curve for each new class of student-athletes with regard to the culture and landscape. This is more important with a new program, as everything is experienced for the first time.
It starts with athletic administration articulating the mission and having the coaching staff pass that information to their athletes. This helps the “new culture” of the sport align with the department and institution. With athletics being one of the most visible aspects of an educational setting, a new program must fit within the framework and be a positive example. With no alumni to turn to, the greatest mark of success appears in how the program blends into the fabric of the institution and athletic department. The biggest lesson learned is to be present with the new coach, the new student-athletes and the fans. The program must be provided every opportunity to reinforce the institutional and athletic mission.
5. Establish support. We are all “busy,” and adding a new sport creates more work. More compliance, advising, recruiting, budgeting, laundry, injuries, treatments and rehab — a lot more.
Prior to adding a new sport, everyone must understand why you’re doing it and what comes with it. With shrinking budgets and increasing costs, a new program needs all the support possible. It must be understood by everyone on campus that adding a new program is an enhancement and not a deterrent. Buy-in from everyone is not enough.
Discussion also needs to occur with other campus offices. This ensures that everyone is on board with the addition, including admissions, financial aid, residence life and athletics staff. One of the lessons we learned was the adjustment in team locker rooms. At the start of the softball season, we realized that while the coaches and administrators had discussed a locker room relocation for softball to accommodate the volleyball team, the softball student-athletes did not hear from the administration. During a session with the SAAC, the softball locker room change became a topic of discussion. The administration and the coaches then met with the entire softball team to review the change, thank the players for working with all of us and the new program, and opened the dialogue to involve them in the important adjustments to improve their athletic program. At the end of the meeting, the softball team had not only a newfound respect for the volleyball team, but now looked forward to visiting their new locker room affectionately named “The Club House.”
Another important lesson was securing corporate and community support. The Husky volleyball team made an impact in the Town of Bloomsburg by delivering team posters and schedules to area businesses. This allowed the administration to secure two corporate sponsors with Wagner’s Trophies, providing T-shirts for the first 500 fans who attended the preseason scrimmage. The shirts displayed the new volleyball logo on the front, and Wagner’s logo on the back. A second sponsorship came from Nap’s Pizza, which donated pizzas for a serving contest between games two and three. These external corporate sponsorships helped grow attendance and provided improved visibility within the town through the T-shirt exposure and our pizza partnership.
Ambassadors are crucial when adding a new sport and gaining support, and we were able to achieve that with corporate sponsorships and connecting other student-athletes to the new program.
6. Evaluate and adjust. One of the most difficult elements is reflection, a time where you evaluate what went right and what went wrong. It’s easy to talk about the highlights and positive impact, but it’s more difficult to review what should have been done differently. Unlike recapping an event and making adjustments, you have one shot at successfully adding a new sport.
At the conclusion of the first year, prior to actual competition, the new head coach and the administration reviewed what was needed for the soon-to-be competition with the understanding that changes and adjustments were needed. Now, with the first year of competition under our belt, we have begun evaluating again, examining budgets, staffing, facilities and recruiting. Regardless of how the team competed in year one, it has become the backbone of where the program is headed. It’s imperative that the correct culture and goals are established for building a successful program.
The educational nature of being a student-athlete is paramount to the future growth of the program. Lifelong lessons begin on day one and with a new program. It’s important for the coaches and student-athletes to continue to evaluate and adjust while aligning with the department and becoming immersed into the overall program. The biggest lesson is that the team must create its own culture, which is vital to future success.
Adding a sport may be required for competition within a conference. Maybe the decision is enrollment driven, or the addition could enhance institutional compliance with Title IX. What’s certain is that it must support the overall institution’s mission. If administrators are careful in planning, organizing and creating a culture of acceptance, adding a sport will only enhance an athletic department’s overall sport offerings.
Administrators must be willing to consider these six steps to add a sport that’s destined for long-term success. The lessons learned framework can benefit any administration looking to add any sport, and it gives athletic directors a unique opportunity to grow their overall program.
Dr. Michael McFarland, Ed.D., is in his eighth year as the director of athletics at Bloomsburg University in Pennsylvania. In 2018, he led the Huskies in the successful addition of women’s volleyball as the institution’s 21st sport.