Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith named to think tank for Olympic sports

Bill Rabinowitz
Buckeye Xtra
Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith will be part of a group trying to determine how to sustain Olympic sports in college programs.

Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith has served on so many committees that he probably has lost count.

He can add one more. On Thursday, Smith was named to a think tank formed by the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee and USOPC Collegiate Advisory Council to help sustain Olympic and Paralympic sports within college programs.

Olympic sports at the college level operate at a financial loss and tend to be funded mostly through football revenue. The severe drop in football revenue caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has had a devastating effect on those sports.

According to ESPN, 352 NCAA sports programs have been dropped since March. Last month, Michigan State announced it would discontinue its men’s and women’s swimming and diving program after this winter.

“Our collegiate sports feed the Olympics,” Smith said. “When those sports are eliminated, their opportunity to train and compete at the highest level and chase the dream of the Olympics are diminished.

“There’s some — not a lot — that come out of the club system and make the Olympics and represent our country. But the collegiate model, that's where the largest number of Olympians emerge from.

“So how do we look at, as we move into the future, the ability for colleges to sustain sponsoring those sports, or should we be looking at a whole different model?”

Smith will be one of 34 members of the think tank, which is divided into three groups. Smith will serve on the partnerships working group chaired by Alabama athletic director Greg Byrne. UCLA AD Martin Jarmond, a former OSU assistant athletic director, also will serve on the partnerships group. The other two groups center on regulations and on sport economics.

Smith said it is too early to predict what the think tank will recommend. Members will meet virtually over the next few months. Smith said he’s hopeful of having a report finished in February.

Cost-cutting will be a focus, particularly in terms of scheduling. Smith said an emphasis on scheduling regionally instead of nationally to save on travel costs will be examined. If that happens, it’s likely that the process for selection and seeding of championship tournaments would need to be adjusted.

Smith cited the Ohio State men’s tennis team, which dominates the Big Ten and is a perennial contender for the national title.

“They’re flying around the country to play top talent, to play the teams in Texas and California to improve their rankings,” Smith said. “Should we do that? Our system has been set up that way. Your strength of schedule and all those things are a part of a selection committee's consideration when they rank you for national championships. So that costs you more money.”

Football and men’s basketball are the only sports at Ohio State – and most other schools – that generate a profit. Their revenue essentially subsidizes the other sports.

But almost all athletes in those unprofitable sports receive only partial athletic scholarships. If those sports are cut, colleges would lose tuition and other revenue if those athletes left.

“I’m a big Olympics guy,” Smith said. “I don't know how often I've ever talked about that publicly. But I'm a big believer in the Olympics, and in having our country win it every time we compete.

“I think it's a challenge when we look at the number of sports that have been dropped across the country. How do we find a way to help people fund sports programs in which ultimately those kids represent our country?”