College Athletics: Wanted: Female Players

By Russell Adams
Updated: June 16, 2007

Thirty-five years after Title IX, colleges struggle to fill women’s teams

At just 5-foot-3 and with only average speed in the pool, Julia Bridgford isn’t exactly a college swim-coach’s dream. But in the last three weeks, the high-school senior from DeWitt, Mich., has been the subject of intense interest from over 30 teams. She says she’s weighing offers from multiple schools willing to pay her as much as $25,000 a year to compete.

“I didn’t think there was a chance,” Ms. Bridgford, 18, says of swimming in college. “Apparently I was wrong.”

This month marks the 35th anniversary of Title IX, the law that effectively bans sex discrimination in college athletics, and as a result, schools have added thousands of new women’s teams, coaches and facilities. But many colleges say they are still wrestling with a problem: getting enough athletes to fill the mandated roster spots.

That is forcing a debate about why spots on women’s teams are going begging. Some people say there just isn’t enough demand to meet the supply of roster spots. But others argue that the real problem is paltry recruiting budgets and coaches who don’t make enough effort to find athletes.

The upshot: a ripe opportunity for aspiring teen athletes and their families. There are now a substantial number of roster openings — even scholarships — but families may have to be unusually proactive in searching them out. “There are so many scholarship dollars out there for women to pursue,” says Terry Crawford, head track and field coach at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo.

John Bello’s 17-year-old golfer daughter, Alex, has a 4.0 grade-point average and shoots an average round of 78, more than good enough to play for many Division I programs. Yet by the time recruiting experts visited Alex’s Rocky River, Ohio, high school in April, the Bellos hadn’t received a single recruiting letter. And students at the school were told that if they hadn’t yet been contacted, they might as well forget about a scholarship.

Unconvinced, Mr. Bello paid about $2,000 for a package of statistics and video to send out to colleges. In the two months since, Alex has received letters and emails from about 30 schools, some (like the University of Virginia) in the top 50 in the country.

In response, many coaches say they have been stepping up their recruiting game significantly in recent years. Some are turning to companies that scour high schools for even marginal talent, while others are paying for more high-school athletes to visit their campus.

Ray Looze, the head swimming coach at Indiana University, says two years ago, the women’s swim team had 13 people, while the men had 40. Since then, he has doubled the number of “official visits” by female recruits to as many as 50 a year — and increased the women’s team to 25 swimmers. “We’ve closed the gap but we still have more work to do,” he says.

Many schools are also starting to look abroad for athletes. In the last few years, College Prospects of America, an athlete-marketing service based in Ohio, has opened offices in places including Mexico, Peru and Venezuela. Recruiters spend their days calling upper-middle class families with children who play sports like golf or tennis. The families pay the company about $1,100 to $2,300 whether or not their children land a spot on a U.S. team. The company funnels about 150 to 200 Latin American athletes to U.S. colleges every year, says Vice President Tom Starr.

In the decades since Title IX was passed, participation in the NCAA by women has jumped to 160,000 from fewer than 30,000, and college sports like softball and women’s soccer owe their popularity in large part to the law.

Despite these gains, at some schools there remains a gap in participation between the men and women of more than 20 percentage points.

Groups like the College Sports Council say tens of thousands of roster spots go unfilled each year. On the other side of the debate, groups including the Women’s Sports Foundation say the figure is actually significantly lower.

Of course, the very top schools in each sport can fill their rosters with the cream of the crop relatively easily. But plenty of colleges, including many in Division I, struggle — particularly in swimming, track and field, tennis and golf.

Dick Gould, director of tennis at Stanford University, says that in Northern California, there are half as many qualified female high-school players as men but nearly twice as many scholarships to give them.

There are several ways that a school can comply with Title IX, but many do it by making sure that the number of male and female athletes are proportional to the overall student body. To balance out big-roster men’s sports like football, schools often add equivalent women’s sports (or cut men’s sports that don’t generate revenue). Mostly for that reason, women’s crew, with some teams exceeding 100, is one of the fastest-growing college sports.

Many of the schools now vying for Ms. Bridgford, the Michigan swimmer, never got a look at her before making an offer. (She’s leaning toward either St. Peter’s College in New Jersey, a Division I school, or Notre Dame College in Ohio.) That’s because the recruiting company she hired to get her name out, American College Connection, decided not to include a video in the materials it sent out to about 200 coaches. It was afraid coaches would take one look and deem her too short.