Thursday, Feb. 7, 2008

Competition for scholarships is a numbers game

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Jordan Walsh has a ‘‘master’s degree” in the world of high school sports business pinned down.

The senior wrestler from Walkersville High is still being courted by a number of National Collegiate Athletic Association Division-I schools. He has solid grades, a state title and a 28-2 record. And it’s about time for him to get ‘‘paid.”

High school athletes tend to be viewed as being pure in their pursuit of sport. There’s not a lot of dollars factored into the equation. The money taken at the door is usually spent back into new bleachers or maybe a new field.

But then there’s the business of playing for a scholarship. According to numbers provided by the NCAA, athletic scholarships are fast approaching the mark of two billion dollars a year. The cost of four years at an NCAA school? It’s not in the billions ... yet.

It’s a financial reality that Jay Walsh, Jordan’s father, is already preparing for.

‘‘Jordan started out playing pretty much all the sports—football, wrestling, lacrosse,” Walsh said.

However, a broken arm made him consider focusing in on one and only sport, helping increase his college chances and lower his risk of injury. Jay Walsh then made his son a business offer—if Jordan wanted to compete in college, he would be willing to take him cross-country to compete and improve.

It has resulted in schools like Maryland and North Carolina looking at Walsh. The Air Force Academy has already made an offer.

Jay Walsh estimated that he has spent between $60,000 and $80,000 on travel and expenses.

University of Maryland would cost $20,000 a year. And not being a North Carolina resident would make the cost of being a Tar Heel another $15,000 or so more expensive each year. And to make matters worse, it’s highly unlikely Walsh will be getting a full-ride.

The NCAA doesn’t regulate the amount of dollars that a school can dole out; it regulates the amount of full ride athletic scholarships. And even then, it’s a mathematical dance around reality. For example, a Division I NCAA school is allowed to give out 11.7 full ride baseball scholarships. While a player might be good out of the bullpen, what it really means is that the University of Maryland’s 33-man roster is splitting up the financial equivalent of 11.7 full rides. And in the case of the Terps, it’s no more, no less.

In the NCAA’s eyes, not all sports are created equally. A Division I football team has 85 scholarships to hand out. Women’s basketball gives out 15 a year, and the men’s basketball team has 13 to give. These are their headcount sports, and typically every Division I college with a football and basketball program will max out their scholarships offered.

But on the other end of the spectrum is wrestling. Staying with the Terps, there are 39 men going to the mat for them. Maryland splits up 9.9 athletic scholarships through the entire team. It wasn’t until 2005 that the Terps were able to offer all 9.9 of those scholarships. And there are plenty of other schools out there with less than fully-funded programs.

‘‘As far as I’m concerned, wrestling, being a one-on-one sport, is a character building sport,” Walsh said. ‘‘If you lose, you have no one to blame but yourself.”

However, the offer from Air Force is somewhat outside of the NCAA’s control. Air Force is able to offer a 100 percent scholarship, but it requires a minimum of five years of service after graduation as well.

However, Walsh is also aspiring to be a pilot, which makes the terms of service 10 years.

Still, just making it onto a college wrestling team is beating the odds.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution newspaper ran a study on the comparative ratios of athletes competing in high school versus those competing in college. It found that for every one college lacrosse player, there were only eight high school players. That made for a very attractive success ratio for the sport.

Basketball had a far rougher ratio to overcome, with one collegiate for every 27 boys and 25 girls in high school. Wrestling has the worst odds, 37-to-1.

There are some superficial flaws in the research done by the AJC. Swimming looks good with its 13-1 ratio, expect that across the nation so many kids are forgoing high school competition for club work-outs, which increase their chances of being recruited for those mythical scholarships.

And while lacrosse has those stellar odds (the only ones tracked in the single digits), colleges are only allowed to give out about a dozen lacrosse scholarships per program.

But there’s a clear catch that I noticed when putting these numbers together. Before I moved to Maryland, I’d never covered a lacrosse or field hockey game in five years of watching high school sports. Neither was really big on the west coast. But Maryland supplies what seems to be about 15 percent of the entire world’s lacrosse playing population.

Yes, there’s money in those mountains of athletic shoes. But how likely is that money, anyhow?

I spent the better part of two months tracking down numbers, quantifying sports in terms of odds and potential dollars.

There isn’t a definitive source of numbers on the total number of athletic scholarships available. But for the purpose of comparison, I looked up the maximum number of potential scholarships available for the sports offered by our local schools.

With nearly 400 colleges still playing NCAA football at either Division I or II, the pigskin reigned supreme with 25,676 potential scholarships. That’s more than the combined number of scholarships available for the next three sports on the list, with women’s basketball (7,830), women’s track (7,654), and men’s basketball (7,177).

There’s three more tiers of college sport. Volleyball, women’s soccer, baseball, men’s track and softball take up the next chunk of scholarships, ranging from 5,992 to 5,227 available.

Women’s tennis, men’s soccer, women’s swimming, women’s golf and men’s golf all have the potential for at least 2,000 scholarships. Men’s tennis, women’s lacrosse, men’s swimming, wrestling, field hockey and men’s lacrosse all fall below that mark.

So what’s the best chance for a scholarship?

That whole scholar half of the equation. A good grade point average and solid test scores will unlock far more dollars. And then the athletes can go back to focusing on being pure in their pursuit of sport.