SDSU equestrian program faces uncertain future

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BROOKINGS, S.D. (AP) — The equestrian program at South Dakota State faces an uncertain future as the expensive sport fails to gain traction nationally.

The Committee on Women's Athletics recommended this fall that the NCAA strip the equestrian program of its emerging sport status at the end of the 2016-17 season. Schools aren't adding the sport at the expected rate partly because of costs. And a three-year grace period, on top of a decade-old window to grow the sport, hasn't improved numbers.

Already, Kansas State and Tennessee-Martin will discontinue their programs after 2015-16, anticipating that the NCAA will approve the CWA recommendation this spring.

SDSU doesn't plan to cut the 10-year-old program just yet, athletic director Justin Sell told the Argus Leader ( ). The school has invested in the program, but officials also are looking at options.

If the Jackrabbits were to stick with equestrian as a school-supported sport, they'd lose roughly $100,000 in annual reimbursements from the NCAA. If they were to drop it, they'd likely have to add another women's sport — maybe two — over the next couple of years to remain in compliance with Title IX.

"Our first objective is trying to say, 'Is equestrian a sport that's going to stay as recognized by the NCAA and continue to be an emerging sport?'" Sell said. "If the answer ends up being a collective no because the council or groups of schools decide that's the way it should be, we have to be prepared to say we're going to move in this direction."

SDSU started the equestrian program in 2004 - the same year the school moved to NCAA Division I - and began competing in 2005. The sport created opportunities for women and helped balance the scholarship additions in football from a Title IX standpoint. It also fit with the horse-related interests of the university and the state.

The sport comes with its share of expenses. The university offers 15 scholarships spread across a roster of 45 riders. In 2008, the school opened a $3.6 million, privately funded equestrian facility just north of campus. Based on data from the Office of Postsecondary Education, the Jacks equestrian program had operating expenses of $425,880 in 2013-14 - that's second in the 21-team department behind football at $580,383.

But other schools haven't followed suit. Now, the wealthiest schools are focusing on paying players in high-profile sports. That's part of a different NCAA discussion that also will take place in 2015, where some schools want to increase money for student-athletes.

In Division I and II, 23 teams are competing in varsity-level equestrian this season. They're grouped together because of the emerging status. Division III schools can sponsor equestrian, too, but can't offer athletic aid and so don't count toward the required participation total.

Megan Rossiter attended a meeting with other coaches earlier this month geared toward a compromise that could bring Division III teams into the fold, among other possibilities. Other strategies include creating three new jobs to promote and raise funds, and enlisting supporters to engage more schools.

"They're thinking about several different routes," Rossiter said of the discussions, "but I think there are some positive steps and good options."

The Division I Leadership Council and the Division II Management Council could vote on the CWA proposal this spring. If passed, it would go to the Division I and II governing bodies for approval. This could be the third-to-last season.

No matter the outcome, SDSU could maintain equestrian as a varsity sport. That would prevent gender-equity issues from coming into play. However, the athletic department would lose out on roughly $100,000 in annual reimbursements from the NCAA, according to Sell, an amount that changes every year and is based on the number of scholarships a school awards and how many sports it sponsors.

That might tip the finances in favor of dropping equestrian and adding a less expensive sport, as Kansas State is doing in picking up women's soccer. Other options include hiring a women's track and cross country head coach, instead of sharing with the men.

"All I want to do is make sure we do our homework on it," Sell said. "What are we talking about here? How do we handle Title IX? It'd be a huge university decision, as well - how it fits into the equine sciences and the rodeo program. There's a much bigger conversation that we would have in relation to that."


Information from: Argus Leader,

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