Are we sure BYU men’s soccer shouldn’t be an NCAA sport?

Story by Anneka Southam and Caleb Turner with graphics by Chelsea Kern and Paul Swenson

Editor’s note: The recent disruption of sports has caused us to rethink a few things. Here are some second thoughts in a series called “Are we sure?”

BYU men’s soccer has not fielded an NCAA Division I team since 1987, but current players and coaches feel they have what it takes to return and succeed at the highest collegiate level, despite a discouraging trend in support and quality of players for NCAA programs.

“For me there’s no doubt that BYU men’s soccer would thrive as a Division I team,” senior forward Michael Anderson said. “I actually have never met anyone that thinks otherwise.”

Anderson recently penned a letter to BYU Athletic Director Tom Holmoe for a class, outlining the reasons men’s soccer should be incorporated into the athletic department. His three main arguments were that the team would bring favorable notoriety to the school, that it can compete and be successful at a higher level, and that students want to see a Division I men’s soccer team.

The team currently plays in the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association (NIRSA), also known as collegiate club. The Cougars first played in collegiate club following their exit from the NCAA in the late ’80s, and then went to the Premier Development League as a semi-pro team from 2003-2017 before returning to collegiate club. Since returning to club play, BYU has dominated NIRSA opponents, winning two national championships in the last three seasons. In the 2019 season, BYU men’s soccer outscored opponents 81-5.

(Graphic by Chelsea Kern)

“We beat our league opponents by an average of five goals a game, and no one likes seeing blowouts like that every game,” Anderson said. “I don’t think we’re going be able to substantially increase our game attendance until we become a Division I team.”

Increased support and attention are some of the big draws for BYU men’s soccer to go to the NCAA, with attendance numbers dwindling over the past several years with the move from semi-pro to club. Head Coach Brandon Gilliam said attendance dropped from around 2,000 per match in the PDL to 1,000 per match in NIRSA, due to both the level of competition and the lack of ROC pass support for students to gain admission. The ROC student pass currently only includes NCAA-sponsored sports.

According to Gilliam, the program initially thought that the move from PDL to NIRSA would result in higher attendance, because the PDL season took place during the summer months when the student population in Provo dramatically decreases. The opposite occurred, however, due to the blowouts that Anderson mentioned and competition with other BYU sports that students can attend with their ROC pass.

“I firmly believe that men’s soccer under the BYU Athletic Department would absolutely thrive in virtually every way,” Gilliam said. “In performance, fans, following, culture, environment, character and all other aspects.”

Gilliam also pointed to the international nature of both soccer as a sport and BYU as an extension of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. He believes building a following and a brand would not be an issue given the global nature of the Church and a BYU student body that includes international students and returned missionaries who have lived abroad.

Recent BYU men’s soccer graduate Connor Fordham shared his hopes for a future in the NCAA as well, using the BYU women’s soccer team as an example of the success the men could have at that level. Fordham, Anderson and Gilliam all mentioned the importance of the prestige and elite competition that come with being an NCAA sport, things an extramural club team cannot achieve in a ubiquitous and global sport like soccer.

(Graphic by Paul Swenson)

Many athletes, including Fordham, signed on with BYU men’s soccer with the expectation of playing against semi-pro and professional players in the PDL before the change in 2017 and have spent the past several years playing against far lower competition in extramural club teams. NCAA men’s soccer features the nation’s top collegiate players, which would certainly be a draw for those considering a playing career at BYU.

“It also goes along with how NCAA athletes are perceived at BYU and the benefits that come from being a part of the athletic program,” Fordham said. “I know there are a lot of steps that need to come before men’s soccer can be considered an NCAA sport, but if that step is taken, I think you would see the program flourish just as you see the women’s soccer program flourish.”

It is clear what the players and team want for the future of BYU men’s soccer, but a potential move to the NCAA would not come without its own set of difficulties and red flags.

NCAA challenges

The first roadblock to establishing a successful NCAA program for BYU men’s soccer is getting the athletic department to bring it in as a Division I sport. This has not happened since 1987, largely due to the implementation of Title IX, which requires that the same number of scholarships be given to both male and female student athletes. Since football is a male-only sport, at least to this point at BYU, and fields a large roster, that leaves a limited number of scholarships for other men’s sports.

The athletic department would likely need to add additional women’s scholarships to comply with Title IX, or drop one or more men’s sports to shore up enough scholarships for a Division I men’s soccer team. The Universe reached out to BYU Athletics for comment but did not hear back.

The other big question mark for BYU in adding an NCAA men’s soccer team is the financial side of things. As opposed to NIRSA, where BYU plays mostly teams within its own state and region, NCAA play requires far more travel, especially since the majority of the teams lie on the East Coast of the United States. Below are two maps, one showing BYU’s opponents in NIRSA and another of the current NCAA men’s soccer teams.

(Graphic by Chelsea Kern)
(Graphic by Chelsea Kern)

BYU primarily played schools within the Mountain West during this past season in collegiate club, while NCAA play would take them to at least California, if not the East Coast, where four of the top five teams in the nation last year reside. The distance could also make it difficult to schedule opponents at home in Provo. UVU is the only school in the state of Utah with an NCAA men’s program at the moment.

College sports expert and former SB Nation writer Matt Brown said travel expenses are among the biggest reasons that universities, especially in the West, are unable or choose not to sponsor an NCAA men’s soccer team. He argued that the financial aspect is the main reason BYU has not fielded an NCAA team for several decades.

“What it’s going to take is somebody coming in with a gigantic check,” Brown said. “If Mitt Romney walks in the door with a briefcase with $2 million and says I want to endow 10 men’s soccer scholarships, it’ll get done. You need a bunch of money not just to pay for the scholarships and travel for one year, but to endow it forever. It would be difficult, not impossible, but difficult.”

The increased travel expenses of a men’s soccer team could put a strain on a BYU Athletic Department that may already be looking to slim down its budget in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, especially if the biggest moneymaker, football, ends up being delayed or otherwise affected this fall.

The 2019 BYU men’s soccer team poses for a group photo prior to the start of the season. (BYU Men’s Soccer)

“The next year could dictate the next decade,” Top Drawer Soccer content director Travis Clark said. “If college football and basketball are limited (due to COVID-19), that could impact non-revenue sports and more college soccer teams could end up being cut.”

On April 14, the University of Cincinnati dropped its men’s soccer program permanently due to losses in revenue from the COVID-19 pandemic shutdown of sports.

In addition to a lack of financial support, the talent and level of competition in NCAA men’s soccer is not trending in the right direction.

Brown said it isn’t uncommon for young, male soccer players to skip the collegiate experience and enter the pros upon graduating from high school.

A ‘shift’ in men’s soccer

While Gilliam recognized the fact that most elite players will never touch a college campus, he argued that there isn’t so much a decline in men’s soccer occurring as much as there is a shift. He believes a fundamental change is needed in how collegiate soccer is approached and supported from a funding and scholarship standpoint, allowing more high school stars to make a successful transition to the university level while being compensated for it.

“(There are) 800,000 high school soccer players and only 45,000 college soccer players,” Gilliam said. “We need to figure out the financial piece along with the Title IX piece so we can create more opportunities for our young players.”

From left, Connor Fordham, Seth Fankhauser, Michael Anderson and Taylor Fankhauser pose for a photo after a match in 2018 (BYU Men’s Soccer)

He said most youth players are dropping out of soccer around the age of 14.

“I believe we are losing the majority of our young players because they see no future in it,” Gilliam said. “The mindset is that if I don’t get a college scholarship, then I can’t play soccer anymore. As questions come about in the NCAA, we need to be providing opportunities outside this window.”

Gilliam and his players believe BYU can buck the trend and run a successful NCAA men’s soccer program, as long as funding and financial support are in the right place. With the World Cup coming to the United States in 2026, the “shift” in men’s soccer that Gilliam mentions could gain steam at the national level in the years leading up to the international tournament. 

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