Billions for March Madness, but pennies for Olympic gold

INDIANAPOLIS (AP) Nobody will be thinking about Olympic gold medals when Duke and Wisconsin meet Monday night for the national title.

Maybe they should.

The money March Madness and the football playoffs generate, along with the increasing amount it takes to sustain big-time hoops and football programs, dictate the tricky math that guides the future of so-called ''minor'' college sports that are the backbone of the U.S. Olympic movement.

''If you waved a magic wand and said, `There's no more college sports in the United States other than football and basketball,' our performance at the Olympic Games would deteriorate substantially,'' said Scott Blackmun, the CEO of the U.S. Olympic Committee, who is in Indianapolis this week for the Final Four.

That's nowhere near happening, but the trend isn't encouraging.

For example, between 1991 and 2012, the number of men's gymnastics teams has shrunk from 36 to 16. Men's wrestling teams have decreased from 110 to 77.

Meanwhile, Title IX created more opportunities for women, yet even with the landmark law firmly established, 16 women's programs in Olympic sports have been eliminated from various colleges since 2009.

That's a daunting trend for the U.S. Olympic team, which receives no government funding and gets a full 65 percent of its athletes from a college pipeline that doesn't exist in this form anywhere else in the world; 163 of the 204 athletes (80 percent) who won medals at the London Games were current or former college athletes.

''College sports have never had more revenue than they have today, but college sports programs are being cut,'' Blackmun said. ''It's kind of upside down.''

Schools receive increased cash from colossal TV deals for football ($7.3 billion over 12 years just for the new playoff) and basketball ($10.8 billion over 14 years just for March Madness). But some of those gains have been offset by recent changes in NCAA rules that allow, for example, schools to offer scholarships that cover the full cost of attending college and to be more generous with meals.

The challenge for athletic directors and school presidents is how to keep football and basketball programs running and generating money, without sacrificing the small sports.

''In college sports, we're talking about something that's fundamental to America and unique to America,'' said Steve Penny, the president of USA Gymnastics. ''I think athletic administrators recognize that, and I think there are a ridiculous number of creative ways we can address this without having to drop programs.''

Last week, the charitable National Gymnastics Federation announced a handful of grants that directly help college programs and support the Big Ten, which still has seven men's gymnastics teams.

''Every chance we've had to help change a program, we've helped,'' Penny said. ''The bad part is when you get blindsided, like we did with Temple, and then you don't even have a chance.''

The end of Temple gymnastics last year, not telegraphed to many, was part of a seven-sport cut at the university designed to save $3-$3.5 million a year and give some breathing room to a struggling football program.

''When I heard the news,'' sophomore gymnast Evan Eigner said at the time, ''I kind of went numb a little bit.''

Duke athletic director Kevin White and Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby recently wrote an op-ed piece detailing the stresses big-time college programs are under, while reminding readers that producing pro athletes isn't the core mission of the sports teams. White recently took Bowlsby's spot on the USOC board of directors.

Both White, who will watch his basketball program go for its fifth national title Monday night, and Blackmun, whose success is predicated largely on America staying at the top of the medal count, are concerned about how the future of small sports might impact the Olympic movement.

They're just as concerned about what might happen to the college experience if football and basketball crowd out all the swimming, wrestling and fencing programs out there.

''We've lost our way, to some extent,'' White said. ''What drives the NCAA and college athletics on every campus is football and basketball. It's the emotional and financial engine. This thing (at the Final Four) last night was incredible. But let's not totally focus on that and disregard the fencer's experience, too. That's an important part of what we're doing.''

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AP Sports Writer Will Graves in Pittsburgh contributed to this report

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