It costs exponentially more to field a varsity team than it does a club, but the camaraderie and competition are similar—and in some ways club athletes are better off
In 2009--10, Oregon spent $1,116,214 on its 16-member varsity women's volleyball team. It also shelled out $1,022,859 for the varsity men's tennis and golf programs, which had 21 players between them. Those amounts are mind-boggling to Katie Weatherhead, captain of the school's women's ultimate Frisbee team. Her 20-member club receives about $4,500 annually from the university, then must come up with approximately another $18,000 to cover travel, uniforms and other expenses.
Not that she's complaining. "I know athletes who play varsity sports, and there isn't much difference," Weatherhead says. "We work hard and we play hard, and there is that same sense of teamwork and camaraderie."
SI's pay-to-play plan hinges on the belief that the benefit students get from nonrevenue varsity sports like volleyball and tennis can be had at a fraction of the cost by fielding only club teams in those sports. It is a notion likely to rankle many current and former varsity athletes, but a conversation with Weatherhead—or with one of the 65 players on the men's ultimate Frisbee team—would surely placate some of them. A senior geography major from Chicago, Weatherhead came to Oregon because of its ultimate program, which won the college women's national title in 2010. "It's a different experience, but I don't know that I'd change anything," she says. "We have gained a lot more life skills having had to work for everything, by not having anything handed to us. And isn't that what college is all about?"
After the team is selected, every player must come up with $500. The additional $8,000 they raise as a group by selling Frisbees, holding car washes and bake sales, and hitting up schoolmates on well-trafficked parts of campus. Occasionally the university pays the squad up to $300 to clean up the stands after varsity volleyball, soccer and basketball games.
The men's ultimate team receives about the same amount from the university and must raise $30,000 annually. Both clubs do everything they can to keep expenses down: Their coaches are unpaid volunteers, and the teams often pass up tournaments because of the travel costs. At away games the athletes crash with former team members or at the homes of players from the host school. "Couches, the floor, whatever is available," says Ian Campbell, the sophomore coordinator of the men's team, which finished tied for fifth nationally a year ago.
How much more does Oregon get for all the money it spends on nonrevenue sports compared to its club teams? Says Campbell, "Let me put it this way: I see more people around campus throwing Frisbees than hitting tennis and golf balls."