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Fencing’s Shrinking Share of NCAA Schools Sponsoring Championship Sport Teams 1981-82 to 2014-15

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Over the next few posts we plan to examine the emerging and significant disconnect between the growth in the number of youth and high school fencers in the U.S. and the decline in the number of NCAA colleges and universities sponsoring men’s and women’s fencing teams. If present trends continue, fencing is likely to become, if it hasn’t already, a niche sport among a variety of niche, non-mainstream, fringe, minor league, non-traditional and emerging sports, in other words, a niche sport among niche sports!

While more colleges and universities than ever participated in sports that are designated as championship sports by the NCAA in 2014-2015, the percentage of NCAA schools sponsoring men’s and women’s fencing teams was at an all-time low.  While the number of NCAA member institutions grew from 752 in 1981-1982 to 1,119 in 2014-2015, a compound annual growth rate of 1.2%, the number of men’s fencing teams declined from 79 to 34, a compound annual decline of 2.5%. As a consequence, the percentage of NCAA colleges and universities sponsoring men’s fencing teams dropped from 10.5% in 1981-1982 to a level of 3% in 2014-2015, the lowest it has ever been.

In the case of women’s fencing, the number of teams fell from 76 in 1981-1982 to 43 in 2014-2015, a compound annual decline of 1.7%. The percentage of NCAA member institutions supporting women’s fencing teams declined from 10.1% in 1981-1982 to 3.8% in 2014-2015.

Changes in high school and college student populations, the popularity of any one sport and gender-equity concerns are among the factors identified in the latest “NCAA Sports Sponsorship and Participation Rates Report” that may affect sports sponsorship rates at the collegiate level.

It was only ten years ago since a joint NCAA-U.S. Olympic Committee joint task force issued a report identifying men’s fencing as an at-risk sport in danger of further loss of sponsorship by NCAA colleges and universities? At the time the task force issued its report there were 36 men’s fencing teams, today there are 34! Let’s not forget that it was only five years ago that Brown University’s Athletics Review Committee recommended that the school eliminate the men’s and women’s fencing teams!

As illustrated in the accompanying graph, the number of colleges and universities sponsoring men’s fencing teams has more than halved since 1981-1982, falling sharply from 79 in 1981-1982 to 34 in 2014-2015, an annual decline of 2.5% per year. A look at each Division separately reveals the same general trend. All of the NCAA Divisions have experienced a drop in men’s fencing teams over the period, although Division II has seen the largest annual percentage decline of 4.5%. Division II school’s share of men’s fencing teams has therefore fallen from 11.4% in 1981-1982 to 5.9% in 2014-2015. Over the same period Division I schools have increased their share of men’s fencing teams from 54% to 59%, while Division III schools have maintained their share at about 35%. 

Likewise, the number of colleges and universities sponsoring women’s fencing teams fell significantly over the past 30 years or so from 76 in 1981-1982 to 43 in 2014-2015, as shown in the graph below. This represents a compound annual decline of 1.7% per year over the period. Over the past 10 years the number of women’s fencing teams has fluctuated between 41 and 45.

Teams Added

Since 1988-1989, there have been 37 men’s fencing teams and 25 women’s fencing teams added at NCAA member institutions. Over half of these were added in Division III schools. Over the past ten years there have been two men’s fencing teams and three women’s fencing teams added, including the Long Island University’s women’s fencing team which was added to NCAA’s Division II in 2014-2015.

Teams Dropped

Since 1988-1989, there have been 64 men’s fencing teams and 46 women’s fencing teams dropped at NCAA member institutions. Over the past ten years there were five women’s fencing teams (all Division 1) and four men’s fencing teams (three Division I and one Division III) dropped.

Net Change in Fencing Team Sponsorship

The result of NCAA schools simultaneously adding and dropping teams since 1988-1989 was a decrease of 21 women’s fencing teams and a decrease of 27 men’s fencing teams. Since 1988-1989, there has been a net loss of 21 women’s fencing teams and 27 men’s fencing teams in the NCAA. In the last 10 years, there was a net loss of two men’s and two women’s fencing teams. All of the net losses in men’s and women’s fencing teams have come in Division I.

Since 1988-1989, the women’s sport with the greatest net loss of teams is gymnastics (-41), followed by skiing (-23) and fencing (-21). Since 1988-89, the men’s sport with the greatest net loss of teams is wrestling (-101). This is followed by tennis (-65), rifle (-50), gymnastics (-38), skiing (-28), fencing (-25) and water polo (-19).

Percent of NCAA Colleges and Universities Sponsoring Fencing Teams

The precipitous drop in the percentage of NCAA colleges and universities sponsoring men’s and women’s fencing teams between 1981-1982 and 1997-1998 and the more gradual decline between 1997-1998 and 2014-2015 is illustrated in the following graph.  In 1981-1982, 10.5% of all NCAA member institutions sponsored men’s fencing. Today, it is 3%, down from 3.7% in 2001-2002. Women’s fencing has mirrored the trend in men’s fencing in terms of the percentage of schools sponsoring the sport. In 1981-1982, 10.1% of NCAA colleges and universities supported women’s fencing teams. Today it is 3.8%, down from 4.2% in 1998-1999.

A look at each Division separately for men’s and women’s fencing reveals that a higher proportion of Division I schools sponsor men’s and women’s fencing teams compared to Division II and II schools as illustrated in the following graphs. The percentage of Division 1 schools sponsoring women’s fencing teams has halved since 1981-1982, falling from 14.1% to 7% in 2014-2015.

The decline in the proportion of NCAA Division 1 schools sponsoring men’s fencing teams has been more precipitous, falling by about two-thirds from 15.6% in 1981-1982 to 5.8% in 2014-2015. 

In our next post we propose to rank the growth performance of NCAA championship and emerging sports and comment on trends in participation levels by examining the number of men and women fencers and the average squad size at NCAA colleges and universities.

6 Responses to "Fencing’s Shrinking Share of NCAA Schools Sponsoring Championship Sport Teams 1981-82 to 2014-15"
  1. Jennifer says:

    Yikes! Bad news as my son is thinking about fencing in college.

    • Ross says:

      Your son has the opportunity to fence on either a varsity team or at a non-varsity fencing club at a college or university. This year there were 199 men freshmen fencers on NCAA men’s fencing teams, 117 in Division I, nine in Division II and 73 in Division III. Unfortunately we do not have statistics on the number of men fencers at non-varsity fencing clubs associated with colleges and universities.

  2. Julio says:

    Just to clarify, I assume that by a university “sponsoring” a fencing team you mean that fencing is recognized as a varsity sport at the university participating in a NCAA championship? If so, an interesting corollary to your study would be to determine the number of universities where fencing is a “non-varsity” club sport. From the outside looking in, fencing at the club level in colleges appears to be thriving, and there is even the United States Association of Collegiate Fencing Clubs Championships held annually for universities without an NCAA fencing program.

    It appears to me that fencing is caught up in the same plight as many other “non-revenue” NCAA sports, where Title IX requirements are often used as an excuse to eliminate sports in order to keep feeding the men’s football and men’s basketball programs. While this is incredibly short-sighted and flies directly in the face of the NCAA’s hypocritical platitudes regarding “scholar athletes,” I personally think that fencing (among other sports) should develop an alternative sponsoring organization, whether it be something fencing-specific such as the USACFC, or another organization that is not besotted, bloated and blinded by television revenue.

  3. Kellyann says:

    Great article! The collegiate decline is unfortunate because it seems that interest in fencing among youth is growing. But with websites like yours and more attention on fencing in the popular media–like the Tim Morehouse Chase commercial and actress Gal Gadot fencing in the new Gucci perfume commercial–there’s hope for a resurgence in interest on the NCAA side– especially in an Olympics year. We have such exceptional American athletes representing us (all current and former college fencers). And there are so many benefits to fencing, both athletically and intellectually!

  4. thibaud says:

    This is absurd. Why do cash-rich Div I giants such as Michigan and Wisconsin not have varsity fencing? They have huge fencing clubs and plenty of money from their football revenues.

    Why do Northwestern and Cornell still lack men’s varsity teams? Where is the logic in their sponsoring only women’s teams?

    What, if anything, is the national fencing organization’s committee on college fencing (including the Northwestern head coach) doing about this?

    Do they even have a plan to turn this around? Where is the sense of urgency?

    • MikeM says:

      The reason they have only a women’s team is probably due to Title IX. Title IX states that if there is a a male sport, there must be an equivalent female sport placed in as well. In this case, it’s probably the counterbalance to their Wrestling team.

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