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How Utah and the Pac-12 hope to alter the collegiate gymnastics landscape

SALT LAKE CITY — At this point, it's just a piece of paper, a form submitted by the Pac-12 Conference to the NCAA.

In 10 months time, however, it could be the difference in the lives of hundreds of gymnasts.

This past Monday, July 15, the Pac-12 submitted a proposal to the NCAA to increase the number of scholarships available to collegiate gymnasts.

Currently, the limit is 12 scholarships per women’s team (for Division I schools), a cap that has been in place since 1995.

The proposal, spearheaded by Pac-12 coaches — including Utah head coach Tom Farden — would increase that number to 14 scholarships per team.

In raw numbers, it would raise the number of gymnasts nationwide under scholarship from a little over 700 to nearly 900.

“The Pac-12 has been talking about this for several, several years,” Farden said, “putting forth this proposal and possible rule change. We got ours through.”

“The gymnastics coaches community has wanted this change for a long time, but the need for it has grown in seriousness recently,” added Erik Price, Pac-12 associate commissioner for compliance. “They came together and voted as a group to ask the conference to put it forward (to the NCAA). That was the first step and that happened this past fall, in October.”

Why is such a scholarship increase warranted?

Since 1995, per 247Sports, national participation rates in the sport, particularly those gymnasts who reach level 10 in USA Gymnastics’ Junior Olympic Program — the recruiting pool from which college programs draw — has risen by nearly 300 percent.

As put by LSU in their similar scholarship proposal made ahead of Southeastern Conference spring meetings earlier this year, “this increased interest has made it extremely challenging for individuals who are not highly skilled in all four college gymnastics rotations to have an opportunity to receive an athletics scholarship from a collegiate institution.”

That would change with the proposed increase.

“We are going to increase our numbers of participation,” Farden said. “More women are going to get to compete in college gymnastics with some sort of aid, rather than no aid.”

At Utah, it would mean an additional two gymnasts added to the team, as the Red Rocks have a fully funded program. In other words, all Utah scholarships are full-ride scholarships.

For other smaller, less well-funded programs where that isn’t the case, however, the increase would still have its benefits.

“Even the smaller schools that can’t afford two more full scholarships, you could take a few of those and make them 3/4 scholarships or 1/2's,” Farden said.

For the Red Rocks, and everyone else for that matter, the increase would be a boon to both the depth of the team and the overall health of the gymnasts, particularly in light of the recent changes to the NCAA’s postseason format.

“I think we are absolutely going to increase our (roster) numbers,” Farden said. “That will be a natural byproduct of this if it passes. Everyone is at around 14 (gymnasts per team) right now, with one or two walk-ons, but we’d move to about 16, which would be great. Especially with this new postseason format that we just experienced. In one month, you are doing four meets back-to-back. At this point, just getting out of regionals is challenging.”

The action taken on July 15 was just the first of many steps.

Over the course of the next 10 months, the proposed scholarship increase will undergo all kinds of reviews and revisions and will find its way into meeting after meeting.

“It is not very exciting,” Price said. “The proposal will be farmed out to various communities in the NCAA to review and comment on. Then those communities will give their sense of the idea and support or opposition. It sort of takes on the life of a legislative bill at that point.”

During said time, it will be the responsibility of the Pac-12 to garner as much support for the change as possible, and there is optimism on that front.

“I reached out to the Big 12, the Big Ten and the SEC to see if there was going to be some kind of collaborative support, and there was,” Farden said. “All those other conferences were on board. It appears that we are going to have really good support from the other Power Five conferences.”

If the proposal finds its way through the rigmarole that is the legislative process, the final council vote will take place in April 2020, with the expectation that the rule change would become effective in August of the same year.

While there are certainly many remaining questions surrounding the rule change, such as how implementation would affect recruiting, at the very least, after 24 years, the ball has begun to roll.