Ensuring Gender Equity Within Athletics Program Sport “Clusters” or “Tiers”

Connee Zotos, Ph.D., SMR Senior Associate

Most university athletics programs, whether they formally recognize it or not, administer a tiered athletics program model.  A tiered athletics program is a system for defining different levels of funding and support for various sports teams.   There are very few educational institutions, at the high school or university level that can afford to offer athletics programs where all teams receive equivalent support and have access to a full-time coaching staff.  Tiered funding models can range from two tiers, often referred to as a major-minor sports model, or a multi-tiered model than can include as many as six or seven tiers.    The teams that receive the highest level of financial support are often referred to as Tier 1 sports or “major” sports.  Along with enhanced funding, university administrators usually set higher expectations of success for Tier 1 sports.   If there are many tiers, expectations of success, measured in a variety of ways, are usually correlated with funding levels.  

Though it sounds like a relatively simple process, there are two sets of complex decisions that must be addressed in setting the parameters for tier designations.  The first set of decisions is to determine what level of difference in treatment is significant enough to create a whole new tier.  If every team has its own locker room except for men’s and women’s cross country, would that mean that the cross country teams have to be classified in a different tier?  What if some teams have on-campus facilities for competition and others must travel to off-campus sites?   What if some teams have assistant coaches and others do not?  There is no absolute right or wrong answer when determining whether differences in treatment between teams are relatively minor or significant.  Each institution’s administration would have to wrestle with these questions, set their own standards and be able to justify their decisions.  However, there is some information in the Title IX literature as it relates to gender discrimination in sport that could serve as guidance for determining tiers. In the November 2000 issue of Title IX Q and A, Bonnette identified four areas of gender discrimination in sports that deserve particular attention. The four areas included: 1) the quality of and access to coaching, 2) the awarding of athletics scholarships, 3) the quality and availability of practice and competitive facilities, and 4) the financial support for and expectations of recruiting student-athletes (p. 10).  Differences in these four areas may be a good starting point to help determine tier differentiation.

The second set of decisions that must be made is to define what constitutes significant differences in expectations for success in each tier.  In theory, funding is tied to expectations of success.  Is the expectation to win the conference every two to three years significant enough for a team to be placed in a higher tier and to receive more financial support than teams that are expected to finish among the top half in the conference annually?  Does the expectation for a specific team to raise more revenue create a different funding tier?  How much more revenue?  Is $50,000 enough?   Does the funding difference in each tier adequately reflect the difference in expectations?   The answers to these questions will vary depending on the priorities of each institution.  

No matter what decisions a university makes regarding a tiered funding model, there is no reason to apologize for its existence.  It is a common practice for educational institutions to prioritize program areas.  Even within the academic curriculum, every institution puts more resources in certain majors or disciplines based on the institution’s desire to establish areas of excellence.  For example, an analysis of staffing patterns may show that some academic departments on campus have fully funded, tenure track professors with exceptional credentials compared to other departments that, due to limited funding and lower priority, must employ more adjunct professors.  There is no doubt that, given an open checkbook, all educators would elect to provide the best of everything to everybody.  Unfortunately, education is like any other business.  Economics dictates that the organization must establish a mission and prioritize offerings through an analysis of strengths and limitations within the constraints of available resources.

Click on the link below for references mentioned in this article or to download a comprehensive manual that will take you through steps in formulating a tiered sports program that meets the highest standards of gender equity.

Constructing a Tiered Sports Program for College Athletics Programs - Download Manual