Warwick, R.I. – September 17, 2018: As the landscape of its student body continues to change, the Community College of Rhode Island is revamping its Department of Athletics in an effort to increase interest in sports while meeting the demands of a younger audience.
What is described as a “very traditional athletic program” by Dean of Students Michael Cunningham gets a much-needed makeover with the addition of women’s beach volleyball, men’s and women’s swimming and the rapidly growing esports, otherwise known as electronic sports or competitive gaming.
With a nearly 50 percent increase in recent high school graduates attending CCRI because of the inception of the Rhode Island Promise Scholarship, Cunningham and Interim Director of Athletics Kevin Salisbury decided the best way to boost attendance at sporting events and keep those incoming first-year students engaged is to add programs that reflect those changes.
“This is a more traditional college-age population looking for more currently popular and traditional activities,” Cunningham said. “That 18- to 19-year-old, traditional student population was a small percentage of what we had. Now it’s a bigger percentage of what we have. We had to ask ourselves, ‘Are we offering the right set of programs and opportunities for the current student body?’ We want people to be involved. We just have to reach more students than we’ve been reaching.”
After more than six months of researching trends at the collegiate level and speaking to others in the industry for ideas and influence, Cunningham and Salisbury decided beach volleyball, swimming and esports were the logical, cutting-edge choices to launch CCRI’s new-look program for the fall semester. All three will start as club sports, which means they are self-funded, with the hope that beach volleyball and swimming will become varsity sports in the coming years.
While swimming is more or less the elder statesman of the three, having been an NCAA-recognized sport since 1982, beach volleyball and esports are relatively new to college athletics and will provide potential student-athletes with opportunities they won’t be able to get at most schools in the Northeast.
Though it had been governed loosely at the collegiate level for years – back when it was officially called “sand volleyball” – beach volleyball did not become an NCAA-recognized sport until 2016, making it the 90th and newest NCAA championship event and first since 2012.
As recently as fall 2017, only 69 schools in either Division I, II or III offering the sport had been recognized by the NCAA. That number has grown to 80, making beach volleyball the fastest-growing NCAA sport over the last five years. The nearest varsity program to New England is D-III Stevenson University in Maryland; the majority of competing schools are located out West or in the Southeast.
The National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA), which governs two-year schools such as CCRI, added beach volleyball as a full-time varsity sport in April, with its inaugural season scheduled to begin in the spring of 2019. CCRI will compete at the club level in its pilot season and play its home matches at Mulligan’s Island in Cranston with the hope of joining the NJCAA as early as 2020.
Transitioning from courts to consoles, esports is the most unique of the three club sport additions. Organized online and offline competitions have been part of the video game culture for decades, but an increase in internet streaming and live attendance, coupled with a major increase in prize money – the world’s highest-paid player has earned more than $3.4 million via professional gaming – led to major esports boom in 2012.
Two years later, esports officially joined the college athletics landscape when Robert Morris at the University in Illinois launched a scholarship-sponsored League of Legends team. The National Association of College esports (NACE) formed as its governing body in 2016 and ultimately partnered with the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics and the NJCAA, which joined the wave in March.
More than 70 colleges and universities in the United States and Canada offer esports as a scholarship program, including Lackawanna College in Pennsylvania, which recently announced it will invest $300,000 into the program while developing an on-campus gaming theater to host competitions between schools. The University of California, Irvine pioneered this trend in 2016 when it built a 3,500-square-foot esports arena on campus, the first of its kind in the United States.
The College of St. Joseph in Rutland, Vermont, and Becker College in Massachusetts are the only New England schools to offer esports at the varsity level.
“You look at it and you say, ‘Well, the only real sport about it is that it’s got the word ‘sport’ in its title,’ but the following, the participation, is out of this world. It’s incredible. It’s been eye-opening for me, a totally different world,” Salisbury said. “Will it be big in college? I think it will be. The nice thing about it is it brings in a different type of athlete.”
Student-athletes participating in esports are held to the same standard as traditional student-athletes in that they must maintain a certain grade point average and work toward graduation to maintain eligibility. While they do not compete for money at the collegiate level, the NACE does not prohibit its athletes from making money on the side or making money off their own likeness, which is one of the major roadblocks delaying a potential partnership between the NACE and the NCAA.
CCRI will launch esports in the winter alongside men’s and women’s swimming, with competition expected to be based out of the Flanagan Campus in Lincoln. There are no immediate plans to add esports to the varsity sports ledger, but neither Cunningham nor Salisbury are ruling out the possibility of expanding the program if it’s as successful at CCRI as it’s been in recent years at other schools. Likewise, the Rhode Island Interscholastic League is still in the process of potentially adding esports at the high school level, perhaps as early as this season.
“I envision having a tournament at the CCRI gym on a Jumbotron or a big-screen TV. The following they have is incredible,” Salisbury said. “Not only do you get the kids who participate in esports, you’re going to get a bunch of kids, I think, to come watch it. We’re going to push hard and see what happens. I’ll be the first one to say it’s the wrong move if it is, but at least it’s worth the try.”
Swimming returns to CCRI for the first time in more than a decade. The program thrived under the guidance of former athletic director Vin Cullen, boasting four All-Americans during its infancy until the school dropped the program in the mid-2000s. Rebooting the swimming program made sense to Salisbury because CCRI has a pool at the Flanagan Campus and its swimmers can compete in meets throughout New England, where Providence, Bryant, Rhode Island and Brown compete at the D-I level. Also, more than 25 schools in Massachusetts compete in either D-I, D-II or D-III, so there is no shortage of opportunities for area swimmers.
“It’s a no-brainer to add that sport,” he said. “I know it can work. We’ve got plenty of swimmers in the state of Rhode Island and hopefully with the Rhode Island Promise program, it’s going to help tremendously in recruiting.”
The groundwork has been laid out for an exciting launch this year with CCRI’s athletics program taking an important step toward reaching a newer, more influential population of students.
“Some sports have been growing and some have been shrinking,” Cunningham said. “We have to find what works for us. We’re going to experiment. We’ve come to the point where if athletics is going to be viable at the community college level, it has to engage the population to a certain degree.
“Athletics fits into the mission of our institution. It’s a matter of making sure we’re staying current as the profile and character of our institution is changing.”
The Community College of Rhode Island, New England's largest comprehensive community college, enrolls nearly 15,000 students in credit courses and thousands more in non-credit and job training classes. Its athletic program boasts 12 varsity programs and an academic support program for all student-athletes.