It all started on a napkin. Yet it survived. Not without its struggles, but it survived.
It hasn’t stuck the landing quite yet, but acrobatics and tumbling’s emergence as a national sport has “almost reached the finish line,” said Baylor head coach Felecia Mulkey.
On Wednesday, the NCAA Division I council voted to add A&T to its Emerging Sports for Women program. That followed a recommendation to that end in June 2019 and a successful vote for Divisions II and III in January. The next step would be becoming an NCAA championship sport, which draws closer from fantasy to reality every day.
It’s been an emotional week for Mulkey and the sport’s other pioneers.
“So, think of this, 12 years, blood, sweat and tears, and we’re almost to the finish line,” Mulkey said. “We got that vote in January for Divisions II and III — cried then, too — and we’re almost to the finish line, and then a pandemic happens. Has there ever been a better twist in a story? We couldn’t write the story better, right? So to come through the pandemic and then for the Division I council to still see the value in moving us through to emerging sport status, there’s a big story that goes on behind it that I could go on for days.”
The emerging sport label essentially ushers A&T into the waiting room for NCAA championship status. A sport must have 20 varsity programs to be considered for the emerging sport program. In its short 12-year history, A&T has grown to 32 programs, including 30 in NCAA and two NAIA schools. Once it reached 40 NCAA programs, it will fall under the NCAA championship umbrella.
“Had COVID-19 not happened I think we would have hit 40 by Christmas in all different divisions,” Mulkey said.
Even amid the COVID-19 outbreak, schools have explored the possibility of joining the National Collegiate of Acrobatics and Tumbling. Mulkey said that five Division I schools have expressed interest in adding the sport during the quarantine period, including one as recently as Thursday. She expects that number to only expand now that A&T can show off this shiny, new emerging sports label. Currently, only Baylor, Oregon, Presbyterian College and Quinnipiac field teams on the Division I level. Maryland suited up a team in the sport’s infancy, but dropped the sport in 2012.
“I foresee as we come out of this and we find some semblance of normal that you’re going to see it grow in the Division I landscape pretty quickly,” Mulkey said.
The pandemic has led to some schools around the country cutting sports or staff as they deal with budget shortfalls. Mulkey and the other NCATA leadership understand that position, but A&T boasts some inherent benefits in its favor as a potential addition for an athletic department, she said.
“Some schools add for Title IX purposes, for gender equity purposes. And that’s not going to go away,” Mulkey said. “That requirement is not going to go away because of COVID-19. So there’s still going to be a need for schools that need to add a sport for gender equity numbers. That will be a need.
“Another thing that we see at some of our schools is the enrollment-driven portion of it. Our roster, we have 40-plus athletes on our roster. We will have 48 on our roster (at Baylor) next fall. That’s quite a bit of student-athletes coming into the university. We’re an equivalency sport, so we do not give full (scholarship) rides. So there’s a net positive, if you will, to the university, any university, that adds acrobatics and tumbling.”
After Wednesday’s successful vote, Mulkey and some of the other coaches and administrators who helped create the sport held a celebratory gathering on Zoom. They shared a drink, and swapped stories and congratulatory messages.
It’s been a long time coming. Mulkey said she is especially grateful for the way Baylor fans have embraced the sport since her arrival on campus in the fall of 2014. The Bears have won the past five NCATA titles and would have made a push at a sixth straight had COVID-19 not ended its season.
“The Waco community just loves Baylor, period. So, it was so wonderful to be embraced,” Mulkey said. “Not as ‘Oh, this is a new sport,’ but to be embraced as a Baylor sport. And the community has been fantastic. They’ve allowed me to educate them over and over again. I always promise that if you come to a meet, I’ll give you your money back if you don’t have a good time. I haven’t been asked for any money back.”