Tara Montgomery didn’t think much of rowing when she first gave it a try. Though she outdid all of her high school classmates on a strength test that gauges aptitude for the sport, she didn’t attend practice until her mom, struck by the swelling number of college scholarships offered by women’s rowing teams, bribed her with the promise of an iPhone.
Four years later, Montgomery, an 18-year-old senior at Chicago’s Innovations High School, has gotten much more than a gadget out of the sport: She has been offered an athletic scholarship at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville that she says will cover nearly all of her college costs.
“I have a single mother; she could not afford for me to go to a four-year university,” Montgomery said after a recent practice. “I’d either be buckets and buckets in debt or at a community college next year if it weren’t for this sport.”
College sports are booming, thanks to gargantuan TV contracts and the increasing use of athletics as a marketing tool, and women’s teams are enjoying much of the bounty. NCAA statistics for 2011-12 show they are chipping away at the scholarship gap after decades of inequality, with much of the growth coming in sports that barely dent the public consciousness.
Unlike the men’s side, in which the big money spectacles of football and basketball account for more than half of all athletic scholarships, women’s scholarships are spread more evenly among a wider range of sports. That has produced favorable odds for some high school athletes: Female rowers, for instance, have roughly a 1 in 3 shot at landing a scholarship.
“It’s a good thing to create those scholarship opportunities, but it creates an interesting dynamic,” said Ryan Wells of NCSA Athletic Recruiting Network, a Chicago-based recruiting service for high school athletes. “In some established sports like football and men’s and women’s basketball, there’s too much talent (compared with) the scholarship opportunities that exist. You have the inverse for these emerging sports.”
Just like the boys, though, Chicago-area girls who have claimed scholarships in low-profile sports have had to work for them with single-minded discipline and focus. And while the payoff can vary, ranging from a full ride to just the cost of books, many say the recognition itself is meaningful.
“It’s sort of unreal,” said Katie Appell, 17, an Oak Park and River Forest High School senior who has received a partial scholarship to play water polo at Mercyhurst University in Erie, Pa. “When I first started playing, I couldn’t imagine that that would ever happen. But I love the sport. My friends say I’m obsessed with it — it’s all I ever talk about. To be able to continue on with it for at least another four years, it’s really exciting for me.”
53 colleges, 358 scholarships
When Julia Bond started bowling at age of 11, her father, also a novice, pointed out bowlers who looked like they knew what they were doing and told her to copy them.
He must have chosen well, because seven years later, Bond, a senior at Waubonsie Valley in Aurora, became one of the most sought-after recruits in the country with two perfect games on her record. In November, she accepted a full scholarship offer from the University of Nebraska.
“I enjoy the competitiveness,” said Bond, who last month led Waubonsie Valley to its second consecutive state title. “Bowling is a team sport but you still have to perform by yourself. If something goes wrong, you can’t blame anybody but yourself.”
NCAA statistics show that women’s bowling scholarships have almost doubled since 2005, the fastest growth rate of any college sport, and Marty Miller, Bond’s high school coach, said he gets frequent emails from fledgling programs looking for athletes.
He added, though, that only dedicated, successful, hardworking competitors need apply.
“We’re not talking about pizza and Coca-Cola, strobe lights and balloons (at the lanes),” he said. “If you want to be good at it, you become darn serious.”
Bond expects her game to get serious indeed at Nebraska, which won the national championship last year.
“I’ve been able to meet some of the girls, and they’re awesome,” she said. “There’s much more of a competitive drive. They all know what they’re doing, so I think it will be a more intense experience for me.”
23 colleges, 540 scholarships