Even though it’s the gridiron heroes who are the media darlings, judging by the number of national championships won, it’s the men’s gymnastic team that is more deserving of the spotlight. Since 1965, men’s gymnastics has racked up eight national championships—more than any other OU team.
Additionally, the Sooners have featured 99 individual champions, six Nissen-Emery winners and 185 All-Americans.
“Obviously our sport is not as popular in the public eye and I think we’ve all come to accept that,” sophomore gymnast Steven Legendre said. “It’s unfortunate because I think our sport is just as interesting and just as fun to watch. I don’t really know why it’s not as popular, but we’ve come to be okay with that.”
Assistant professor Dr. Ralph Beliveau, however, said there are a couple reasons men’s gymnastics is less popular in the public eye. Among Beliveau’s research areas are media criticism, critical theory and rhetorical theory.
“Part of it is the lack of confrontation that I think is part of what makes people interested in sports,” Beliveau said. “The other part of it is that it just doesn’t have the same kind of way of expressing masculinity that other sports do, which is part of why I think people consume sports is because it kind of reinforces their notions of power connected with gender.”
According to OU Athletics’ official website, SoonerSports.com, the men’s gymnastics program began in 1902, yet folded 15 years later. Then, in 1965, OU men’s gymnastics was established as a competitive sport for the first time in school history.
In spite of the numerous awards the team has won, the general public lacks extensive awareness of the program’s dominance in the sport. In fact, head coach Mark Williams said some people are unaware of the program's national championships.
According to SoonerSports.com, the average attendance at OU football games in 2008 was 85,075. On November 22, the football team brought in a record crowd of 85, 646 while playing Texas Tech University. The largest crowd the OU men’s gymnastics team brought in was 958 at the home meet against the University of Texas, according to The Collegiate Gymnastics Information Center.
Furthermore, 384 people were in attendance at the home meet against Pennsylvania State when the Sooners broke an NCAA record by scoring a 366.850.
“We get anywhere from 500 to 1500 at a home meet, and depending on promotions and advertising, it fluctuates,” Williams said. “But it’s hard to crack those limitations without a bigger exposure in the media, so a lot of what we rely on is word of mouth and people looking at our website, but if people don’t look at that, it’s hard for them to know even when we have our competitions.”
Part of the reason the men’s gymnastics team has less public support than other sports is a lack of media coverage and exposure.
“The Daily Oklahoman and the Norman Transcript only have so many reporters that can go out so many times, and a lot of the time there were basketball games and gym meets going on at the same time,” Matt Wilson, student assistant and men’s gymnastics contact said. “But on any given week, I would have one maybe two media requests a week. Any given week, you have eight to 10 reporters a week at a football event, so it’s definitely based on popularity and what sports doing well right now.”
Twice this year, the Sooners had national coverage, according to the 2009 Oklahoma Men's Gymnastics Posteason Guide. ESNP2 and ESPNU broadcasted tape-delayed coverage the NCAA Men’s Gymnastics Championships, and the magazine Inside Gymnatics published interviews with Legendre and Williams.
“I think that sports coverage tends to reflect what ends up being very important to people so there's a lot of investment in hometown and a lot of investment in highlight reels and spectacular performances rather than something that takes a little bit longer and you have to be a little bit more sensitive to absorb,” Beliveau said. “I think they could probably approach it a little bit differently than they do but their renovations happen in other ways, they have to do the technology presentations and then manufacture bizarre statistics on sports people are already familiar with.”
Legendre is the two-time individual national champion from the years 2008 and 2009, and senior gymnast Chris Brooks was a finalist for the Nissen-Emery Award, the gymnastics equivalent of the Heisman Trophy. Both gymnasts are members of the senior U.S. National Team.
Because gymnastics is a sport that heavily focuses on individual accomplishments, Beliveau explained, it lacks significant public appeal. Additionally, because it’s based off performance, it’s difficult for the general public to know what’s considered good and not.
“It’s really more of a finesse as opposed to someone who's an outstanding performer who can slam dunk or who can just totally nail people or throw a pass accurately,” Beliveau said. “The closest comparison to mainstream sports is probably like some of the subtleties of pitching where you have to know a lot about pitching to be able to tell why somebody is successful or not.
But in a lot of finesse sports, like gymnastics or skating where it's a performance, it requires a great deal of more knowledge about what’s going on and being able to tell what's good and what’s not. If you just do the most outlandish physical moves, that’s not necessarily going to guarantee success, you have to be able to do it in a certain way that’s recognized by the sport. I think that’s just a harder thing to get to learn.”
Legendre expressed a similar linking to the public’s lack of support and awareness.
“Its’ kind of a confusing sport to pick up on and understand right away,” Legendre said. “It’s not as simple as some other sports, so I think that kind of also makes it harder for people to become interested in it because they don’t exactly know what they’re watching.”
Sophomore gymnast Steven Legendre shares his opinion of gymnastics and the sport's popularity.
Members of the OU men's gymnastics team during post-season practice.
Dr. Ralph Beliveau on men's gymnastics