article 'The Mad, Mad World of Niche Sports Among Ivy League–Obsessed Parents'

I just read an article in The Atlantic, The Mad, Mad World of Niche Sports Among Ivy League–Obsessed Parents. Mentions squash, fencing, lacrosse, water polo, and rowing. Interesting in the context of some colleges announcing they were cutting certain sports. If you read it, do you think it is a fair portrait?

I feel it’s a bit embellished. In regards to fencing it’s certainly more diverse than the article suggested.

It doesn’t seem like these kids enjoy the sports they are in, but they are just doing it to get an athletic slot at a top school. The kid who loved lacrosse but had to settle for a lesser school? He seemed fine with it but his mother thinks its unfair that the coaches at the Ivies pick the bigger, more talented athletes. Hmm, welcome to the real world. The parents want to use the sports to get into their preferred school, and don’t really care about the sport.

There are now so many athletes, legacies, URMs, children of faculity, or whatever preference the applicant claims that the schools just don’t have room for them all.

Based on conversations I’ve had with parents of children who are active in a few of these niche sports, some of the anecdotes seem exaggerated, but for the most part pretty accurate. It is apparent that some of the stories, especially concerning named families, were supplied by unfriendly rivals.

But the article is spot on that “there are simply too many kids competing for too few spots.” And for the truly niche sports like fencing/squash/crew that is especially the case, as the top ranked kids in the sports mainly aspire to go to the most prestigious, highly selective academic universities (e.g. Ivy+).

That’s in contrast to basketball/football/baseball and some other sports where a lucrative professional career is the dream: if you are one of the best in the country you would probably be best served attending a school that will prepare you for a pro career (e.g. universities in the Power 5 conferences).

@daddycaddy great point. When I hear complaints about athletes in these niche sports unfairly taking spots in Ivy admissions from other students, it’s a head scratcher for me. As this article pointed out, and you stated, there are so many athletes competing for so few spots. The student athletes who obtain these spots have to be the best of the best in that sport. They have to be World Class. In addition they have to be just as competitive academically as the avg admit. I think some are misguided as to the rarefied air of this level of student athlete.

That was an interesting story. As the father of a D21 in somewhat of a lesser niche sport (golf), I see things like this often. I know three recent grads who are dominant on the course with outstanding grades as well that ended up at low (both academically and athletically) D1 schools. International recruitment cannot be understated. Many of my D’s peers this year have already accepted at a D3. I think reality has a way of smacking you upside the head, even when the parents don’t want to admit it!

I think one of the main problem is the fixation with the “Ivy or nothing” mindset perpetuated in the article. In my D21’s sport (one of the niche sport mentioned in the article), you could easily figure out if you could get that coveted Ivy spot or not by looking at the rankings, current roster, potential available spots (e.g., how many seniors on the team). You can immediately tell there will just be a handful available every year so you are only looking at World champion or Olympic hopefuls that stand a chance and chased by the same set of coaches.

If the parents did not figure this out early and are still fixated on Ivy recruitment rather than their kids’ enjoyment then these parents are up for great disappointment. There are also “outside of the ivies” and not “lower than the ivies” that provide great opportunities for the kids to continue their sport and get top academics at the same time. You just need to cast a wider net and find a good compelling match for your kid.

The delusion described in the article goes past the niche sports. I don’t feel too badly for the “Fairfield” parents who are spending $10k+/year for their kids’ private lessons, club team fees, travel expenses, etc… I feel badly for the lower/lower middle class parents who are foolishly chasing a scholarship for their kids, especially in head count sports. So many of those kids are woefully academically and mentally unprepared for college or even the real world after their athletic fantasies are burst.

1 Like

There is a interesting list put together by the NCAA called ‘Estimated probability of competing in college athletics’. It is it based on high school team numbers. Club sport players are not included. Water polo and lacrosse are listed but fencing, rowing, and squash are not included. According to that list, women’s ice hockey has the largest percent of high school players that play in college. If you look at a few rosters of Ivy and NESCAC schools, many of the women’s ice hockey players come from elite boarding schools.

I read that article, and one thing that struck me was the description of one family’s brief descent into NORMAL family life, when the pandemic struck. I felt so bad for those girls, that this was when they finally had time to relax together and just be sisters. Saw the same thing with my kid, whose life is instrumental music, on an instrument that one must practice at least an hour a day (plus all the ensembles) just for maintenance, like a ballerina. When the pandemic hit, the kid said, “I can’t believe how good it is just to be able to SLEEP 8-9 hours/night!” And the sad thing is, most of these kids aren’t going to get in anywhere that they wouldn’t have, without the sport.


Yes, I agree. Many parents are seduced by stories of the few kids that succeed. And probably a number of coaches and club teams perpetuate the myth. It is not common knowledge about how sports scholarships really work, and how it varies by sport, and gender, and NCAA division.

I thought it was a silly article bordering on click bait.

The loony parents chasing an Ivy likely letter through a niche sport are the same as the loony parent chasing a full ride scholarship through traditional sports. Sure, it happens, but the positive endings are rare.

fwiw, the Ivies and similar kept these niche sports as a backdoor for the “right kind of students” who were generally attending boarding schools. These sports are now more mainstream and top schools are canceling the teams.

From the article: “But more commonly, alpha sports parents followed the rules—at least those of the meritocracy—only to discover that they’d built the 80th- or 90th-best lacrosse midfielder in the country. Which, it turns out, barely qualifies you for a spot at the bottom of the roster at Bates.”

Ironically, being the 80th- or 90th-best golfer (and probably QB, shortstop or power forward) would almost certainly get you recruited to the top Ivy’s.

To be fair, I’m familiar with quite a few success stories. But, if one is immersed in a sport like fencing for example, those who are recruitable are known at a fairly young age. With very few exceptions. The girls who are/were recruited by Ivies were destined to be since they were 12/13. The only suspense is which school and if they would have the academics. Most of the girls in my daughter’s weapon always have the grades. It seems like it’s more prolific that it is in reality because we know all these girls for many years across various age groups. The reality is it’s only roughly 10 girls a year in any weapon who are recruited by the Ivies.

Couldn’t agree more with @ShanFerg3 post above regarding fencing. Ivy team rosters confirm that quantifiable, objective data (I.e. national rank) is probably weighed more than other factors like what prep schools they went. There are exceptions, of course. Some fencers that were never seen on the first page of National Rankings show up on some school’s roster, but the head coach responsible is no longer there, thanks to the recent Varsity Blues. My D22, HS junior, just got one of those Ivy offers early, but she is no preppy. Solid fencing rank and GPA only.

@RYNAKEL & @ShanFerg3 …I am curious, how many LL in total did or do the Ivy’s get to give out for fencing? How many students on a fencing roster would have been LL recruits?
…rosters confirm that quantifiable, objective data (I.e. national rank) is probably weighed more than other factors like what prep schools they went…
Isn’t national rank only more important for recruits getting a LL? Otherwise the student is not using sports/fencing as a hook for admission.
…There are exceptions, of course. Some fencers that were never seen on the first page of National Rankings show up on some school’s roster,…
I would think that is true of most Ivy sports. Not everyone on the roster is a recruited athlete that was offered a LL.

Most of the fencers on an Ivy roster are recruits with the exceptions of a couple walk ons. Yes, National Rank determines who will be recruited and in fact receive a LL. The general rule of thumb is the fencer needs to be in the top 32 of the National Junior Points Standing and top 10 of the fencers in his/her graduating year in that particular weapon.

To answer your question in regards to LL in 2019, Harvard gave out 5 LL, Yale 6, UPenn 6. Columbia has a bigger roster and gives out more typically.

Living in the belly of the beast, a lot of things in the article rang true to me. Part of the dynamic is that the private high schools that you think of as the usual suspect feeder schools are very successful at placing athletes into top tier colleges. They have been doing it for years and the colleges understand what they are getting when they take one of their athletes. They also have the resources and ability to recruit talent to their schools such that they can keep their squash/lacrosse/water polo championship dynasties alive, which is a very important part of their brand. This track record of college admissions success with athletes just feeds the parent mind set that its possible for their child to do the same because they see it year after year. In communities where money isn’t an issue for a larger than normal group of people, it can truly turn into an arms race.

The athletes in these sports are often not first generation athletes. Their parents, aunts and uncles, grandparents played lax, were on crew, are friends with the college coaches.

There are a lot more youth players than there were 10-15 years ago and there are still the same number of spots on the teams at Yale and Princeton. These parents have to accept that there are 30 students for every spot, and their kids just aren’t good enough. And they must accept that their kids might just be happy playing at a small school in NC or at a D3 school that no one has ever heard of.

@twoinanddone As far as fencing goes, most fencers tend to be first generation in the sport. With few exceptions, those fencers who are not first generation in the sport and rise to the top tend to be children of coaches who did not grow up in the US (most are from former Soviet Union/Eastern Europe). Fortunately, there are very good D3 options for fencers who are not ranked in the top 32 in the country and are great students.