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By Mike Finn
This could be the greatest wrestling season ever in the Big Ten Conference … or a sign of an ominous cloud over college sports that could dramatically hurt the sport of wrestling as we know it on the Division I level.
Not only are four of the Top 5 programs in WIN’s Tournament Power Index — 1. Minnesota, 2. Iowa, 4. Ohio State and 5. Penn State — and two returning NCAA champs competing for two other conference programs — Illinois’ Jesse Delgado (125) and Jason Tsirtsis (149) — but there are now 14 wrestling programs in the Big Ten with the addition of Maryland and Rutgers.
A history lesson of the current state of Division I athletics — where the top five conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern Conferences) became super conferences by adding more schools — is why the Terps and Scarlet Knights will take on the Gophers, Hawkeyes and Nittany Lions, who have won 19 of the last 24 NCAA championships.
And on Aug. 7, these five conferences made even more history when the NCAA voted to give these super conferences freedom to make their own rules on matters such as stipends, scholarships and insurance for players. In other words, they can spend more money on their teams … if they have enough money.
Based on the number of fans within those football conferences who fill stadiums and the coiffures of the 65 schools that make up these conferences, many think there should be plenty of money to handle the demands of today’s Division I top college athletic programs.
But does that mean that the wrestling programs of these conferences are going to benefit from this windfall?
I doubt it.
Only 28 of these 65 schools feature Division I wrestling teams. Only four of the ten Big 12 schools wrestle. Missouri, the only SEC school with a wrestling team, must compete in Mid-American Conference because the SEC does not even offer wrestling. And the Pac-12 only features three true Pac-12 teams: Arizona State, Oregon State and Stanford.
The other three Pac-10 wrestling schools — Boise State, Cal Poly and Cal State Bakersfield — are among 49 Division I wrestling programs that are not officially represented by any of these five super conferences.
In other words, 64 percent of the 77 schools that are eligible to compete in this year’s NCAA Division I Championships could have some steep challenges ahead within their athletic departments. Even the 14 Big Ten wrestling programs may not receive as much funding while their school’s football programs demand even more money to pay for coaches and other benefits to their athletes.
The Title IX dilemma of the 1970s and ‘80s proved how quick universities could cut wrestling instead of finding other revenues to finance women’s athletics. Another potential huge set back to college wrestling could be coming if these schools feel they cannot keep up with the Jones of Division I athletics.
“The concern is as the costs of running football and men’s basketball sky-rocket, it’s going to lead to a couple things: the elimination of Olympic sports to pay for those expenses or the scaling back of the funding for those Olympic sports,” said Mike Moyer, the executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association.
“I believe, knowing some college administrators, which I know and trust, that there is a very real likelihood that it will lead the further reduction of sports a school has to sponsor to be in Division I.”
Currently, a Division I program must have six men’s (and eight women’s) sports to compete in that division. Considering that football and men’s basketball are the cash cows of Division I programs, that means that wrestling is among 37 other Olympic sports that currently have championships sponsored by the NCAA.
Based on the number of Division I Wrestling Championships that have packed arenas over the past 15 years, one would think that the NCAA would never drop wrestling from its slate of championships.
But even that is not secure.
“It’s the various administrators on these college campuses who are the ones providing the decision-making committees within the NCAA,” said Moyer. “One of the things that (Big 12 Commissioner, former AD at Iowa and Stanford and former wrestler) Bob Bowlsby said at our convention is that the NCAA Championship revenues is not keeping pace with inflation.
“The number of years out is not that far where it will be in a deficit-spending situation. It may be like five years when that happens. The NCAA has to make enough money at those NCAA Championships to subsidize all of the sports that lose money in their championships.”
The NWCA, as well as the remaining Olympic sports’ coaches associations, are well aware of these concerns.
“There is a perception that universities are making gobs of money and the coaches are making gobs of money while football and basketball players are going to bed hungry,” Moyer said. “What is nowhere in the conversation is the ramification on the Olympics sports, where there are far more athletes than there are in football and basketball.”
Moyer has been very concerned about the future of wrestling and can usually be found at universities that have threatened to drop wrestling.
“Look at men’s gymnastics, which is down to 14 programs,” Moyer said. “Once you pass a certain threshold (on cutting programs), there is no turning back. I don’t know what that threshold is in wrestling, but we can’t afford to lose another team.”
Moyer has also been criticized by some within wrestling by forcing the idea of making dual-meet competitions more important to coaches in order to build a bigger fan base and get away from the idea of focusing on just sending individual wrestlers to the NCAAs in hopes of garnering All-American honors.
The financial demands of Division I sports, which are the same as many professional sports organizations, are not going to change … and wrestling needs to find better ways of generating money. Earning rare All-American honors is not a sound way of proving the sport can generate more money.
Of course, the Big Ten will once again dominate Division I wrestling, especially with the help of the Big Ten Network. While I love the idea that more people will see the top wrestlers compete, I hate the idea that there could be even fewer wrestler and wrestling programs in other conferences if people accept the idea that it’s OK if the rich get even richer.
Because even rich wrestling programs could be put aside by those who want to make football even more important … and expensive.