Can wrestling survive a ‘broken’ college model?

Updated: June 8, 2020

Note: The following is an update to a story that appeared in the May issue of WIN Magazine. Click here or call 888-305-0606 to subscribe to WIN. Use Discount Code “May” to get a print copy of WIN’s annual Awards Issue. 

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By Mike Finn

This spring’s COVID-19 pandemic has certainly led to loss among an ongoing and countless number of people within this country.That would, of course, include the loss of lives as over 110,000 U.S. citizens had died as of June 7. There have been other departures from a normal way of the life, including in the sports world where both professional and amateur leagues have either canceled or postponed seasons and championships.

That included NCAA wrestling, where all three national tournaments — set to take place in March — were canceled. Among those was the Division I tournament, where 330 wrestlers were set to compete in Minneapolis, including four wrestlers from Old Dominion: seniors Sa’Derian Perry (141) Larry Early (157) and Antonio Agee (184) and sophomore Killian Cardinale (125).

But two weeks later, the Monarch wrestling program, which has been around since the 1957-58 academic year, took a bigger hit when the school announced it was dropping wrestling.

The official ODU statement read: “The decision in part developed from the findings of a six-month study of the athletics program by an outside consultant. The comprehensive report reviewed the national college sports landscape, identified current and future financial challenges and evaluated Title IX compliance, which led to the recommendation to discontinue a varsity sport. Once completely implemented, it is estimated that athletics will have an expense savings of approximately $1 million.”

But ODU officials also mentioned the on-going COVID-19 crisis was part of their decision.

“Our decision became even more clear during this Coronavirus crisis, which we know will have significant impact on future athletics budgets,” said ODU athletics director Dr. Camden Wood Selig. “This decision will better allow the remaining sports to compete at a national level.”

This is not the first time college wrestling has heard such a comment, especially in the 1980s when the majority of programs were cut because of the Title IX dilemma. There are some who believe the COVID-19 pandemic is now being used as the excuse to cut Olympic sports.

That was apparent when five lower-level conferences asked the NCAA to drop the requirement of eight men’s and eight women’s sports among Division I FBS (football bowl subdivision programs) and six men’s/eight women’s sports in Division I FCS (football championship subdivision).

In a letter to NCAA president Mark Emmert dated April 10, the commissioners of the group of five conferences — the American Athletic, Conference USA, the Mid-American, Mountain West and Sun Belt — said: “In order to provide NCAA Division I institutions flexibility in addressing the challenges for the foreseeable future, we request temporary relief from several regulatory requirements for a period of up to four years. A blanket waiver for relief will provide institutions the ability to make prudent and necessary decisions for the financial well-being of the institution.”

The Old Dominion athletic department is part of Conference USA, which does not offer wrestling, and is the reason why the ODU wrestling program competes in the Mid-American Conference.

But on April 24, the NCAA Division I Council denied the request; providing some relief for many wrestling programs that might have been cut if Division I programs did not have to maintain a minimum of six men’s sports.
“If they had reduced the number of sports sponsorships, any wrestling programs not in the Power 5 Conferences (Big Ten, Big 12, ACC, SEC or Pac-12) could have fallen victim to this,” said Mike Moyer, the executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association.

Mike Moyer

Moyer pointed out that the NWCA was among 18 Olympic sports coaches associations that united to fight that challenge to a sports sponsorship requirement and pointed out that the Power 5 conferences opposed the request.

“They weren’t willing to let all the other conferences mortgage Olympic sports so that they can throw all their money into football and basketball just to keep up with (the Power 5 programs),” he added.

But the NCAA did grant Central Michigan a special waiver on June 4 to remain a Division I program for 2020-21 and ’21-22 after the MAC school eliminated track and field, which left the Chippewa athletic department with five men’s sports.

Moyer pointed out that dropping the minimum number of sports requirement could be the greatest threat to wrestling since dealing with Title IX, which has been managed in large part to the growth of women’s wrestling.

“In the 20 years I’ve been doing this, the only thing that came close to this was the Great Recession of 2008,” Moyer said. “This pandemic has caused hardships that go far beyond the stock market crash (of 2008). Football was still being played. The schools were still receiving television revenue. With this, everything came to a screeching halt, which would make it No. 1 among the tough times I have seen.”

Moyer also pointed out that the current model of college athletics is still fragile.

“To put things in perspective, there are 130 FBS schools in the country,” Moyer said. “Last year, about 30 of them turned a profit. Of the other 100, institutions subsidized their athletic departments by the tune of $21 million per school.

“That tells you that it is a broken model well before this Coronavirus dilemma kicked in. The Coronavirus issue revealed it sooner.”

Moyer said the NWCA is still trying to get Old Dominion to return wrestling and pointed out that the ODU is basically an enrollment-driven school that could use the revenue that comes with a sport like wrestling.

“Many of them have declining enrollments,” Moyer said. “If you have fewer students, you have less student fee money, which is where the subsidies come from. Now we have a situation where mom and dad lost their job, which will not help their enrollment problems.

“We are trying to educate many of these Division I schools and conferences to learn from Division II and III, where adding Olympic sports is a tried, proven and cost-effective strategy. Some presidents get it. Some don’t.

“When (programs) say they are saving a $1 million by dropping the wrestling program, that is bogus. Their scholarship wrestlers are sitting in what would otherwise be empty seats in a classroom or a dormitory room that would not otherwise be filled.

“This would not be the case at a Power 5 school or an Ivy League school or a Patriot League school. Most of those high academic schools have far more applying students than the schools can take. In other words, a scholarship student would be displacing another student who would be paying the full price.

“A lot of the MAC schools are in the rust belt and are struggling. That’s where we are trying to change the narrative.”