If Division I collegiate wrestling was an animal, it would be on the endangered species list. Last week, we learned yet another program is being discontinued, this time at Grand Canyon University.
Although not a powerhouse program historically, the decision to cut wrestling at Grand Canyon reminds us that the sport is probably beyond any sort of crossroads at the Division I level. As of the 2014-15 school year, just 76 Division I institutions sponsored wrestling, with 229 programs being supported across all three divisions.
Those numbers are tough to digest on their own, but here’s the important thing to note: 101 men’s wrestling programs have been dropped since 1988-89, including 41 at the Division I level. While the total number of student athletes across all NCAA sports has increased exponentially since 1988-89, the number of wrestlers has declined 26% from 3,428 to 2,520 in Division I.
Wrestling has experienced the largest loss of any men’s sport across all three divisions, with tennis coming in second at a loss of 65 programs. Men’s gymnastics, often discussed alongside wrestling as an endangered species was down 38 programs over the same time period.
What’s happening to Division I wrestling?
Erik Wince has been around intercollegiate wrestling his entire life. Currently the head coach at Greensboro College, which competes at the Division III level, Wince was previously an assistant coach at Division I Davidson College. Wince’s father was a college wrestling coach for 23 years, with experience at nearly every level.
“Title IX compliance is probably the number one excuse large D1 schools use that are dropping wrestling,” said Wince. “Equality in opportunity is all you hear about these days until you reach reason number two: money.” Wince pointed out that even established programs with a history of alumni support have been on the chopping block, citing Cleveland State as an example.
“Luckily that program was saved with the help of donors from all over the wrestling world,” said Wince.
Mike Moyer, executive director of the National Association of Wrestling Coaches, says money both is – and isn’t – the reason wrestling programs are being cut in Division I. Wrestling isn’t an expensive sport to sponsor, he says.
“A wrestling mat is $10,000 and lasts 15 years,” said Moyer. “All you need is a couple of wrestling mats and another $10,000 or so in gear, and that’s it.”
It’s not quite that cheap once you add in grants-in-aid for student athletes, coaching salaries and other necessary expenditures. As with any sport, athletic departments are operating wrestling across a wide range of expenses.
Currently, the top-ranked program in the country is Penn State. The Nittany Lions spent $1.8 million on wrestling in fiscal year 2014. Only five of Penn State’s 27 sports cost more to fund than wrestling: football, men’s basketball, women’s basketball, men’s ice hockey and women’s volleyball.
North Carolina State, the No. 2 men’s wrestling program in the country, spent $883,955 in fiscal year 2014. That puts wrestling somewhere around the middle of the pack in terms of expenditures at North Carolina State on individual sports. For some perspective, football expenses came in at $19 million. Men’s basketball had an $8.6 million tab. Rifle cost the least at just $58,389.
Like North Carolina State, men’s wrestling at No. 3 Virginia Tech ranked around the middle off individual sport expenditures at $966,333.
The disparity in expenses is due to a number of factors, not the least of which is that Penn State reported 35 wrestling student athletes compared to North Carolina State’s 15 student athletes. Although scholarship costs weren’t that different (due to the 9.9 scholarship limit), Penn State’s travel expenses were approximately $300,000 more than North Carolina State. Penn State’s equipment costs were $94,614 compared to just $11,968 at North Carolina State.
The real financial issue today, Moyer says, is the legislation passed by the Power 5 last year that allowed for cost-of-attendance stipends.
“The cost of attendance legislation costs athletic departments more,” said Moyer. “There’s much more incentive today for schools to drop Olympic sports to try and keep up in basketball and football.”
And yet, wrestling is the sixth most popular sport at the high school level, with more than 250,000 athletes, says Moyer. A number that has been growing – not declining.
And there’s another benefit to sponsoring wrestling that Moyer says Division I administrators are missing.
“Across all three divisions, men’s wrestling has the largest percentage of first-generation college students. That’s an area where our sport really shines, and eliminating that is tragic.”
That makes it even more frustrating for Moyer when he sees Division I programs dropping wrestling.
“This week at Madison Square Garden, the Division I championships are sold out. This notion that it’s not popular – that it’s dying – couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Wrestling thriving at lower levels
So, where does that leave the future of wrestling?
“My dad and his inner circle of small-college wrestling coaches constantly stated that the future of college wrestling is in the small liberal arts schools,” said Wince.
Moyer agrees that men’s wrestling is embraced more at the Division II and III levels, and the participation numbers reflect that.
In 1988-89, there were 43 teams in Division II supporting a total of 1,084 student athletes. In 2014-15, the number of teams had grown to 59, and with increased average squad sizes the total number of student athletes was up to 1,912.
Although the number of teams in Division III has dropped from 126 to 94 over the same time period, squad sizes have grown to allow the total number of student athletes to increase from 2,457 to 2,617.
Even with the losses in Division I, the total number of student athletes across the three divisions has increased from 6,969 in 1988-89 to 7,049 in 2014-15.
So, why is men’s wrestling supported in greater numbers in Divisions II and III?
“What is different is that Division I schools aren’t enrollment driven,” explained Moyer. “Far more students are applying than they can take, so they’re less inclined to use sports as an enrollment driver.”
It’s a different story within Division II and III.
“I’m speaking from experience here,” says Wince, “and the underlying driving force is increasing male enrollment.
“In an era where male enrollment on a national level is down, this is a way to keep young men enrolling in liberal arts institutions. I deal with it every day on the recruiting trail, particularly when dealing with wrestlers from rural areas who have rarely though about attending four-year institutions because of cost. Wrestling is a way to entice these young men to pursue liberal arts degrees.”
The cost-benefit analysis on adding men’s wrestling is fairly compelling for these institutions, says Wince.
“The start-up costs for wrestling are minimal compared to “ball and stick” sports. The cost of mats, uniforms, match day and travel needs is considerably lower,” said Wince.
“Balance that with the enrollment of 20-30 wrestlers who are paying 30-100% of the total cost of tuition, and you have covered nearly all of the start-up costs and travel.”
Wince says he knew building up the program at Greensboro would be difficult, but he says the support of his administration has been incredible.
“We are getting so much interest from in-state wrestlers who are being overlooked by the big-time programs in the Southeast, and they want the opportunity to compete at the next level.
“Couple that with a great experience, the opportunity to compete right away, and being involved in life on campus outside of wrestling, and you have the perfect story for most high school wrestlers.”
And then there’s the women
On top of the increasing number of opportunities for men at the Division II and III levels, both Wince and Moyer pointed out the growing popularity of women’s wrestling.
“One of the fastest growing high school sports is women’s wrestling,” said Moyer. “Over 11,000 high school girls are wrestling, and we already have 29 collegiate programs and another 16 club programs that could become varsity.”
Moyer says he expects to apply for women’s wrestling to be recognized by the NCAA as an emerging sport soon.
Kristi A. Dosh, Esq. is a sports business analyst, business coach and author of “Saturday Millionaires: How Winning Football Builds Winning Colleges.” Follow on Twitter: @SportsBizMiss.