Friends, I’m struggling. I know what we need to do as a sport, but to say what needs saying only upsets many of those that I consider friends.
But I love wrestling for all the same reasons as you do, or you wouldn’t be reading these words.
However, I’ve come to the conclusion that the welfare of the sport is far more important than those who end up in the crosshairs of my writings.
So, here we go.
Over the last month I’ve gone back to my previous blogs, and analyzed each suggestive change I made for the sport. From those, I have selected what I consider to be wrestling’s top priorities.
Granted, wrestling isn’t ever going to go the way of collegiate boxing, or more recently, collegiate gymnastics. But I believe we’re closer to the beginning than the end of just how bad it can be.
Let’s assume for a moment that we can’t navigate our way through the damage that COVID-19 is causing; or the name, image and likeness challenge that’s going to come to pass whether the NCAA wants it to or not?
Who’s to say where the sport will end up at the end of this decade?
But for the last fifty years, our problems continue to fall into the same four categories. They are naivety, image, finances, and greed.
Naivety . . . to think that “my program won’t be dropped,” is a huge mistake that both coaches and alumni make. Sure some of the big boys won’t be impacted by what’s currently going on, but when program numbers drop below that of the number of wrestlers who qualify at each weight class to compete at the NCAA championships, what then?
No one can dispute the fact that wrestling is going the wrong way. Yes, D-III is doing well, actually it’s program numbers are up, thanks to the work of Mike Moyer and the NWCA.
But, here’s the however. The success that we’re seeing in D-III is a business model that’s working for wrestling whereas it’s just the opposite at the D-I and D-II levels.
Presidents at D-III schools, who are fighting to keep their enrollment numbers steady, are actually adding sports. They see a team of 30 wrestlers, who are not receiving athletic scholarship aid, with tuitions, room and board, running roughly 30K a year on average, it’s a means of adding 900k a year to the institutions bottom line.
Then with an athletic budget for wrestling of say 200K at the D-III level, the institution ends up with a wrestling program, and the school ends up with 700k to the good.
That’s a win-win for everyone.
But, unfortunately, that model doesn’t work in the top two divisions when athletic scholarships are added, plus the additional operational costs of competing at those evaluated levels.
If you were wondering what budgets look like for the big boys, several of the Top 20 teams annually spent in excess of one million dollars.
But, at the Division I level, where everyone looks when they want to evaluate the health of the sport; program numbers are down by 50% from where they were in the 1980’s.
That sounds like a problem to me. So why haven’t the coaches come together to fight this? If your investments have gone from one million dollars in the 1980’s to five-hundred thousand today, you bet you’d have done something about it 20 years ago. So, why not in wrestling? But the coaches, who are the sports decision makers, are still acting as if none of this a problem?
Let me wrap this up and put a bow on it. Everything that happens in our sport, good or bad, is the doing of the coaches. They are the ones who decide the direction that wrestling goes. Maybe they don’t actually raise their hand and vote on issues, but they raise their voices prior to the vote, and if they don’t like something . . . it doesn’t happen.
In the 80’s and 90’s, anytime a program was discontinued, it was typically blamed on Title IX. For the next twenty years, the blame was placed on cutbacks and a lack revenue production. More recently, it’s COVID-19.
But to think that’s totally true, is a misconception. Sure, equality between the sexes is important. And a shortfall of income doesn’t help anyone. But as long as those institutions haven’t dropped all of their non-revenue sports, then believing any of those issues I just mentioned was the reason; is naivety. We have to pull back the curtain to understand actually what’s taking place.
When an Athletic Director has a meeting with a wrestling coach, they have to realize there’s a difference between what’s being said, and what’s being interpreted.
That’s a huge, and ongoing problem in wrestling; because there’s a language barrier that exists between coaches and administrators. Wrestling coaches come from the country of Grapplely and speak wrestling, whereas athletic administrators come from the Isle of Management and communicate in political speech.
This is why coaches are always surprised when their program is dropped, and then fail at their attempts to have it reinstated. They never understood what their administrators were saying before it happened, or what to do about it after it happened.
The biggest takeaway from this should be; administrators will defend to the death every decision they make. They have to; for two reasons.
Because changing one’s mind has a way of appearing to be politically weak. Weak in the sense that they weren’t smart enough to come up with a reason for their decision in the first place that would withstand scrutiny.
And, should they ever change their mind about something as important as reinstating a program; it almost guarantees that every decision they make in the future, about anything, will be challenged by the offended group, or individual. Leadership can never appear to be indecisive.
To avoid the need to reverse a decision, Athletic Directors will always select whatever reason they can come up with that is the most logical and difficult for the offended to reverse. Typically, that means finances.
Never in a thousand years would they ever demonstrate a bias toward one sport over another, or exhibit a deep seated prejudice, even when one or both might be the case.
As a result, they say, “it’s financial.” That always plays well. It’s less offensive, and impossible to fight. Especially in the short term as the mental state of the offended moves from denial, to anger, to mobilization, to fatigue, to 9 months later; awe, the hell with it.
Wrestling coaches need to ask Mike Moyer about what he’s found out regarding this over the last several decades. He speaks Isle of Management and has the bumps and bruises to prove it. Actually, he’s the greatest resource we have in the sport now.
Talk about timing, here’s an email I just received from the folks at Stanford (https://mailchi.mp/77f2a2a786d9/keep-stanford-wrestling-ksw-update-7480093?e=5133e8d1da). They’re working harder than any program I’ve seen in the past to get their wrestling program reinstated. But, it appears, they too fell into the same trap of believing their administrators. They told them it was financial; only to find out that it wasn’t.
Please take the time to read their release, it demonstrates exactly what I’ve been saying here.
Image . . . ours stinks. Yes, I’ve heard all the great things that the sport does for its athletes, and their development. And they all happen to be true. But, no one outside of wrestling has heard about any of them; and that’s everyone in the sport’s fault.
The point is; what does the general public think when they hear the word wrestling being mentioned?
I’m afraid the answer isn’t flattering.
Do your own test, see for yourself? Create a list of 25 non-revenue sports and hand it to any person on the street.
Then ask them which one would they say has the worse academic average of the bunch? What athletes would be most likely to be arrested for fighting? What athlete from what sport, wouldn’t you want your daughter to date? Which sport do you think is least likely to be supportive of the other programs on campus? Which athletes think that they’re superior to the other athletes on campus? Which sport has the most toxic parents at their children’s competitions? Which sport allows the fans to crowd around the competition area so a majority of the spectators in the stands can’t see what’s taking place? Which sport has the highest numbers of the most dreadful looking, and most communicable diseases? Which sport is most likely to abuse performance enhancing drugs.
To be realistic, other sports would certainly be mentioned at some point, but I’d be willing to bet that wrestling’s box would be checked far more often than any other sport.
The point is, the opinions of those who aren’t currently fans, is terribly important, because perception matters. It’s why every major corporation in the world has a marketing and public relations team.
Finances . . . we bring in zero, and demand eight zeros in return, preferably with a 1 in front the other eight. Where in the world of reality, or on what planet, does any of that make sense?
Finances do matter, but unfortunately, those who are making the decisions in our sport, aren’t concerned about income creation. For they come from programs that have very generous donors and equally successful football programs.
Greed . . . it isn’t too terribly difficult for most of us to come up with changes to the sport that would improve our national image, and substantially increase our financial positioning in athletics.
But why would any member of the nation’s coaching’s elite want to change something that might jeopardize their positioning in the sports hierarchy? Especially, when they’re already benefiting from the status quo?
Recently, Bob Bowlsby, one of the most powerful and respected names in all of college sports said, you can always tell a wrestling coach . . . but not much.
When I heard him say that, I chuckled. But when I realized that phrase came out of the Isle of Management dictionary, I stopped laughing.
* * *
Title Sponsors, Strategic Alliances and Giving Back
Why doesn’t wrestling have title sponsors? Cliff Keen and Defense Soap doesn’t count. I’m talking about the big boys; Coca-Cola, Chevrolet, VISA, etc?
The answer is; to make that happen, the sport has to come together because individually, there simply aren’t enough big boy numbers in wrestling for the big boy corporations to be interested.
Our sport needs the size of fan that these companies bring to the table. We need the help to blow away the grey clouds that has been hovering over our sport for decades.
Having relationships with powerful corporations is a game changer. It moves societies’ perception of whomever they partner with from irrelevant to relevant.
The perplexing part of all this is it isn’t hard to do. There are companies out there that specialize in marrying sports and sponsors. This is why wrestling must pull together and form one overarching organization, made from all our different factions, that can, and will, speak for the sport as a whole.
Maybe call it the American Wrestling Coalition, or whatever tickles your fancy.
But, currently, who represents all of us, USAWrestling? The NWCA? The NCWA? The National Wrestling Hall of Fame? WIN Magazine, Brute?
The answer is no one. Each of those organizations, and companies, report to themselves, as they should.
That’s probably one of the Top 5 challenges wrestling has; we don’t have an overarching organization that can speak for the entire sport.
Wall Street sized companies aren’t interested in meeting with the heads of subset groups. Each of our organizations are too small for anyone of the big boys to be bothered with, but as a unified sport, wrestling becomes marketable.
A few years back we lost a great opportunity when Dave Pottruck, a very passionate retired wrestler/graduate of the University of Pennsylvania was CEO of Charles Schwab. Imagine if someone would have sat down and asked Dave to consider sponsoring wrestling and what such an alignment would have done for the sport? Envision a television commercial with a video of a wrestler helping a vanquished opponent back to his feet and having his hand raised in victory to the sound bite: “When wrestling with your investments remember Charles Schwab is here make sure you come out on top.”
Name one athletic administrator in America who would dare drop wrestling when the sport has AT&T, the Wounded Warrior Project, or Saint Jude Children’s Hospital as a national sponsor?
Either the wrestling community can’t see the amazing possibilities that sponsorships provide or they do but would rather be independently obstinate than work together as a team. Pick one, I’m afraid I don’t see an option C.
Regarding strategic alliances and the responsibility of giving back, wrestling must begin to develop a history of giving back to others just as we expect to be given. We need to be seen as more than just a sport; we need to be problem solvers, not problem creators. We have to think beyond ourselves and share with others our good fortune of having health, happiness, strong mental capacities and an immense internal drive.
No matter the age of our athletes, where they’re from or the team they represent, the sport needs to come together and decide the way we’re going to make a difference for society. We need to be known as “America’s Give Back Sport.”
Serving food at homeless shelters would work; reading books to hospitalized children would also play well. And do as much good for our athletes as it does for those who receive their time. Aligning ourselves with the ASPCA is another feel good, and do good opportunity.
Coaches might consider helping the local Red Cross with their annual blood mobile drive; or creating relationships with organizations like United Way or UNICEF.
Think of the cumulative benefits wrestling would receive when the sport combined its efforts for social good, not to mention how those who are served benefit.
This is so important because 84% of Americans have a more positive image of a company or group when it supports those who are less fortunate. Nearly 90% of those surveyed said it was important that organizations come together for the purpose of solving pressing social issues and regarding the business side of things, 79% of Americans indicate they would likely switch from one product brand to another one if it was associated with a cause they believed in.
For wrestling in general, the Wounded Warrior Project seems to be a natural fit given the number of military personnel that are or were wrestlers and of course the great service the group does for those who give up a part of their tomorrow’s so we can have all of our todays. And ironically, the Wounded Warrior Project’s logo is one soldier carrying another over his shoulder in a double leg.
The American Red Cross would also work and regardless of the one or ones we choose, developing a reciprocal relationship with these sorts of companies would strengthen the public’s image of wrestling. When we work together, wrestlers and companies, each group exceeds the sum of its parts.
Can you name any major corporation who doesn’t look for this type of global synergy? The Walt Disney Company partners with the United Way because it’s good business and helpful to society. Microsoft supports the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, Procter and Gamble’s has been affiliated with UNICEF for decades and the list is endless.
Then, to help prop up our sport, when it comes time for a non-revenue sport to be cut, what Athletic Director is going to pick wrestling and risk having the President of one of these national charities calling the University’s President to find out what the hell is going on?
But none of that will happen because coaches don’t have the time for any of that; they are too fixated on the greed of increasing expenditures and spending more time in the wrestling room.
If that wasn’t true, there wouldn’t be RTC’s, and there wouldn’t be year around events.
It’s time to lose the name; Amateur Wrestling
It’s not the word wrestling that bothers me, it’s the use of the word amateur that according to Thesaurus means substandard, clumsy, crude, inept, unprofessional.
I would imagine that all of us would agree, that’s not the type of adjectives an advertising agency would select to work with if they had a choice.
When people ask what sport we participated in; it’s a simple answer, wrestling.
It’s a small but yet powerful change because there’s nothing amateur about what we do on the mats just as there’s nothing professional about what the WWE does other than the way they handle marketing, promotions, customer service and deposits.