Drawing a sport parallel, for the last twenty or so years Judo has been taking a beating in participation numbers and subsequent revenue dollars with the advent of the UFC where I might add, Judo players dare not tread. The meteoric rise of Brazilian Jujitsu and America’s fascination with the whole Mixed Martial Arts industry is killing their sport. To limit the carnage, Judo changed their rules to something they believed would encourage excitement and action by introducing high amplitude techniques and tougher rules on passivity. What occurred instead were referees penalizing their athletes more frequently and inserting themselves into the action which the fans disapproved of. This was their attempt at bottom up adjustments which is exactly what we’ve been doing in wrestling, and failing at it I might add.
Boxing has also been on the losing end of the MMA explosion. When was the last time you saw a title fight being broadcast on a major network? The days of sport figures like Mohammad Ali and Mike Tyson are all but gone. In its place is the intellectual stimulation that the UFC brings to television. Yes, I just referred to what the UFC does as being intellectual stimulation. I’m not talking about the blood, guts and gore portion of the sport although many do like watching a can of whoop ass being opened on someone. But it’s the strategic triple threat that spectators enjoy watching and the number of opinions they get to share with the guys that are sitting next to them. They love the striking, the wrestling and the submissions combined with all the various ways there are to win and exponentially the amount of defenses athletes need to know and offenses they need to learn. It’s just a far more cerebral sport than boxing or wrestling for both the athlete and the spectator. Basically, why go to a one or two ring circus when you can go to one that offers three rings for the same price and the same time commitment while getting to witness someone being overcome by a superior foe?
Regarding our sports growth, I will admit that we’ve had some success at adding a few smaller programs to both our scholastic and collegiate ranks, but those efforts only offset a fraction of the demise of larger more significant programs. So even though our program numbers seem to be holding steady of late, our political clout is diminishing rapidly. Anytime you trade in an Audi or BMW for a Fiat you still own a car but it’s not a step up or even a lateral move.
Concerning the current availability of athletic scholarships, those figures are even more dismal than the number of programs we have left; especially for those who aren’t among the nation’s Top 20. The result of this financial decline has been America’s best wrestlers are congregating into a smaller pool of major schools. This certainly helps the mega conferences like the Big 10 and it strengthens individual programs like Oklahoma State, Edinboro and Virginia Tech but the result is the rest of the field, the other 90%, is seriously weakened and put at risk of being dropped because of 1) the financial impossibility of keeping up with the Jones’ and 2) the blow-outs that are occurring between the serious D-I programs and the rest of the schools.
Note to Boston University . . . scheduling Penn State at home last year didn’t help the program as some might have imagined. Bringing in a big boy to impress the school’s administrators only pointed out with definite clarity that Boston’s fully-funded Division I program wasn’t close to being a fully-funded competitive Division I program. Inviting the Nittany Lions onto your campus only served to point out to Terrier administrators that the resources they were pouring into their wrestling program was for not.
Please don’t be upset. I didn’t write this to evoke the ire of the New England wrestling community. I did so the sport can learn by the example of others. My mother use to always say; “experience isn’t the best teacher. It’s the experience of others that is a far better way of learning,” and she was right.
Administrators in every region of the country need to know that all capital expenditures are worth the pain they had to endure to acquire the capital. Watching your team getting taken out to the wood shed doesn’t do that very well.
As a result wrestling is rapidly losing its middle class which isn’t good for the sport any more than it’s good for society. We’re turning into the haves and have nots and it won’t be long before the have nots have not a program.
One of many answers here is tuition-only based scholarships which I realize just the mention of is heresy. But if the great disparity we have between haves and have-nots cause programs to be dropped and with it thousands of opportunities lost for wrestlers yet to come, then I’m willing to risk the irreverence of such a statement.
Wrestling programs must become solvent and working at it slowly only speeds up the chances of them being dropped. Like losing weight; the quickest way to accomplish it is to eat less and work out more. The most efficient way of balancing a budget is to spend less and gross more.
Now I am aware of all the reasons why a tuition-only based scholarship is a bad idea. But in the big picture, having a wrestling program with 9.9 tuition-only scholarships is far better scenario than having no program with only a memory of 9.9 full scholarships.
Fixing wrestling’s ills is all a matter of balancing the sports budget.
As you read more, I know you won’t agree with half of what’s being suggested. But I’m not really suggesting we do anything, I’m only throwing out ideas that are designed to make each of us think. If I’m fortunate enough to do just that, then I’ll consider myself successful. The whole concept here is to suggest that we consider making some course corrections. What the sport ultimately selects will be leadership’s choice. I’m just trying to make everyone aware that there are alternatives to what we’ve been doing.
How serious are our problems; let’s assume for a moment you owned $750,000.00 worth of widget stock in 1980. Since then each of the company’s annual reports have indicated that sales in widgets has declined and you’re losing $10,000.00 a year.
What do you do; sell or hold?
Initially you probably decide to hang on in hopes of a turn around. That’s the smart play; there are always hiccups in the marketplace. But 10 years later your portfolio still has widget stock and you’re down over $100,000.00. You see management trying to reverse the trend but it doesn’t seem to be working. The story you’re hearing is that corporate is pointing fingers at a poor economy but somehow that doesn’t hold water given other widget manufacturers seem to be doing okay.
The only likely conclusion is the company is either doing a poor job of making or marketing the product, has poor customer service or ineffective leadership. But you hang on just the same because you believe in widgets and bailing out does mean the loss of over $100,000.00.
Another 10 years come and go and management is imploring you to stay the course . . . “we’ve made significant changes.” But the only thing you see changing is your 401K is turning into a 101K.
Today it’s almost 35 years later and your stock is now worth $320,000.00, down over $400,000.00. Being able to pay for your children’s college education is now in question and your wife left you $200,000.00 dollars ago. She mentioned something about stupidity and not being able to see the trend, not to mention your willingness to believe in executives who said; “trust us, we know best.”
Well, wrestling had 750 collegiate programs back in 1980 and today we’re down to 320 in all three NCAA divisions. And given the slippery slope that hit gymnastics toward the end of their run as a meaningful NCAA sport, we could be under 100 programs by the end of the decade, or worse yet, just a memory like collegiate boxing is now. As to wrestling’s “trust us” leadership and “we know what’s best,” I don’t see it. The facts say otherwise.
Those who are leading just aren’t capable of leadership or we wouldn’t be where we are.
Actually those widget numbers aren’t completely accurate. We do have roughly 320 active collegiate programs but since 1972 we’ve lost a bunch more than 430, roughly somewhere in the neighborhood of 650 programs; the difference being the number of programs that were added after 1972 and then subsequently dropped.
That makes me wonder, what is the actual number of individual opportunities that were lost for those who wanted to wrestle but couldn’t as a result of these programs being dropped? Is there anything that makes someone think the gymnastic scenario isn’t a real possibility in wrestling? Remember we have Title IX issues nipping at our heels and an economy that’s only doing well around select pockets of the country where wrestling hasn’t always been strong. The outcomes of all this is a whole bunch of athletic administrators who are looking for ways to prop up their bottom line and simplify their lives. And to be truthful, they don’t care which Olympic sport or sports take the hit, it’s all about fiscal responsibility and reducing the number of headaches they have to endure.
The million dollar question becomes; when should we panic as a sport? When do we say enough is enough? When there are only 25 programs left, or is 100 the magic number?
To me, I was beside myself when we hit 600. Actually every program we lose is too many so why are we still sitting on our hands at 320 and saying, “oh golly geese”?
Where’s the outcry?
When did Kodak panic? They were perhaps the most iconic of all photography companies who didn’t feel a need for alarm until it was too late. They never saw the digital age coming or if they did, they ignored it because “we’re Kodak!” Sound familiar; we said “but we’re wrestling” last summer when the IOC threw us out in the cold. In each case leadership wasn’t asleep at the wheel, they were wide awake with their hands on the wheel when they hit the tree.
Now we might want to consider looking to wrestling’s newest threat, Mixed Martial Arts. Who can deny the success they’re enjoying in the combative industry where wrestling competes for the same eye balls and dollars. This is a huge threat because the UFC is to wrestling what the digital age was to Kodak and even given the experience of others we still refuse to see the larger picture. Pun intended.
Now when you add in the very strong possibility that collegiate athletes in football and soon to be basketball are about to receive either salaried contracts or additional stipends beyond scholarship limits, non-revenue sports shouldn’t be nervous, they should be terrified!
Do you think salaried contracts aren’t possible in college athletics; I’m sure you’ve already read about the football players at Northwestern University who won their case in court. They sued the university to be declared employees and to be given the right to create a players union. The court agreed with them on both counts and where this will go is anyone’s guess but the potential ramifications are devastating to more than just non-revenue sports. Here’s what Dan Wetzel wrote in May for Yahoo Sports:
“Schools are going to have to share additional resources with the players who make the money and that means tough decisions about the players and programs that don’t generate money. That’s the endgame here. It’s straight capitalistic America.”
Two weeks after he wrote that a majority of the Pennsylvania State System Universities received a complaint filed by the Women’s Law Project with the U.S. Department of Education regarding athletic inequality. Without arguing the merits of the case or taking one position over another here, the outcome will most likely be a reduction in the number of men’s programs at 9 of the 13 Pennsylvania state schools that make up the conference. They certainly don’t have the resources to simply add more women’s programs so something has got to give. That means wrestling teams at schools like Clarion, Bloomsburg and Lock Haven who are only shells of what they use to be have a right to be anxious.
More recently the NCAA approved two significant changes to their by-laws which came from the Northwestern University unionization effort. The first is to allow a cost-of-attendance stipend to be given to all scholarship athletes in the country’s 5 largest conferences. Depending upon institutional variances, each athlete will receive an annual check for somewhere between two to seven thousand dollars above and beyond a full scholarship. What that means to athletic department budgets; at the University of Wisconsin as an example, they need to find an additional 2 million dollars of annual revenue to cover these costs. At the Clarion’s of the world, that number is way in excess of their total budget in all sports.
The second change is all NCAA student athletes are now allowed to be given access to an unlimited number of meals per day, plus snacks. This means, besides the cost of the food, schools will need to keep at least one of their dining room lines open and staffed 18 hours a day which will add significant costs to the athletic departments bottom line. These changes will have profound effects on budgets and individual programs:
- Schools outside the ACC, Big 10, Big 12, Pac 12 and Southeastern conference will be at a recruiting disadvantage given they simply can’t afford to keep up with the big boys regarding the cost of attendance stipends. So the rich are about to sign even more exceptional athletes than they already have. That’s not good for wrestling.
- Given the unlimited number of meals and snacks schools are now allowed to offer their athletes, the more affluent institutions will certainly do so while those with tighter budgets won’t. This means the competitive gap between the major conferences and the Appalachian States’ and Boise States’ of the world is about to widen. That’s not good for wrestling.
- To minimize the chances of athletic programs at smaller schools fading into the abyss, Athletic Directors will look for ways to ease financial obligations. That seldom means across the board cuts in athletic department budgets, but rather a reduction in the number of sports offered at each institution because Athletic Directors will always protect the competitiveness of their programs versus instituting across the board cuts. That’s not good for wrestling.
If all this isn’t scary enough, a federal judge just ruled in favor of Ed O’Bannon who sued the NCAA regarding the revenue they annually generate from selling the rights to athletes names, images and likenesses. This ends a five-year battle that O’Bannon and others filed on behalf of college athletes to receive a share of the billions that are generated by colleges through huge television contracts.
This effectively forces big schools to create a trust fund to pay athletes up to $5,000.00 per person, per season for the years they competed. This ruling effectively strikes down the NCAA’s definition of amateurism which in the past has kept athletes from receiving anything beyond a full scholarship.
What this means going forward is it is yet another attack on athletic department budgets. That means administrations will have to make even tougher decisions relative to their programs. Basically there are three options, and the second one never occurs.
- Find additional revenue to cover the new costs.
- Cut all their current sport budgets to make up the difference.
- Reduce the number of sports their department offers.
There’s little question that college sports are about to see some major changes to the way they do business and every program that isn’t carrying their own budgetary weight will soon become a member of the intermural department.
The slippery slope wrestling has been on just got a great deal steeper.
Bob Bowlsby, a name that most of us in wrestling should know as he was the person who hired Gable at Iowa when he was the Athletic Director there before moving to a similar post at Stanford and now he’s the Commissioner of the Big 12. He’s wrestling’s most ardent supporter and had this to say about the current state of affairs:
“I think all of what’s currently happening in college sports will in the end cause programs to be eliminated. I think you’ll see men’s Olympic sports go away as a result of the new funding challenges that are coming down the pike.”
This is not Chicken Little saying “the sky is falling,” it is one of the most influential figures in all of college athletics providing his viewpoint. Olympic Sports are going to be eliminated!
Now comes this . . . the American Sports Council (ASC) has warned for years that gender quota activists were setting their sights on applying Title IX’s proportionality rule to high school sports. Now, with a recent federal court ruling, that day has come.
In a September 19, 2014 decision U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit affirmed the district court judgment in the case Ollier v. Sweetwater Union High School District.
From the Ninth Circuit court’s decision:
“The Government’s position rejects Sweetwater’s argument that Title IX should be applied differently to high schools than to colleges, as well as the idea that the district court’s ‘substantial proportionality’ evaluation was flawed. We agree with the Government that the three-part test applies to a high school.”
Imposing Title IX’s proportionality test on high schools will have an even more devastating impact on scholastic sports than it has wrought on collegiate sports. In most high schools, the gender balance of students is essentially 50/50. Despite this, there are about 1.3 million more boys than girls participating in high schools across the country. This is just another very substantial reason why wrestling needs to change the model they’re using.
Chapter 3 next Sunday.