On Tuesday, the Big Ten announced the postponement of the fall sports season. With that announcement, colleges are already reporting a loss of $80-100 million in revenue. With football being the biggest money maker for colleges, what does it mean for the future of wrestling? Stanford has already cut wrestling due to economic downfall, despite having one of the largest endowments in the country. Could we see this being the same across the Big Ten landscape?
We don’t know what the future holds when dealing with Covid-19. We might not have a wrestling season in the winter anyway. Fingers crossed, that will not be the case. If there is no wrestling season, should there be concern over universities dropping wrestling programs? Barry Alvarez, the Wisconsin AD said on BTN “There will be layoffs within the athletic department, when you’re not playing, you have to make up for it somehow.” That does not bode well for Chris Bono and his Wisconsin wrestling program. According to the 2019-2020 Wisconsin expense report, Wrestling cost $1,587,302. Their revenue for the year was only $355,953. So they are losing $1.2 million with wrestling. It is the same for many programs.
Teams like Iowa, Penn State, Ohio State and Minnesota have strong programs with proud traditions, exuberant fan bases that back the programs well, administrative support, strong programs consistently ranked near the top, and they are in deeply rooted wrestling states. It also helps they have high level Regional Training Centers that help with funding. That doesn’t stop coaches from worrying though. Ohio State Coach Tom Ryan says “I only know that no football is not good for all of the NCAA sports. We only have a small window view into immediate and long term effects. We will roll up our sleeves and do all we can to see that the sport remains strong.” It is an uphill climb for wrestling across the country.
Locally, wrestling from youth all the way to the top has been growing in Nebraska. In 2011, Nebraska faced this same situation at UNO, that lead to the disposal of the program despite coming off 3 straight NCAA titles. It is still one of the biggest travesties in Nebraska sports history. Would the board of regents vote to drop wrestling at another University of Nebraska institution? That would leave only Nebraska-Kearney and Chadron State as the only programs in the state in the top two divisions.
Nebraska Wrestling was strong in the Big 12, garnering a conference championship in 2009. They took some bumps early on, but behind Olympic Gold Medalist Jordan Burroughs and World Team member James Green, they were able to remain competitive and consistent in the Big Ten. They have now grown into a national powerhouse. This past season, they climbed as high as #2 in the country, and before the NCAA tournament got cancelled, they were the only team in the country to qualify the whole team for nationals. So what is the level of concern in Lincoln? Head Coach, Mark Manning says “I am hopeful for the future of our sport in college athletics. I believe that sports is a tremendous outlet for athletes and fans, but the life lessons learned are unparalleled, especially in wrestling.” Nebraska is continuing to establish themselves and grow its program in the right direction. Their attendance has grown each year, including breaking the all time attendance record against Penn State in January with over 6,000 fans. Manning is proud of what is in store for the future, saying “Our program is on the cusp of accomplishing great things. I love the leadership and work ethic these guys have shown the last 4 months. Our team made improvements and growth has been made during this time. Recruiting is going very well, and some tremendous young men are attracted by the culture we have established here.” With great leadership at the top and a great outlook, Nebraska should have a bright and competitive future in the sport.
When talking development of a program it all begins in recruiting. Nebraska has done very well in that department. Willie Saylor, owner of MatScouts and widely recognized as the top prep wrestling scout in the country had these numbers for Nebraska. “In the last decade, from 2011-2020 Nebraska’s average recruiting classes ranked #7. That’s third highest average in the country behind Ohio State and Oklahoma State. In the last 12 years, Nebraska has only finished outside the top 10 in recruiting twice, 2012 (11th) and 2015 (19th). They are one of four school in this decade to have a ranked class every year, joining Oklahoma State, Iowa, and Ohio State.” What does that mean for Nebraska? If you take those recruits and add the development from Mark Manning, Bryan Snyder, and staff, you get a very successful team. Saylor adds this stat, “In the last decade, 2011-2020, Nebraska has an average NCAA finish average of 10.6. Its the seventh highest in the nation, behind Penn State, Iowa, Oklahoma State, Ohio State, Cornell, and Minnesota. Nebraska was ranked #4 at the end of last season, it’s highest finish in over a decade. If you remove 2012 when Nebraska finished 21st, its lowest finish in the decade, their average jumps to 8.5.” Nebraska’s 2021 class already has two wrestlers committed that are ranked in the top 2 of their weight class in Jagger Condomitti and Lenny Pinto.
On a conference wide scale what does that mean for the lower tier of Big Ten wrestling programs? Programs such as Maryland, Indiana, Michigan State, and Purdue have had respectable programs and standout All-American wrestlers. What happens when it comes down to decision time? What does their administrative support look like? How is their attendance? What value do they add to the school? All are difficult questions that will be asked.
Maryland already survived one round of budget cuts in 2011, can they do the same next time around? According to 247 sports, They are already struggling to stay above as a whole department. In 2019, they had $11 million in revenue. But they had to pay out $8 million in severance payments following the death of a football player. Maryland doesn’t get full Big Ten compensation until 2021. So finances will still be something to keep a close eye on.
Purdue had already announced they are cutting their athletics budget by $10 million for 2020-21. Now without football, “Purdue is expecting to lose half of its budget” according to Tim House, associate athletic director in an interview with WTHR. That’s roughly $50 million. They have already started fundraising to help the athletic department. One thing of note, is Purdue is building and last year was a top 15 team.
Michigan State was on the low end of expenses, only operating at $847,445 in 2019. They only brought in $168,003 in revenue in that time. Only Gymnastics, Rowing, and softball brought in less. Because of title IX, Wrestling could be on the short list this season.
Indiana had a $13 million dollar surplus in 2019. But their expenses are expecting to be an additional $4 million this year. In June, the university expected a $12 million dollar shortfall on the budget this year. That was prior to football being cancelled. The new number could be triple that. Football and Basketball coaches already took a 10% pay cut for this season. The next thing may occur is sports elimination. Athletic Director Scott Dolson said to “the Hoosier Network” that would be last resort. Indiana Coach, Michael Dixon remains optimistic, “Being an Olympic sport, it is important that wrestling maintain relevance on a national, regional, and local level. Wrestling faces challenges at each institution, Indiana included. What happened at Stanford is very unfortunate and hopefully the wrestling community can rally together and create a solution that is acceptable to Stanford University where wrestling can continue to be one of the varsity sports that is offered. Our Schedule will be very different this year and I would imagine moving foreword. There have been proposals of what the season could possibly look like but with information evolving daily it is hard to put something concrete together. Our goals as coaches and as a University is first and foremost to protect these young men and women that are participating. As long as we as a conference and national leadership can develop a plan that allows participation in the safest manner, then I am hopeful a season can happen.” Coach Dixon, like so many others in the conference remain hopeful of a season. Wrestling in the Big Ten is a big deal, it is equivalent to football in the SEC. Hopefully that being the case, you will see Big Ten wrestling programs be saved from any financial fallouts.
The remaining programs in the conference; Michigan, Illinois, Northwestern, and Rutgers should live to wrestle another day. The 4 schools are in wrestling hotbeds. Rutgers and Michigan have premier RTC’s. Illinois and Northwestern are consistent programs who compete strongly year in and year out. Although no one is safe from this fallout, these 4 should remain optimistic.
What do we do next? The EIWA Conference has already came out with a plan to start wrestling January 1st. Look for more conferences to make an announcement in the coming weeks. For the rest of the wrestling community and school fan bases, get out and support your programs. Wrestling needs fan attendance to boost revenue. Wrestling only gets 9.9 scholarships to divvy up for roughly two dozen wrestlers. So they rely on alumni and donations to help support their programs. Community support is key to keeping the sport alive. Get involved, speak up to your school administrators, and keep a positive energy.