As college wrestling programs face cuts everywhere, MMA steps up
It's late May on the campus of Cal Poly San Luis Obispo and Mott Gym is packed. This is a welcome sight for
Tonight's event won't feature the oldest sport known to man, but it is of that tradition. And in its name.
"Fight for Wrestling" -- a professional mixed-martial-arts show aimed, in this instance, at raising funds for a Cal Poly program, conceivably on the chopping block, that boasts two national champions, 110 All-Americas and one of the best MMA fighters of all time -- is finally debuting. The evening culminates a three-year process in which promoters, boosters and alumni (in some cases one in the same) attempted to bring it on campus.
This is what preventive maintenance in the name of saving Division I collegiate wrestling could look like, according to a growing contingent of wrestling supporters.
"Everybody waits until it's too late," said Cowell, whose 25-year run as a wrestler-turned-head coach at Cal Poly officially ended in 2003. "That's been the problem: Coaches don't see it coming."
Based on participation and sponsorship rates over the past three decades, no one, least of all coaches, should be blind to the tenuous status of men's wrestling on the D-I level. In 20 seasons beginning with the 1988-89 school year, men's wrestling has suffered a net loss of 106 teams, ceding programs in all but five years during that stretch, according to an NCAA study. That puts wrestling atop a list of sports suffering the worst of college administrators' scalpels. Tennis, ranked No. 2, lost 71 teams over that same period.
Prevailing wisdom holds Title IX -- the federal legislation passed in 1972 meant to create the same opportunities and quality of treatment for female and male student-athletes -- responsible for the decline in men's sports, particularly wrestling and other Olympic-style contests. Perhaps this was true in the early 1980s, when men's teams outpaced women's by an average of 10.3 to 7.3 per school. Those numbers have since reversed after men lost 287 teams and women gained 714.
Gender equity has unquestionably played a part in the current state of college athletics, said boosters, coaches and administrators. But so have budgetary issues; conference requirements; NCAA mandates on the minimum number of teams institutions must sponsor to qualify for D-I status (six for men, eight for women); and a trend among some of the nation's largest conferences called "focused excellence," which emphasizes fewer teams in favor of television-friendly, revenue-generating sports.
"I honestly believe Title IX has become an excuse for athletic directors who want to just focus on football and basketball," said
News isn't all bad for amateur wrestling in the United States. Participation has increased at Division II, Division III and NAIA schools. And youth wrestling, particularly at the high school level with its 267,000 athletes, has never been healthier, said
"Our vital signs are very strong at every level other than NCAA Division I," Moyer said. "That goes back to focused excellence and the downsizing trend at athletic departments across the country at non-enrollment-conscious schools."
"Staff members at the NCAA are very much proponents of broad-based participation type programs," he said. "But the NCAA is governed by the very administrators who are making these decisions at the institutional level."
Said NCAA spokesman
Three of the most active youth wrestling states -- Washington, Florida and Texas -- are also the biggest offenders when it comes to a lack of Division I opportunities. Meanwhile, state-funded California institutions continue to shed teams. UC Davis, the only school in the UC system that sponsored wrestling, recently shut down its program, citing cost-cutting efforts.
"We're doing things but we just keep dropping," said Azevedo, the current coach at Cal Poly, which competes in the Pac-10 conference for wrestling against Stanford, Oregon State, Arizona State, Cal State Bakersfield, Boise State and, before it was cut, UC Davis. "It comes down to money. It's dire in the West. The Midwest is pretty safe. In the East, wrestling tradition in Pennsylvania is strong. But can they survive if there are 50 programs? If the West drops, it's a slippery slope."
College wrestling coaches must wear different hats these days, said
"He has to be a three-headed steer: marketing, business, coach," Tobin said of today's coach. "We'll call it the trinity of wrestling. If we want this sport to survive, you've got to get out there and develop this product so that it's marketable."
Tobin pointed to Koll's work at Cornell as an example of someone doing it right. When Koll took over the Big Red program in 1993, wrestling couldn't pull more than 50 people for an event. Last season Cornell averaged 1,700 in attendance, making it just one of 10 D-I teams (there are 86) to draw 1,000 or more per event.
Under Moyer's leadership, the NWCA has invested $800,000 for a CEO training program designed to get coaches thinking about their programs on a broader scale. Sixty coaches will receive scholarships and training over the next three years.
"At the end of the day it's really in the hands of the coach at institutional level," Moyer said. "We need to do better with fundraising. We need to do better with marketing. We need to get more spectators in the stands."
That's also the aim of
"MMA is the first real promise to former wrestlers in the form of an athletic career," said
Crecy speaks from experience. He wrestled at BYU and San Diego State, both goners, and coached at Miami of Ohio, which died in 1999.
Why the concern?
It's an easy link considering each of the 47 Americans on the UFC roster has some collegiate wrestling experience. As money and recognition continue to rise in MMA, there's no reason to expect that decorated D-I wrestlers will stop jumping into the sport. Earlier this month, Bellator Fighting Championships announced the signing of
The migration of top amateur wrestlers to MMA has some people concerned about the long-term impact on USA Wrestling, which oversees the sport at the international and Olympic level. But the organization, said spokesman
Said Moyer: "To protect our future, we're going to need an association with MMA."
Adams, who helped create the WEC with
For now, Adams said he will treat the cards like charity events and donate all proceeds to the program being supported that particular evening. Fight for Wrestling is scheduled to return to San Luis Obispo on April 9, 2011.
UFC heavyweight champion
"All I know is we're going to keep grinding to do what we can do to survive," said Neal, who left wrestling after beating Lesnar and earning every major wrestling award to become a starting guard and three-time Super Bowl champion with the New England Patriots.
Earlier this year, Neal helped raise $130,000 in one night to prevent Bakersfield from joining UC Davis on the scrap heap. The program has built up its coffers to keep it safe for the next three years.
Now, Neal said, "We just have to figure out a way to connect with the fans."