Collegiate wrestling through my eyes has always been and will always be the toughest sport to compete in, period. The skills and abilities necessary each day when simply going to practice, a lift, extra runs, or losing twenty pounds are those of which that cannot be taught. Instead you either have the self-discipline to perform such daunting tasks or you don’t. Plain and simple. Growing in popularity each year, division one wrestling is proudly seeing more airtime on large cable networks and is being streamed on many internet sites. With no professional circuit upon graduation, these athletes wrestle for their pure passion surrounding the sport, not the contracts or endorsements waiting for them unlike many others. One of the first two Olympic sports in the world, wrestling has been practiced since the dawn of time. Today with budget cuts and Title IX restrictions, sadly some of these programs are starting to evaporate around the country. However, women’s wrestling at the collegiate level is the largest growing sport in the country right now as many schools are starting to reconsider their options on eliminating wrestling from their offered opportunities.
As it stands currently, there are 75 division one schools which support a wrestling team all across the country. At ten weights a piece, it is there job to fill their rosters and practice room with the most competitive athletes they can each year. Wrestling at the division one level has its perks, as well. Scholarships, olympic red shirts, standard red shirts, free apparel, the best facilities, coaching, and training partners offered in the world are directly at your fingertips when wrestling on the college’s biggest stages. Powerhouse wrestling programs like Iowa, Penn State, Minnesota, Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State just to name a few have historically churned out many national qualifiers, All-Americans (AA), and national championships both individually and as a team. Even these programs, though, go through their ups and downs related to their success levels. In 2001, the Minnesota Golden Gophers qualified and earned All-American honors for all ten of their wrestlers at the national tournament, a feat that has never been done before. The University of Iowa held the reins as the premier program in the nation during the mid seventies, eighties, and nineties winning 19 team championships under the lead of legendary head coach Dan Gable. When the program was handed over to Gable’s successor, for six years the team only won one singular Big Ten title with no national championships during his time. Opportunities to All-American (placing in the top eight at the national tournament) are feasible, as due to good coaching, academic standards, or other opportunities, many of the nation’s top prep recruits select schools outside the usual dominant programs around the nation. Examples of this are shown in tables 1 and 4, as programs such as Cornell, Harvard, Arizona State, Kent State, and California-Davis all captured at least one individual national championship during the given time periods. It’s important to note that during these periods, only national championship caliber individuals were examined. If I had been looking at overall AA status from the same time frame, there would have been much more data, and thus, many more schools represented. While one wrestler from each weight is considered “varsity,” the rest of the team’s roster travels to open collegiate tournaments, where teams which consist of both varsity and reserve wrestlers in the same bracket. Due to this, competition at these tournaments is no cakewalk, adding to how difficult a season is for these athletes.
Being a wrestler myself, I decided to research the levels of competitive balance based on schools and their number of national championships as well as the differences in points between the first place national championship team and the fourth place team. I chose to measure to fourth because each collective team to place top four at nationals gets a trophy. Competitive balance to me in this context is measured by the amount of national titles won overall as a team and having four teams actively in pursuit of a championship. In its simplest terms, competitive balance is not having the same team winning too much or all the time. I did not choose to examine the numbers of each school’s All-American status athletes as 80 AA honors would have needed to have been collected each year. Especially at the division one level, I know that everybody in the wrestling room doesn’t have aspirations of simply “doing well” at a tournament or making roster. All have their goals set as high as possible, which is championships at the national tournament. Coming from high school programs where all they have tasted was success, these premier athletes focus their minds on the next step which is a gold medal at the national level.
I collected data from the national tournament for division one wrestling. Data was collected over the last 86 year time period. I examined which teams won titles (table 7) and the gap between the first place team and the fourth place team in regards to team points (table 8). For the overall team element, I decided the number of different teams winning championships in the NCAA tournament’s 86 years must be 25 or over. Any number under that of 25 will make the team championship race competitively imbalanced over the last 86 years. Additionally, being competitively balanced in the team race means the difference in points at the national tournament from teams 1-4 is less than 30 points. This would ensure the gap between the first place team at the tournament and the fourth place tournament is somewhat close. To track all of this data, I used the NCAA official website to document exact points scored during the tournament, which teams won the overall title, and which teams won each individual weight for the allotted segments.
Overall in the sport of wrestling in general is becoming more and more competitive as each year passes. Like previously mentioned wrestling is being cut from many athletic departments all over the country at every division. “475 collegiate wrestling teams have been eliminated since 1972,” (Forbes, 2012, p. 5). Interestingly enough, participation of high school boys wrestling has seen a steady increase making the sport the six-highest participated throughout high school (Forbes, 2012, p. 5). If these high school athletes are seeking to wrestle at the next level, granted there are fewer teams to wrestle for. Having said that, because the quantity of teams is down, that doesn’t mean at all that the quality is. In fact, the better wrestlers will always be “rising to the top,” so while there’s a fewer number of teams across college wrestling, the competition is more difficult than it has ever been.
Analyzing the data that I have previously mentioned and shown in table 7, I examined that in the history of the NCAA national tournament, Oklahoma State and Iowa have won a combined 57 out of a possible 86 national team titles. That means that over 66% of the national titles ever won in the team race have been via the same two teams. Additionally, if you add Penn State, Oklahoma, and Iowa State to that sum, you get 77 national titles, almost 90% consumed by five teams over the last 86 years. 12 teams have won a team national title within the last 86 years. That number is less than half of the target number I was looking for to call the team race competitively balanced. Additionally, I measured balance by the difference in the team points standings at the end of the tournament as shown in table 8. I took the first place team’s total and subtracted it from the fourth place team’s total. That difference, or the gap between the four teams, needed to be 30 points or fewer in order to be considered competitively balanced. What I found was of the 86 total tournaments held, only 35 of them or 51% were within the 30 points from 1-4. In fact, since 1957 only 12 NCAA tournaments have seen the first four teams be between 30 points of each other in the overall standings, a percentage of 21%. The average points between the 86 year time period was 37 but from 1957-2015 the average was 47.5 points, an increase in 10.5 points. While both of these numbers suggest the NCAA wrestling field is competitively imbalanced, it certainly shows since 1957 the gap between the top teams and the rest of the field is increasing. These statistics show the same teams are winning national titles each year and the difference between the top teams continues to grow over time.
After accumulating the data and looking at it, it’s safe to say college wrestling is not only dealing with external threats like dropping programs and financial burdens but also internal struggles like competitive imbalance. While there is a healthy amount of teams competing each year in NCAA wrestling, the same few teams continue to distance themselves from the pack. The struggle is increasing as we speak, as each year the nation’s top recruits decide to go to a handful of programs, essentially making the rich richer. Because the team score gap has become so vast and only some teams are really in contention for a title each year, it really has remained unchanged from a prior level of imbalance. If 2/3 of each national title is being won by two teams over the history of a sport, the balance of the sport is significantly way off. There is much room for improvement in this scenario. An explanation to the difference in points from 1-4 as well as the same teams winning the title may lead to a rule change implemented by the NCAA in 1960. The rule stated there would be two team championships awarded and they would be held during back to back weekends. The first weekend was a “College Tournament” and the second was named the “University Tournament.” Schools could enter both tournaments, but the idea was essentially a division one and two tournament before the ladder was introduced. Splitting up the total amount of overall teams would have benefitted the better teams (like Iowa and Oklahoma State) as the gap between themself and the smaller division one teams would greatly expand, thus, increasing the distance from the first place team to the fourth. This would also benefit the top teams as there’s less total teams vying for a championship, increasing the odds of Iowa and Oklahoma State to continue their championship runs.
First and foremost, if colleges and universities poured a fraction of the amount of money into wrestling and growing the sport that they do for football and basketball, it could stimulate an entire program and help them succeed to new heights never before experienced. This last weekend Iowa and Oklahoma State hosted a wrestling dual outside at Iowa’s football stadium in one of the end zones. The event attracted over 42,000 people, shattering attendance records of any other collegiate dual meet in history. These events create a buzz for campuses, programs, fans, wrestlers, and recruits. If programs were to host fun events like this once in awhile, this could stimulate a buzz and revenue for these teams. In addition to that, it would be constantly growing the sport creating interest. Doing this, the success of participating programs and the sport in general will grow, and when it does, more teams have the ability to expand and become more competitive. When this happens, success with follow at the national level and start to close the gap between the nation’s top teams and the rest of the field. Another potential option for competitiveness is to award an extra scholarship each year for the bottom half of teams in each conference around the nation. If this happens, they would have the unique ability to recruit some of the top ranked high school prospects while offering a scholarship package that other schools with money already fully invested in their rosters couldn’t. This would increase their on the mat potential and shrink the gap between every team. The idea that this strategy could be exploited by some programs is possible, however there could be restrictions enforced by the NCAA only rewarding an additional scholarship once every five years. If the same strategies are used that have been in place for the last 86 years, nothing will change and get accomplished and the results will be exactly what we’re seeing across the sport today.
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