The wrestling world is constantly trying to come up with ideas on how to “save” the sport. No doubt this is an admirable goal. The number of Division I programs dropped is in the hundreds. We all know that wrestling was dropped from the Olympics at one point, only to be saved. However, the sport is still not safe from the whims of the IOC and could lose its spot once again after 2024.
In Russ Hellickson’s remarkable “I am wrestling, do not weep for me” speech, the former Ohio State coach includes the words, “The world needs me. Time is on my side. History guarantees me!” This is all true. Wrestling has always been present in the world. From varieties practiced by ancient civilizations to numerous “folkstyles” practiced across the globe, wrestling is a constant part of society. However, that does not guarantee the future of the sport in this country and it certainly does not guarantee its success or growth.
Personally, I would rather not see the college system further dwindle, watch wrestling be further pushed into the fringes and see this great sport lost for generations until the world shifts again and some form of it resurfaces. Therefore, we must take action! The problems facing wrestling today are simple to spot, but much more difficult to fix. For one, there is very little money in the sport. Another problem is how little exposure most people have to wrestling and all that it has to offer. Currently, few people know what wrestling is all about and, if they do, many see it as a sport with no future given the small number of opportunities post college. Helen Maroulis’ parents were ready to make her quit after one year of wrestling because, at the time, there was no women’s wrestling in the Olympics and the opportunities for her in the sport were few.
What we need to combat these problems is a realistic path for more of our athletes to continue training and competing after college. While Olympic wrestling is important, we have years of evidence that it isn’t enough to drive the interest necessary to put more money in the sport and generate enough interest to grow the sport domestically. We desperately need a professional league.
This is not a new idea. Various attempts at true professional wrestling have been made in the United States over the years and there are professional leagues in Iran and Germany. However, given where we are, as a sport, in this country, it is going to take something truly radical to succeed. A professional league in this country that was able to pay wrestlers enough to attract the best and put on professional events in different locations across the country would have to operate at a loss for quite some time in order to build a following strong enough to support it. This is a difficult hurdle to overcome, but not impossible.
If you assume eight weight classes with eight teams in the league, that puts 64 wrestlers in the starting line-ups. I believe we need as many teams as possible to prevent the same match-ups over and over again which can become stale rather quickly. Obviously, the more teams you have, the more it costs, but if this is to succeed, we must look at appeal first and then figure out how to pay for it.
The first question to answer is, how much do we pay the wrestlers. With an initial plan of seven duals, one against each other team, and an end of season tournament, this would not be a full-time job so start with a base salary of $10,000 with replacements being paid on a per match basis when needed due to injury. That puts labor costs at $640,000 plus add some for replacements and make it $750,000 per season. Most pro leagues have an approximately 50/50 split between what revenue goes to the players and what goes to the league so we can assume another $750,000 or so in expenses. That number might be too high, but any extra would be returned to the wrestlers either in the form of bonuses, think match of the night, or prize money for the post-season.
So, doing this all on our own, as a sport, we’re looking at a $1.5 million price tag per year. It sounds intimidating and, if we attempt to raise that money each year just to keep the league afloat, it absolutely is an intimidating figure. However, this is where we need to think long term. This league doesn’t need to start next year. It doesn’t even need to start in the next five years, although the sooner we can get it going, the better for our sport. The key, however, is to start the league when its financial future is guaranteed without the need for fan support or sponsors.
How do we do that? We endow the league! Rather than wait for the American public to figure out how great wrestling is, we put a system in place that guarantees a place for wrestlers to continue to compete after college and guarantees any willing television station live sports content at a time when that is the most valuable content on the market. Endowing the league would mean allowing it to grow and attract a fan base on its own time. It would mean stability and survivability. It would mean that 10-20 years from now, the same league, with the same teams, that kids remember watching or going to with their parents, would still be around when they have kids of their own.
It will be a slow start, but so it was with Major League Soccer and the WNBA. Major League Lacrosse has survived for 16 years now, paying similar salaries to what I’m proposing, and has a network of regional broadcast partners showing their game to the public. None of those leagues had an endowment, though the WNBA was propped up by the NBA. Instead, they relied on having enough owners willing to foot the bill for losses incurred while building their league. I don’t think we have enough of those in wrestling and, regardless of whether we do or not, an endowment would eliminate the need to cater to rich owner’s desires.
This all comes at a price, of course. An endowment large enough to maintain a $1.5 million per year operating budget would be $50 million. However, this is not insurmountable. Many college programs around the country have managed to raise millions of dollars to endow their programs. $50 million, for something that would boost the entire sport, is not impossible. If we simply added $5 to every USA Wrestling card sold, there were around 240,000 last year, we could quickly make a dent. Add in other efforts across the community and there is no reason to think we couldn’t get to $50 million within 10 years. It is time to put up or shut up as a community. We can make our sport relevant or we can continue to whine about our sport’s lack of exposure.
The beauty of an endowment is that once you raise the money, everything else, sponsorships, television rights deals, ticket and merchandise sales, is extra and can be used to boost athlete salaries and expand to include more teams. With the endowment as a safety net, the league failing would never be a worry. This is the key. Leagues that last build fan bases and tradition. Leagues that last, and are on television year after year, become ingrained in the culture.
I’m not claiming that wrestling will challenge the NFL and the NBA as the powerhouse professional leagues. I’m not even suggesting that this league would ever pay a wrestler a million dollars. However, this is a path to survival and growth. At the college level, we don’t have to beat football and basketball to grow. The NCAA requires Division I schools to sponsor 14 sports across both genders. If we can battle Lacrosse and Hockey for the spot right behind Football, Basketball and Baseball, we’re going to see programs added again. Without a sustainable pro league, that isn’t going to happen. With one, we have a fighting chance.