One week, two programs lost. One reveling in the pinnacle of athletic achievement, the other a week away from taking four grapplers to the Division I tournament. Both program's alumni and supporters are left asking themselves the same question: What could we have done?
Trev Alberts' horrific timing at the University of Nebraska-Omaha and the regional impact of losing another DI program in the South have meant emotional turmoil for fans of the sport. However, while the pain seems to be reaching critical mass, the truth is that there will be more cuts this season and in 2012. The only choice now is to wisen up to what motivates the decision-makers in amateur athletics, otherwise, this is might only be the death knell of our sport. What the administrations want -- and what programs need to create -- is cash, and lots of it.
Wrestling has long enjoyed tenure under what has amounted to an NCAA entitlement program. While it's arguable that the current system is too profit-based, the wrestling media can't keep repeating this refrain as though it's a solution. Like it or not, the structure of the amateur athletics has changed fundamentally and to survive the wrestling community must adapt by creating income sources for every program.
Unfortunately wrestling has never created a noticeable income for the institutions who've sponsored their activities. Even so, coaches and fans have expected those schools to increase budgets, scholarship allocations and academic support. During the 90's this type of athletic entitlement worked; profits were such that football and basketball could help programs make their bottom line -- the wealthy big brothers hand-holding us down the road to financial solvency.
Times have changed.
NCAA member institutions have decided to operate a profit-based model with non-revenue men's program forced to fend for their own self-interest. The recent economic downturn has meant that state coffers have dried up, alumni donations are largely at a trickle and sports like wrestling provide an immediate solution.For the first time ever college coaches are forced to either generate large donations, or else create a revenue stream. Failing to do so means that individual programs are essentially playing craps with their wrestling future.
One method of income creation has been to call upon powerful alumni to repair the financial standing of the programs by donating millions to endow operational budgets. For example, the Columbia University wrestling program (where I was once a coach) received $3 million in donations over the past five years - the most recent of which came three weeks ago in the form of a $1 million gift by alumni and powerful Hoboken land developers, David and Michael Barry. Though Columbia was never in danger of being cut, head wrestling coach Brendan Buckley secured the program's future by giving the university several million dollars for their athletics fund, while he and the program receive a percentage of the interest gained on investment. However, not every school has the alumni power of Columbia, Michigan or Harvard. And even if they do, not everyone is as generous as those who went to school in Morningside Heights.
The UNO cuts seem to follow a second method of revenue generation by cash-strapped athletic administrations to turn their bottom line from red to black: The Stick-UP. When Bucknell and Arizona State were eliminated, they each were handed a reinstatement amount. By axing the program the AD had showed a willingness to proceed without wrestling. Should they want to keep their program, they'd have to be self-financed. Both programs were eventually reinstated through the generosity of supporters, though that generosity came with hefty one-time price tags of $5 and $8 million, respectively. While the tactics are severe, the results aren't. No athletic program is turning down an $8 million infusion of cash. Don't be fooled by the banners and NCAA commercials, amateur athletics is run by professional bureaucrats.
Despite these success stories, not all programs have been able to create powerful alumni bases capable of creating millions of dollars. Fresno State, UC-Davis, and Greensboro could never hope to buy their way back to solvency. However, thanks to the Internet and increased popularity of the sport, there is a third solution available to all programs: Profitable, market-based models that protect and leverage every programs most valuable asset -- content rights.
Football profits are created when stations like ESPN buy the rights to an event. The station packages the content with hot sideline reporters, splices in 120 minutes (!) of advertising with 60 minutes of action and Voila, everyone is making money. With the exception of the Big Ten Network -- who has already proved wrestling is profitable by selling content and advertising -- programs around the country are simply giving content to consumers, por gratis. It's not just a crappy business plan for individual programs, it's costing the wrestling program the financial stability it'll need to rely on to survive further cuts.
Premier among the sites aggregating free content is Austin-based Flo Wrestling. Overall the company has been a benefit to the wrestling community by providing a single platform from which to access technique videos, interviews and popular individual and team matches. However, while site visitors should be able to enjoy the news-like content of the site, they should have to pay to watch a dual meet, or tournament finals. Flo isn't to blame, though. The schools aren't asking to be paid, and in a confusing logic have decided that providing free content will help improve exposure which will then translate to better recruits and more money. The evidence clearly doesn't support this model. Handing over your most valuable asset will never be profitable for those creating the content, especially if they can't control the advertising.
I was recently involved in some of the back-end advertising sales for the Midlands wrestling tournament hosted by Northwestern University. The tournament, like the Greensboro-hosted Southern Scuffle, draws some of the best competition in the nation and several thousand fans to their respective arenas. While I wasn't involved in ticket sales, there was an entry fee and the school profited from parking, concession sales and even some memorabilia. Where the school didn't turn a profit was advertising sales, my department, because we couldn't get an organization like Flo to pay for the content. The common response was that the wrestling community (that's you)wouldn't pay for content. Why not?
To air the semifinals, the advertising and marketing director at Northwestern asked for good chunk of change from Flo. Under a short time frame Flo said they wouldn't pay for content. Had they paid the athletics department for the access to the information and page hits, then the Wildcats would have created a direct revenue stream. In addition to the sale of the event, the Wildcat marketing department could have then sold mat and banner space to the Marine Corps or Gatorade for another couple of thousand and Flo could have thrown a small Tapout logo in the corner. Win-Win, folks.
Content as rich as wrestling should never be given away. The Flo team doesn't work for free, I'm not writing this article for free -- even persons who post YouTube videos are eligible for advertising dollars. Good content comes at a cost.
Keep in mind that these marketing solutions could have been applied to the Southern Scuffle. And while I recognize that $20 or $30K in revenue may not have been enough to save the UNCG program, it can at least show a fledgling athletic department that one of their programs is willing to work to protect its financial health.
There are only two solutions for individual programs forced to create revenue, either receive large charitable donations or create a dependable revenue stream. The plans aren't mutually exclusive; they can combine to help save dozens of programs over the next several years. The model would require that wrestling fans pony up an extra $100 - $200 a year for matches they want to see, which is tough in a gloom-and-doom economy, but look around the front page of the Omaha.com sports section, or your friend's Facebook pages and you'll be reminded of the alternative.
The wrestling community controls its own fate. We've been relevant for centuries because we've been willing to work harder than anyone else, choosing to be resilient while others simply folded. Now is the time to expand, not wilt, by showing our athletic departments that we are more than just vocal reactionaries. Let's show them that we can be forward-thinking leaders at the ready to implement business plans and secure the future of our sport.
Or we can just keep rolling the dice and hope for the best. It'll never be our program ... right?