A five year strategic plan for Division I wrestling was released this week at the NWCA Convention in Fort Lauderdale. In it are several proposals that would drastically change the wrestling season for Division I schools. Click the link above to see the plan as released. The document suggests beginning a three week tournament competition season at or shortly after Christmas followed by a dual meet season that culminates with a dual meet championship and the individual championship as late as the end of April. If applied only to Division I as described, this would create a difference of a month or more between the Division I schedule and the Division II, III, NAIA, and NJCAA schedules.
There are three main arguments against making this change solely for Division I wrestling and a few against changing all NCAA divisions to a new season schedule. First, the arguments against moving just Division I.
- When a proposal to push back the NCAA Division I Championships is presented, one of the reasons often given is to avoid conflict with the NCAA Division I basketball championship tournament. While it is true that this tournament soaks up a great deal of media coverage, one point in wrestling’s favor is that ESPN does not have the rights to any March Madness games. Therefore, the ESPN family of networks is free to show an ever increasing amount of wrestling during the NCAA Championships as a sort of counter programming to the basketball tournament. If the NCAA Wrestling championship was moved into late April, wrestling would no longer be competing with March Madness, but would instead be up against the NBA playoffs. While the NBA playoff early round games may attract a smaller audience than March Madness, ESPN has NBA rights and broadcasts playoff games beginning the third week in April. College wrestling seems unlikely to attract a larger following if the championship finals are pushed over to ESPN2 or ESPNU because of the NBA Playoffs.
- Is it wise to put Division I wrestling into a silo by itself and separate it from the rest of NCAA Wrestling? As it currently stands, all three divisions begin official practice and competition on the same day and end their seasons within two weeks of each other. This continuity allows for consistency across all three divisions and lets wrestlers from all three divisions participate in early season open tournaments. The NWCA ought to promote unity among the three divisions of the NCAA instead of promoting the idea that Division I wrestling is different or deserving of special treatment. Division I wrestling should not be presented as a sport separate from that contested by Division II and III schools.
- Finally, this proposal would separate the Division I season from the Division II and III seasons in an unprecedented manner for NCAA sports. Division I seasons are often longer than Division II or III seasons in the same sport, but this change would draw a thick line between the Division I season and the season in which all other NCAA, NAIA, and NJCAA teams compete. The NCAA Championships Committee may not go for this difference in seasons.
It can be frustrating when the future of the sport is discussed as if only Division I wrestling matters, but it is possible that this proposal could trickle down to Divisions II and III and result in wholesale changes to the NCAA Wrestling schedule for all teams. In that case, there is less concern about separating Division I from the other divisions, but it does create a pair of issues for Division III schools in particular.
- Personnel issues – Pushing the wrestling season a month later into the spring has the potential to cause some major staffing issues for athletic trainers and equipment staff at the DIII level. If wrestling continued into April, it would require athletic training, sports information, and equipment staff support at a time when all spring sports are underway and fall sports are engaging in their non-traditional season practices. I suspect a proposal to move the Division III wrestling season back would encounter resistance from Division III Athletic Directors.
- Season length and practice time – The proposal linked above is a bit unclear on the start of practice, as there is a listed date of November 1st but the calendar at the end shows practice not starting until after Thanksgiving. Any proposed season calendar that shortens the time between the start of practice and the NCAA tournament takes away practice opportunities from Division III wrestlers. Thanks to to NCAA rules, DIII teams can only practice during the official season. This is not an issue for Division I teams, as the leniency of rules about off-season practices allows greater contact between coaches and athletes, while the proliferation of USA Wrestling certified Regional Training Centers essentially allows for unrestricted year round practice at the Division I level. Lastly, beginning the competition season the week after Christmas will all but eliminate a Christmas break for wrestlers and will completely eliminate spring break for every wrestler. This will drive up costs for already strapped athletic departments.
I am sympathetic to the desire to improve the health and academic success of athletes that is the primary motivation for the change, but there may be other ways to promote this idea without making such drastic changes to the sport.