College Wrestling's Hidden Arms Race

Austin Bernard
With the advent and promotion of USA Wrestling's Regional Training Centers, it has become standard operating procedures for nearly every title-contending NCAA program to elevate its associated wrestling club to the next level. College teams are now in competition to attract the best post-collegiate competitors and Olympic hopefuls to their RTCs. Those athletes serve as practice partners and examples for current students and recruits with international aspirations. 

With our recent dive into the publicly available tax returns for many of the biggest and most successful clubs, we have been able to shed some light on what had previously been a hidden aspect of the college wrestling arms race.  

Incidentally, while USA Wrestling bestows an official designation for all qualifying regional training centers, there is no established protocol for naming wrestling clubs. Official RTCs are referred to as "wrestling clubs," "regional training centers" or at times something else entirely. Moreover, there is nothing stopping a club without an official USA Wrestling designation from calling itself a regional training center. Most, but not all, of the clubs referenced in this analysis are official RTCs.

So just how much money and resources are needed to run a high-level regional training center? 

To answer that question, we'll first look at the top 10 NCAA programs ranked by 2015 total expenses, according to their self-reported data submitted to the NCAA as part of their gender equity and Title IX research.

RANK SCHOOL 2015 EXPENSES
1 Iowa $2,239,430
2 Penn State $2,139,539
3 Ohio State $1,874,431
4 Missouri $1,817,874
5 Arizona State $1,633,977
6 Oklahoma $1,531,915
7 Oklahoma State $1,496,545
8 Lehigh $1,424,094
9 Nebraska $1,392,588
10 Virginia Tech $1,376,107

Next, we'll look at the top 10 wrestling clubs, ranked by their 2015 expenditures as obtained from their 990 IRS form tax returns

RANK CLUB 2015 EXPENSES
1 Sunkist Kids Wrestling Club $649,452
2 Nittany Lion Wrestling Club $630,283
3 Hawkeye Wrestling Club $449,685
4 Gopher Wrestling Club $362,899
5 Lehigh Valley Athletic Club $350,875
6 Finger Lakes Wrestling Club $345,612
7 Ohio Region Training Center $329,531
8 Cliff Keen Wrestling Club $288,261
9 Panther Wrestling Club $226,703
10 Southeast Regional Training Center $213,459

At this point, we need to mention a number of caveats that go with these numbers.

To start, not every school reports its athletic department financial data to the NCAA. Secondly, not every team has an affiliated regional training center; nor is every regional training center registered as a tax exempt nonprofit, rending its tax returns unavailable to us for now. 

Additionally pertaining to the NCAA rankings, there are large discrepancies between what and how the individual schools report their athletic budgets to the NCAA. For instance, Ivy League schools do not have scholarship expenses, often one of the largest cost centers for an NCAA wrestling program. 

For the wrestling clubs, it should be noted that many of them encompass responsibilities and missions beyond that of supporting the college program. As such, not every dollar spent at an RTC correlates to a dollar spent on the affiliated NCAA program. 

Nevertheless, the club expenses give us a rough estimate of the amount of money being poured into programs that does not show up on a university's athletic department budget.

With that said, let's now look at the top 10 programs ranked by their combined NCAA and club expenditures from 2015. 

RANK SCHOOL CLUB TOTAL EXPENSES
1 Penn State Nittany Lion Wrestling Club $2,769,822
2 Iowa Hawkeye Wrestling Club $2,689,115
3 Arizona State Sunkist Kids Wrestling Club $2,283,429
4 Ohio State Ohio Region Training Center $2,203,962
5 Missouri Missouri Wrestling Foundation $1,876,029
6 Lehigh Lehigh Valley Athletic Club $1,774,969
7 Oklahoma Sooner Wrestling Club $1,632,346
8 Michigan Cliff Keen Wrestling Club $1,627,115
9 Virginia Tech Southeast Regional Training Center $1,589,566
10 Minnesota Gopher Wrestling Club $1,537,350

So what takeaways can we glean from our peek into the previously hidden college wrestling arms race? For one thing, if you want your team to climb into the top 10, or even top 20, plan on tacking on an extra $200,000 to its total program costs. 

Also noteworthy is Oklahoma State, which, despite its success in developing senior-level athletes, apparently did not file the Cowboy Wrestling Club as a nonprofit in 2015 -- or at least not under a name that we can locate. As such, any expenses it incurred are not reflected in our analysis. 

Finally, although it is encouraging to see such tremendous amounts of money are being funneled into wrestling in the United States, the distribution of these resources is uneven. How healthy that ultimately is for the sport is debatable. Also debatable is how much a revved-up arms race helps the smaller programs or less supported geographic areas via a trickle-down effect. 

In the meantime, we can all at least be thankful for the increased number of opportunities for wrestlers in America available as a result of the increased support for both NCAA programs and clubs.

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