The Colorado Mesa University (CMU) wrestling program held its 11th Annual Steak and Crab Fest in Grand Junction, Colorado a few weeks ago. About 800 people paid $60 to eat as much steak and crab as they could (drinks included). Hot dogs and sodas were available for kids for $5, and all proceeds benefited the CMU wrestling program. CMU head coach Chuck Pipher created the event more than a decade ago because he wanted to do something unique that would bring together both wrestling and non-wrestling fans.
"We felt it was important to sell a product that would be unique to the area and that people would be excited to attend," says CMU assistant coach Larry Wilbanks. It’s been a success, on and off the mat. "It provides opportunities for the coaches to talk to sponsors, fans and parents outside of a gym and to get to know each other better," Wilbanks explains. "We also gain a lot of fans from this. Most people like steak and crab, so this brings them to the event. Once they are here they enjoy it, meet the team and we usually start seeing them at our duals."
These kinds of fundraising events can be critical to the success of wrestling programs at every level—youth, high school, and even college. Raising money is necessary to help a program cover operating expenses for uniforms/gear, travel, coaches, and much more. Smart fundraising can make the difference between a wrestling team that thrives instead of merely survives.
While traditional not-for-profit organizations can and often do rely on the well-known/standard fundraising events and activities, such as banquets and auctions as well as community-wide events such as walk-a-thons and festivals, athletic programs have a unique opportunity thanks to the dynamic nature of their sports, says Richard Leonard, author of Fundraising in Sport and Athletics. Events such as celebrity athlete signings, sponsored tournaments in the particular sport, game-day events, and booster programs, are just some of the unique variations that athletic programs can use to raise funds, says Leonard. But developing a strong fundraising infrastructure takes planning and preparation.
"It is amazing how many organizations blindly leap into fundraising without having targeted objectives," Leonard notes. "The primary purpose of acquiring these targeted objectives will directly impact what type of fundraising program to develop."
Each program has to find a niche, or fundraising idea that works for their fan base, and location. Nebraska's Kearney High School holds a preseason takedown tournament that serves as a fundraiser for the high school team. It also creates a team poster every year, with sponsors like local businesses listed alongside the photo of the athletes. The kids club sells t-shirts, with logos of sponsors on the back. The Prior Lake (Minnesota) high school team and Prior Lake Wrestling Club put on an annual golf tournament. This year Prior Lake’s high school wrestling team partnered with the school’s football team to put together the golf tournament, with both programs splitting the proceeds.
"It was great because we have many crossover athletes who play both sports and it was fun to meet some of the football people and continue working on building relationships with them," says Joe Block, head wrestling coach at Prior Lake. "We like to provide as many opportunities for the student-athletes in our program, and none of it would be possible without fundraising.”
Prior Lake’s wrestling teams also run a very successful ‘checkbook’ program. Local businesses sponsor the checkbook, and it sells for $20. Inside it are roughly $250 in coupons that can be used at local businesses. Block says his team sells about 2,000 checkbooks per year.
"It is a great way to support our local business and community members seem to love them," Block says. The team picks one Saturday in November and all kids in Prior Lake wrestling, from Kindergarten through high school, do a blitz. "We draft teams and make a competition out of it to see which team can sell the most," he says. "At the end of our blitz, we meet up again to have pizza and turn in the money. It's a great way to bring all our kids at each level together for a day.”
Because fundraising events like this take a team, and often, community effort, it can also bring team, family members and community/supporters closer together.
That was the point behind Colorado Mesa’s steak and crab fest. "One of the main reasons the event has grown is we started a committee of wrestling allies throughout the business community just for this event," Wilbanks explains. "We are fortunate to have found people willing to donate their time and energy to help the program out. This committee takes a lot off our plates as coaches and allows for the event to run smooth by different people taking on different responsibilities."
The team sells sponsorships for the event and a poster promoting the most recent steak and crab fest had 14 local businesses listed as sponsors. One sponsor, Bank of Colorado, headlined the event and provided a $20,000 check to CMU—with the wrestling program receiving most of that money.
As Women’s Director for Michigan USA Wrestling, Brent Harvey works diligently throughout the year to raise funds. This money is needed so that the girls he coaches can come up with the $1,500 it costs to attend training camps and the local and national tournaments during the season. Planning in advance is crucial, Harvey says. To help, he created Michigan Women's Wrestling, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization to help with fundraising efforts. At first, they tried selling cotton candy and sno cones, but that didn’t raise enough. They tried selling t-shirts, but shipping costs ate up most of the proceeds. The program now sells raffle tickets, which includes prizes such as a weekend at the Soaring Eagle Casino Hotel and Resort and gift cards to Walmart and Buffalo Wild Wings.
"We’re happy to plan and work hard to help all the kids that need fundraising in order to keep training and competing with the nation’s very best," says Harvey. "Our women's group and board continuously work to make sure that all the athletes that want to participate have the opportunities."
Fundraising takes diligence, teamwork, and effort. But you also have to recognize that not every individual or family may succeed in selling products. So, it’s important to create a team environment. Giving parents the option to pay versus requiring those to sell is also an option, says Harvey. "Many parents do not like fundraisers or selling things and they all have the option to just pay the fees to travel and compete."
Fundraising helps raise necessary funds, but goes far beyond just raising money.
"Fundraisers gives fans the opportunity to meet and talk to the athletes and coaches in a social setting and get to know one another," says Wilbanks. "People are usually more willing to help out people they know and like, a good fundraiser provides those opportunities."