Kaufman letter to ODU President: Trying to have an honest conversation

By Jonathan Kaufman, ODU wrestling fan | April 08, 2020, 3:12 p.m. (ET)
Good morning President Broderick,

I am a concerned ODU Wrestling fan. Wrestling is the most popular sport in your fine university and it is an athletic program lasting sixty three years.

Could you go back and review the process of eliminating the Wrestling program? On this email, I have copied leaders of several national wrestling media organizations and notable ODU athletic supporters, as well as your current Athletic Director and Wrestling coach. We, as fans and supporters, would greatly appreciate your time and attention to address this growing problem at your university.

Wrestling is the world’s oldest sport, and ODU wrestling’s fan base is both passionate and loyal. A notable wrestling media person recently noted that the Wrestling program’s recruiting class led the nation this year with nine Top 250 prospects. Twenty three different athletes have been become All Americans in the program’s rich history.

I do agree that academics should always come first in universities. The wrestlers currently enrolled in ODU are successful athletically, but more importantly, academically. Last year, ODU wrestling had a 3.1939 GPA as a team, 25th in the country of Division I Scholar All American Teams.

Head Coach Steve Martin added:

"This is a big deal for our athletes. It's a credit to academic advisor Kristin Eden and the whole academic support staff and system, said head coach Steve Martin. "We look to continually raise the standard in the classroom as we move forward."

I am appealing to you, the head of the university, to review the following concerns on eliminating the Wrestling program and to approve a press conference to allow wrestling media to ask important questions.

Questions pertaining to:

1. How accurate were former AD Dr. Sander’s conclusions that recommended ending the wrestling program?

A quote in an April 3rd article of the Virginian-Pilot:

‘In a comprehensive examination of the department’s finances by former college athletic director Dr. Richard L. Sander, dated March 30 and acquired by The Virginian-Pilot via the Freedom of Information Act, among the conclusions was that in addition to eliminating the school’s wrestling program, ODU will likely have to take other drastic cost-cutting measures to keep the department financially solvent. The addition of a women’s volleyball program, set to begin competition in the 2020-21 academic year, will come at an annual cost of $1.2 million a year. The wrestling program, which was eliminated Thursday after 63 years of competition, operated at a cost of about $1 million a year.
An athletic department spokesman said AD Dr. Wood Selig would not comment on the study or its findings until next week.’

In addition to my opinion of this report, I added comments from wrestling media and supporters posted on the social media platform Twitter to highlight concerns of said report.

The report states:

‘It is evident that wrestling is losing popularity nationally, does not provide opportunity to win C-USA championships and the limited number of Division 1 universities sponsoring wrestling and the relatively small number of participants nationally, provide minimal exposure and brand recognition for ODU."

Each year, every match of the NCAA wrestling championship is broadcast on the ESPN family of networks over the course of three days in April. ESPN would not invest that kind of financial commitment if it did not think the sport of wrestling was not popular or capable of gaining high ratings of viewership. I personally attended last year’s championship, creating life long memories and connecting with fans of many NCAA Division I schools across the country.

Last month, the NCAA wrestling championship was to be held in the Minnesota Vikings NFL football stadium which holds over 60,000 people. The NCAA wrestling championship attendance has been sold out the last several years and continues to be one of the hardest championship tickets to obtain in college athletics.

Of great importance, the recent rise of women’s high school and college wrestling programs has shown increased interest of the sport with women in the United States. This last point does not specifically relate to the future of ODU’s wrestling program, but further disapproves Dr Sanders opinion that ‘the sport of wrestling is losing popularity nationally.’

Additional comments to the opinion that ‘the sport of wrestling is losing popularity nationally and does not provide opportunity to win C-USA championships’:

‘(Wrestling) is not losing popularity nationally, Conference USA doesn't exist in wrestling and you already blamed it earlier in the report for loss of revenue, and "exposure and brand recognition" comes from football and basketball, not baseball and men's soccer.’

‘ODU wrestling took 6th at the MAC championships out of 15 schools. Of course they can’t win Conference USA titles if they aren’t in the conference’

‘Another of their good teams, women's Field Hockey, isn't in C-USA for reasons totally outside of that team's control’

Comments regarding Dr Sanders opinion that the ‘Wrestling program provides minimal exposure and brand recognition for ODU‘:

’Page 9 of the Sander Report includes bits about Clemson, Wisconsin, Kansas, Gonzaga basketball, and Ohio State. These are all schools ODU is nowhere near in the same league of as a department. That's delusional.’

‘ODU and Dr Sander blame everybody else for their problems. The (football) stadium is empty because you're 1-11, not because UCF left. Cutting wrestling is the easy choice. The hard choice is walking into the football coach's office and asking 'Why aren't you winning in this gutted league?'’

‘Stadium was full when ODU (football) played a bunch of “nobodies” - size of the school isn’t the factor in tickets. I’d rather sell out JMU, W&M, NSU, Hampton, Richmond ... than scrape by another start-up in a bottom-tier FBS conference hoping for a low end bowl.’

‘The bottom line is, you can’t play big time football and average 18k fans. Cutting wrestling isn't going to change that.’

These are valid concerns in support of our request for you to review Dr Sander’s report and the inaccuracies said report contains.

2. Is there a long term solution here to save the program?

There are serious issues from Athletic Director Wood Selig in response to this question, even though he is replying to many emails on this decision, which is appreciated.

Source: ‘A donor emailed AD Selig on what it would take to save the Wrestling program. On an April 5th email, he responded, ‘‘Hey James, I wish it could be done. We would need an immediate $25 million endowment for wrestling and I am just not confident it can be done.’’

That endowment number to create/maintain a Division I sport within a university may be accurate in these current times, but why didn’t AD Selig ask the program, the fans, the coaches, the athletes, the donors and the supporters if this could be done before just eliminating the program?

Comments regarding AD Selig’s above email:

‘A ‘Go Fund Me‘ campaign that runs through the national wrestling community could easily fund half of that amount.’

‘Let’s say for argument $25M is somehow a reasonable and correct number for endowment. ODU would have (or should have) known this years ago. So why couldn’t they have told the staff “raise $25M by date Y” in advance? Why kill the program without even a warning shot?’

‘Sounds like they would want volleyball and wrestling endowed, and share for the rest of the programs, and the new facility paid for in full up front with that number.’

‘But the facility was originally planned to be a shared competition space. That wasn’t included in the story everyone is throwing around (oddly). Wrestling practice facility is connected to that space.’

‘AD told one of our alumni it wasn’t about the number of AAs, if it was, they’d have won. But on the other hand, the study claims it can’t equally trim funds to stay competitive. Well, they told wrestling competitive doesn’t matter ... contradictions aplenty.’

3. Why would the decision occur during a global pandemic? We understand the report and decision were in process, but why announce it now?

I understand these are difficult questions to answer and many have stated legitimate, albeit emotional, cases for saving the program. I am just requesting for you to review the situation, and to approve a question and answer press conference with open communication from Dr Sanders and AD Selig.

Numerous wrestling media have attempted to request interviews with university media relations, but without success as of today.

From an April 6th Twitter post by wrestling media outlet, Wrestling by Pirate:

’ODU has denied WxP's FOIA request, as requestor is not a resident of, nor a representative of a media outlet with circulation in the Commonwealth. We are now trying other options.’

This particular wrestling media organization does have circulation in the Commonwealth.

These are honest questions, and the process to justify the elimination of the Wrestling program is above all our pay grades. But to deny the press and the public answers just makes this unfortunate situation far worse.

In closing, my main goal of this email to you was not to create an ‘Us versus Them’ situation. As fans, we just request a review from you and for open lines of communication, transparency and an understanding of this issue. Many student athletes, coaches, staff, fans and donors are involved in this important decision, along with thousands of people fighting for the sport of wrestling.

Thank you for your time and consideration. And I much appreciate your dedicated service to this fine institution of higher learning.

Best Regards,

Jonathan Kaufman
ODU wrestling fan

RESPONSE FROM ODU

Mr. Kaufman,

We are in receipt of your email in the President's Office and appreciate your interest in Old Dominion's wrestling program. I am forwarding your query to Dr. Selig, director of athletics, for a more detailed response.

Sincerely,

Velvet L. Grant, M.Ed.
Special Assistant to the President
Old Dominion University

Editor's Note: Photo is of Jonathan Kaufman. This letter and response is reprinted with permission from Jonathan Kaufman.