Abbott Blog: NCAA Emerging Sport Status is done, with more hard work moving forward

By Gary Abbott, USA Wrestling | June 18, 2020, 6:28 p.m. (ET)
Photo of Jaslynn Gallegos of Presbyterian College (on left), from the only current NCAA Div. I women's wrestling program, is courtesy of GoBlueHose.com.

Yesterday should have been a bigger deal. For many of us who have worked on the Emerging Sport Status initiative for women’s wrestling, this is a huge milestone and something that deserved some big-time celebration. We really didn’t get that chance.

Here is how it all shook out. After the NCAA Committee on Women’s Athletics (CWA) recommended women’s wrestling be added as an Emerging Sport, it still had to be passed by each of the three divisions. We were able to get NCAA Div. II and NCAA Div. III to approve it this winter. NCAA Div. I was scheduled to vote on this in April, but then the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, and the vote was tabled indefinitely.

Sally Roberts, Julia Salata and I had a call with NCAA staff involved in this to understand the path forward. They told us that Strategic Vision and Planning Committee had to vote to move it forward, then the Div. I Council could decide to put it on the agenda when they wanted to. They said the timing of that was not known, and might happen without notice. That is exactly what happened yesterday.

Late in the day Wednesday, Sally let everybody know that the NCAA said we won the vote, but it needed to remain private information until final action by the NCAA on June 23. We got wheels in motion for a joint wrestling statement from our coalition featuring prominent women wrestlers, and even proposed a video project. But then, late in the day after all our offices were closed, the NCAA went ahead anyway and posted an article about the vote. The cat was out of the bag. We immediately posted that story because the news was so important, but without all of the hoopla we had hoped for.

This is huge news and worthy of much celebration. But the effort to establish women’s college wrestling is now really just beginning. All of the hard work that it will take to get women’s wrestling as an official NCAA Championships at all levels, as well as an important part of NCAA Div. I athletics, is only just getting started.

With this great success, I think back to how all of this got started, and the long road it took to reach this moment in history. I was blessed to be part of the process and want to share some background.

A number of years ago, sometime in 2016, USA Wrestling staff and our Women’s Team Leader Kyra Barry initiated conversations on applying for NCAA Emerging Sport Status. We had a growing women’s college scene, but the NAIA was way ahead of the NCAA in getting programs started. Kyra Barry encouraged National Women’s Coach Terry Steiner and Executive Director Rich Bender to hold a series of conference calls to set a game plan and begin the work. We invited women’s college coaches, including King head coach Jason Moorman, plus Sally Roberts and others. We figured out the requirements of the process, set some goals, assigned some tasks with deadlines, and got things rolling.

A decision was also made to create a coalition of organizations to present the proposal. The original five organizations who signed on to support and participate in the process were USA Wrestling, Wrestle Like A Girl, the National Wrestling Coaches Association, the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and the U.S. Olympic Committee. Mike Moyer (NWCA), Lee Roy Smith (NWHOF), Sarah Wilhelmi (USOPC) and a bunch of other individuals from these groups got involved. Really, it is impossible to list everyone’s name included in our effort. The idea was a unified presentation from the entire wrestling community, which we knew would have an impact with those at the NCAA who were going to evaluate the proposal and our sport.

Our first deadline was August 1, 2017, when the NCAA Committee on Women’s Athletics (CWA) required an official application. I was responsible for writing the proposal document which included extensive information on the sport. We included a proposal summary, an outline of how the sport would be conducted, the rules for the sport (freestyle), plus history on women’s college wrestling, girls high school wrestling and women’s international wrestling. We created numerous charts and appendix entries with lists of college teams, women’s college champions, growth statistics and more. That document was 25 pages, and included lots of color pictures of girls and women competing in wrestling.

That was only part of the presentation. We were also required to collect support letters from NCAA institutions, including all of the NCAA schools that already had women’s wrestling, as well as specific budget information from the colleges involved. Everyone chipped in, then Sally and her WLAG team did a herculean effort getting them collected. We just made the deadline right on time. We had started the formal application process on August 1, 2017. Yesterday was June 18, 2020. It took almost three years from our first formal submission until we reached the goal of getting complete approval at all levels of the NCAA yesterday.

I could write a book on what happened during the next three years, the ups and downs of going through the process, which ended up much more complicated than we ever imagined. More organizations joined the wrestling coalition and more people stepped up to get involved. In short, the NCAA’s CWA rejected our first submission, requiring more information, which we had to resubmit one year later, on August 1, 2018. During that year, the sport kept growing, so we had to update everything we had in our first document to make the second deadline. It was a second round of collecting letters and budgets.

We didn’t need to apply again after that, but from then on, the CWA kept asking for more information. They held a series of conference calls that we had to continue to explain our sport and answer questions. More questions came via email and new details of the process were explained to us. The coalition worked hard, remained united, acted with professionalism and respect, and continued doing everything that was asked from us.

The most exciting and emotional day of this process came on June 3, 2019, when the NCAA Committee on Women’s Athletics recommended to all three NCAA divisions that women’s wrestling be added (along with acrobatics and tumbling) to the Emerging Sports for Women list. It was an amazing day, one of the highlight days of my career, something that literally brought tears to our eyes. Although we had not yet gotten final approval, we knew on that day that all of the hard work and effort was going to pay off, and that Emerging Sport Status was going to happen in the near future.

Another full year of work followed, including the first national championship event only for NCAA women’s teams in Adrian, Michigan in March. Div. II and Div. III voted yes. It all led to yesterday, with all three divisions saying YES to women’s wrestling. There are too many people to thank, so I would like to applaud the entire wrestling community for coming together and helping get this thing done.

Realize, however, that we are nowhere near done. We have 10 years to get our sport to reach official championship status within the NCAA, or to show substantial progress. To hold an official NCAA Championships, we will need at least 40 NCAA member institutions to sponsor the sport (and even when we reach that number, it still needs to be approved by the NCAA). We have almost reached that number, with the count in the high 30’s already, so it may not be very long before we get an official NCAA Women’s Wrestling Championships (which would include teams from all three divisions).

NCAA Div. I, the highest level of competition on the college scene, remains our biggest hurdle moving forward. At this time, there is one NCAA Div. I women’s varsity team, the trailblazing program at Presbyterian College. The big dream will not be completed until there are three official NCAA Championships for women’s wrestling, one each for Div. I, Div. II and Div. III. That would require at least 120 varsity teams (a minimum of 40 in each division), but it will probably require more. In Division I, we need a minimum of 39 more programs for official championship status. The coalition, with support of the entire wrestling community, will now turn its attention to selling women’s wrestling on a campus-by-campus basis, and will be also seeking conference support for the sport.

We have a great opportunity to keep growing at the Div. II and Div. III levels, because schools at those levels are enrollment driven, women’s wrestling has momentum and it is a great fit in so many athletic departments. Div. I has an entirely different economic structure, one that is being seriously pinched since the cancellation of the 2020 NCAA Basketball Championships and the shutdowns due to COVID-19.

It is going to take careful strategic planning, tons of research and effort, and even more involvement and commitment from all of us to establish a growing and successful Div. I women’s wrestling program. I know we will get that done. I believe in that dream.

Just don’t ask me when it will happen. Back in 2016, when we started serious meetings on this topic, we had no idea how long Emerging Sports Status would take, either.