It's a time honored tradition dating back 15,000 years. It evolved to become the number one sport of the early Olympic Games. Today it is the sixth most popular sport in our high schools with 267,378 participants according to the National Federation of State High School Associations. What is it? Wrestling.
The sport of wrestling is at an all time high with participation continuing to grow. Currently, 10,311 high schools in 49 states are sponsoring high school boys wrestling programs. Arkansas recently expanded their 2008-09 sports program to include wrestling and realized a state record of 1,975 participants for the first season. Mississippi is the only remaining state in the United States that does not have a sponsored highschool wrestling team.
California leads the country with 18,962 athletes competing in high school wrestling during the 2008-09 season. Illinois checks in second with 16,213 followed by New York, Ohio and Michigan respectively.
And it's not just a sport for boys either. During 2008-09, 6,025 high school girls competed in wrestling.
"It's one of the top revenue generators in all sports," said Mike Moyer, executive director of the National Wrestling Coaches Association. "There were 80,000 tickets sold in Pennsylvania at the State Championships and New Jersey sells between 60,000 and 70,000 tickets. At the NCAA level over 97,000 tickets were sold for the Division I Championships in St. Louis, Missouri."
But why such rapid growth?
According to Moyer, it's simple. "Number one, it is one of the oldest sports in the world, so it's been around for a long time; and number two, it is one of the sports that you can play regardless of your size," he said.
Moyer continued, "It's not like basketball, baseball, or soccer that has a high level of hand eye coordination. It can accommodate athletes of all sizes and it's very exciting to watch."
John Giacche, head coach of Union Endicott High School in upstate New York for the past four years concurs.
"Anyone can do it - whether you are 96 pounds or 296 pounds," explained Giacche. "I think some of the emergence is because it takes a special breed of a person to compete and be successful in the sport. It draws a different type of athlete since it's such an individual sport. It forces them to rely on themselves and be accountable for themselves. It's one of those sports that hard work, dedication and discipline pays off more than other sports. Maybe because in many ways it's such an individual sport and it's very cost efficient."
Wrestling's origins can be traced to Babylonia, Egypt, France, Japan and England. Colonists then carried the tradition overseas, and early Americans discovered the sport of wrestling to be popular among Native Americans as well. There is even a recorded list of Olympic wrestling winners dating 708 B.C. Some notable wrestlers include philosopher Plato, and Presidents George Washington, Abraham Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt.
According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, it defines wrestling as "a sport or contest in which two unarmed individuals struggle hand-to-hand with each attempting to subdue or unbalance the other.'
The original form of wrestling included a brutal level of competition and eventually became more regulated in style, rules, regulations and formats. Early Greco-Roman wrestling competitions evolved into Freestyle and eventually became the Scholastic or Folk-Style wrestling native to the United States.
This time-honored tradition has evolved and become more colorful. In addition to the traditional formats of Greco-Roman, Freestyle and Scholastic, we also have the World Wrestling Entertainment where the personalities are as colorful as fireworks on the fourth of July.
Professional wrestling started back in the early 1900's with the Capital Wrestling Corporation, eventually progressing to the World Wrestling Federation with Vince McMahon at the helm. Professional wrestling reached its peak in the 1980's with the introduction of pay-per-view contests followed by Wrestle Mania and Monday Night Raw. The name was officially changed to World Wrestling Entertainment after a lawsuit and steroid scandal. They've since overcome controversial deaths of their athletes, successfully launched their media arm to the internet, and have seen a steady increase in their fan base over the last two years.
Reaping the Benefits
Hosting a wrestling tournament not only benefits the area in which the event is held from a financial standpoint, but it's also relatively easy on the host destination.
The Junior Nationals are held every summer in Fargo, North Dakota and is the largest high school wrestling tournament in the world with 24 mats in the Fargo Dome, according to Craig Sesker, manager of Communications with USA Wrestling.
The Body Bar in Colorado Springs is an annual event for women wrestlers. "The tournament is for young kids through high school age from allover the country," said Sesker. "It's a benchmark where we identify some of our younger talent. It's an event for some girls to really prove themselves."
Some other notable events sanctioned by USA Wrestling include The United States World Team Trials set for Council Bluff, Iowa in 2010, and the host city for the United States Nationals has not been announced.
The economic impact can benefit a host city in several different ways, from overnight accommodations to area restaurants.
"Typically, the event runs all day, or they run multiple days so from a Convention and Visitors Bureau standpoint there are ongoing tickets sales," said Moyer. "Combined with the food and beverage that they can capitalize on all day, the economic impact is considerable. State high school tournaments are usually three days and there are many youth tournaments that are a minimum of two days."
"Wrestling tournaments don't require a lot of equipment," said Moyer. "All you really need is a big space and some bleachers." Mats for competition are the only equipment that needs to be brought in and are usually obtained from area high schools and universities.
Jennifer Rothman, sports sales manager with the Long Island Convention & Visitors Bureau agrees. "Most of our tournaments are local," said Rothman. "But the area where the school is located benefits in that they are going out to dinner and lunch as well as some of the shops in the area."
Those aren't the only areas that benefit from hosting wrestling tournaments; the community can also get a piece of the action.
"Volunteers usually make up the concession and registration staff," said Moyer. "Whether it is a booster club or a youth wrestling organization, a portion of the proceeds can benefit their organization. There is quite a bit of money that can be generated."
"The benefits (of hosting wrestling tournaments) are showing how a sport that is considered small, and see how it's growing," said Rothman. "That is great for the sport of wrestling."
Providing excellent facilities, dining options and accommodations aren't the only deciding factors in hosting a tournament. According to Giacche, competition is the true decision maker for any team, "Competition is the largest thing - it's always got to be about the competition," he said. "If it's good enough competition, you've got to find a way to get there. It's not so much where it is - but who's going. Also, how the tournament is run. If it's run well they are going to draw year after year."
Women's emergence in the sport of wrestling is the hot topic among high schools and colleges around the country. With women wrestlers growing exponentially year after year, it's now officially one of the fastest growing sports among young women, according to Mat.com - the official web page of USA Wrestling. Additionally, a number of colleges have added wrestling on the varsity and club level circuits.
In 2006, Michaela Hutchison made history in Alaska. The 103 pound Skyview wrestler became the first girl in the nation to win a state high school wrestling title competing against boys. Just three years later, Carlene Sluberski, of Fredonia High School, took 2nd in the 2009 New York State Tournament at 96 pounds.
According to the United States Olympic Education Center, women's freestyle wrestling debuted in 2004 at the Olympics in Athens, Greece. Currently 85 out of 140 Olympic-affiliated countries practice women's freestyle wrestling.
"The U.S. started competing in the World Champ in 1989 and it was kind of a slow process for women jumping into the sport," said Sesker. "The U.S. had a lot of success, but where women's wrestling made their jump was when they got into the Athens Olympics. They finally got the credibility they needed and it gives girls that goal to shoot for; to be on that same stage as the best athletes in the world in every sport."
"I think being in the Olympics is just huge," continued Sesker. "When you are a kid growing up, you watch the Olympics on TV. Once you are competing in an Olympic sport, it gives you a level of credibility. I think it's more accepted to be a women's wrestler because it's an Olympic sport."
But even with these impressive numbers, finding participation among women wrestlers has proven challenging and most female athletes are taking on their male counterparts.
"I definitely think there are a couple of challenges (in boys wrestling girls)," said Giacche. "Society has taught us that you are supposed to treat girls a different way. But it becomes a respect issue on the mat. The girls are putting in as much training as the boys, and they just want to be treated as a wrestler."
"While it can be tough for any kid (to wrestle a girl), at the same time, it's becoming more acceptable and it's really cool to see these girls have gained so much success," continued Giacche. "With the success of some of these female wrestlers, that mindset of treating them differently has gone out the window. You are not losing to a girl - you are losing to the 2nd runner up in the state."
Brothers Kevin and Kyle Hughes wrestle for Giacche at Union Endicott High School at 119 pounds and 96 pounds respectively; both have faced female wrestlers on the mat.
"I was nervous because I knew I would get busted on by my teammates if I lost," said Kyle Hughes. Hughes pinned his opponent with a headlock in the first period. "It's not the normal match. I tried to get it over quickly but I wrestled her the same that I would any other competitor."
Elder brother Kevin faced a female challenger during the 2007-08 season at 119 pounds and won. "I was trying not to embarrass her because I knew she worked as hard as I did to get here," he said. "Once the match started, she just became another wrestler and my goal was to earn a tech fall." A tech fall is when a wrestler wins by more than 15 points during the match."
The Future is so Bright
The growth of wrestling isn't slowing down any time soon and will continue its steady expansion in the United States.
"I think it will continue to grow. We've had many good years of growth and our organization is committed to grow at the local level across America," said Moyer. "That's why we are so committed to the development of the coaches. There is no one that plays a more pivotal role than the head coach and that's at all levels."
"There are more programs popping up and I think it's a great sport for women as well," agreed Sesker.
Another bright spot in the sport?
"At a national level they have done a great job monitoring some issues that have been a dark spot in the sport, for example weight cutting," explains Giacche. "With the new rules in place the performance of what has been showing up on the mat has improved. Kids are healthier and they are able to wrestle at a higher level."
At this level of growth and success among men and women in this sport, wrestling is certainly a sport to keep our eyes on.