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College wrestling and the transfer portal –

This is the first of a two-part series on transitioning in college wrestling. The first article is about the transfer portal and NIL compensation for college wrestlers. A shorter article about the portal and Division III wrestling will come later.

Two main stories have dominated wrestling news and social media this spring (I started writing this before David Taylor became Oklahoma State’s coach). One of these concerns last month’s Olympic Trials and the upcoming Games in Paris. The other is the NCAA Transfer Portal and its connection to Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) compensation for college athletes.

Penn State, Iowa and Michigan finished in 1st3rdand 5e place at the NCAA Division I Championships in March. Each team sent four wrestlers to the tournament who transferred to the school. Nine of those 12 athletes had become All-Americans before transferring. Three recent NCAA changes have helped these moves and those of other athletes in recent years.

  1. Relaxed transfer rules and the transfer portal – Division I athletes were required to request permission to discuss transferring with another school until the transfer portal was introduced, and the current school had the right to refuse permission. Since the transfer portal was put into use, schools were required to place an athlete in the portal if he requested it. The portal is a database of athletes available to anyone at an NCAA school with access. A wrestler can express their desire to transfer to the entire NCAA by simply submitting their name in the portal.
  2. An additional year of eligibility due to COVID-19 – Wrestlers were able to compete in the 2020-2021 season without using an eligibility season, so anyone who wrestled that season will have the opportunity for a fifth year of competition. This group is nearing college completion, and many of the recent transfers have completed college degrees. Except for anyone with a medical redshirt year, the 2024-2025 season should be the last chance to compete for the majority of fifth-year wrestlers.
  3. Name, Image and Likeness Compensation – College athletes can now receive compensation for their name, image and likeness, an opportunity they were denied until 2021. Wrestlers may decide to transfer in hopes of receiving NIL payments at their new schools. More about this below.

State laws surrounding NIL vary, and the NCAA’s rules and enforcement are uneven and the subject of multiple lawsuits. Regardless of laws or NCAA rules, an athlete must offer something in exchange for NIL compensation. This included social media posts, event participation, autograph signings and other activities. The deals fall into two main categories. The first category includes endorsement deals. An athlete promotes a company in exchange for payment. Former Iowa women’s basketball player Caitlin Clark’s relationship with State Farm is a high-profile example of this first category of NIL compensation.

The second category of NIL compensation is much closer to a pay-for-play scheme. Groups of donors, commonly referred to as NIL collectives, pool resources to pay for athletes to attend the school supported by the collective. These organizations are not run by the schools and are separate from the athletic department, although a close relationship exists. If you see a notification where an athlete is paid an amount of money to transfer, that money usually comes from a collective. In exchange for giving money to the collective, donors gain access to certain benefits, which often include access to content and events featuring current athletes. The collective pays the athletes in exchange for creating digital content and attending these events.

The combination of the transfer portal and NIL compensation has created an environment where athletes have an incentive to enter the transfer portal and negotiate with schools through NIL collectives to secure large payments. Athletes leverage their success into dollars, while colleges compete to lure wrestlers who have already shown they can win at the college level.

Before the change in transfer and compensation rules, athletes had very little influence, while schools had almost all the power. An 18 year old would commit to a school, it was difficult to leave and scholarships were (in most cases) only guaranteed for one year at a time. In addition, the athlete had no opportunity to earn money in addition to a scholarship. Many athletes who play sports other than basketball and football receive partial scholarships, so they pay a certain amount out of pocket to participate and play sports. For the first time, there is such a thing as a talent market where athletes can benefit financially from competing for their services.

The method by which athletes are paid is inefficient, opaque and ripe for exploitation on both sides. Because schools can’t pay athletes directly as employees, donors and collectives step into the gap and provide the funds. If you read a poorly sourced tweet about a wrestler being offered $200,000 to transfer to your favorite DI school, that money would come from donors who work closely with the coaches and may also be directly involved in recruiting. This makes some people uncomfortable! From a fan perspective, it’s no fun to root for a wrestler who is doing well, only to have him leave for a school with boosters with deeper pockets.

Before NIL and the portal, this kind of thing rarely happened. When a second-level wrestling team recruited and developed an All-American, he almost always stayed for his entire career. What are the odds that a school like Edinboro, a Division II school with Division I wrestling, could now have back-to-back top-five NCAA finishes like in 2014 and 2015? Chances are at least one All-American will want to test the transfer waters in hopes of a five- or six-figure payday.

Is the portal and NIL a net negative for college wrestling? It probably depends on your perspective and underlying interests. Some hyperbolically state that the portal will result in the death of college wrestling. Others limit their concerns to the fate of teams that have fewer resources to devote to the sport. Still others may express doubts while expressing the opinion that wrestlers should have the opportunity to make money commensurate with their abilities.

There are two questions that anyone who has an opinion should be able to answer before taking a position. What restrictions should be imposed on athletes, and are these restrictions legally, morally and ethically defensible? Many arguments against NIL and portal start like this: it’s good that athletes can get paid But…On the other side of that But is usually an idea that would limit athletes’ choices, their earning power, or both. It is not unreasonable to advocate for some level of restriction on athletes’ freedom of movement or compensation in the hopes of promoting other ideas such as fairness, the health of wrestling programs, or protecting athletes from exploitation by more sophisticated coaches, agents, or collectives . However, it is important to ensure that restrictions in the name of protection do not unreasonably limit a wrestler’s opportunity to benefit financially from his athletic skills during a short competitive career.

There are two types of wrestling programs that could lose out in the portal era. The first is the type that’s getting the most attention right now: a college in non-power conferences losing an All-American-caliber wrestler to a school with more resources. This hasn’t happened often, especially when graduate transfers and wrestlers transferring after a coaching change are removed from the roster. These schools typically don’t compete for the national championship trophy, and while losing a top athlete hurts, the teams should still be able to continue to compete for conference honors and send wrestlers to the NCAA tournament. This was the case before NIL and will remain the case in the future. NIL and the portal have not significantly changed the pecking order of NCAA wrestler (or any other sport for that matter). Ohio won’t be chasing Ohio State anytime soon, regardless of what the transfer rules say or how much wrestlers get paid.

The other type of school that could be hurt by NIL and the portal are power conference schools that cannot keep up with the others in their conference. If your school doesn’t have enough wealthy donors to pay wrestlers, your team will fall further behind. If Iowa, Penn State and Ohio State can pay to attract and retain talent, they can open an even bigger gap with Indiana, Purdue and Northwestern in the Big Ten. If you’re concerned about equality in wrestling, this is the area you should focus on. Ohio doesn’t need to catch Ohio State to have a healthy program. They can focus on Central Michigan, Northern Illinois and Lock Haven, while also working to get guys on the podium in March. If NIL and the portal keep Maryland and Michigan State from getting closer to the top, it could one day affect the competitiveness of the national tournament.

Despite the fuss surrounding this issue, nothing about the portal era has changed the image of the national championship. Parity has never been a part of modern NCAA Division I wrestling. In the past 30 years, only five teams have won the NCAA team title, and four others have finished second without winning during that span. Teams with a lot of resources win the most. This has been true for as long as there has been college wrestling. The top ten of the 2024 NCAA Championships is a lot like the top ten of the 2014 tournament, which is a lot like the top ten of the 2004 tournament. The transfer portal has not meaningfully changed who can compete for a championship . Will fans really give up on supporting a team because the odds of winning a team title are slightly smaller than before? If you were to drive 500 miles to the beach for your vacation, would you cancel the trip if you had to drive 310 miles instead?

The portal and NIL are not a perfect system, but barring congressional action, it is the system that exists. Athletes get freedom, money and the risks that come with both. Recruiting and retention is more stressful for coaches who now also have to manage a “payroll” that is effectively managed by someone else (donors). Fans can still watch and cheer for high-level wrestling. I think wrestling will be okay, and the product on the mat will be as good as it’s ever been. College wrestling, and college sports in general, will continue to change, just as it has since 1934, when Oklahoma State won its first official NCAA team title. However, some things remain the same. Ninety years after that first NCAA championship, Oklahoma State is dominating the current news cycle with the announcement of David Taylor as their next head coach.