Women grapple with significantly expanding opportunities in wrestling.
Once strictly a male sport, wrestling is being embraced by growing numbers of females and the sport’s governing bodies, product manufacturers and team dealers are eager to keep the momentum going.
“Wrestling for girls and women is growing like crazy right now. It’s easily one of the fastest-growing sports for females and the sky’s the limit,” remarks Gary Abbott, USA Wrestling’s director of communications and special projects. “We’ve seen consistent growth and changes in culture. As empowerment for women and girls has grown and become more accepted, people are excited to create more opportunities.”
At the college level, Abbott says there are now more than 70 women’s programs, and the NCAA has approved women’s wrestling for emerging sport status in Division II and Division III categories. On the international front, Japan is a powerhouse in women’s wrestling, meaning that the event (and the U.S. women’s squad) is sure to draw plenty of attention during the Olympic Games in Tokyo this summer.
Other elements, such as the expansion from four weight classes to six, and new rules that allow two-piece uniforms, are also spurring growth.
But Abbott contends that high school participation is the most important factor driving the sport.
“The high school level provides a grassroots structure that is key to feeding collegiate and Olympic programs,” he explains. “The more young girls we have wrestling, the more participation we’ll have at the high school, college and international levels.”
He adds that the challenges for women’s wrestling include prompting more states to start official programs, getting more coaches to include girls in existing programs, and encouraging more females to become coaches at every level.
Team dealers are enthusiastic about the sport, even though it’s still a niche category. “Women’s wrestling has a high growth rate – it’s second behind lacrosse – but it’s still only five to 10 percent of our business,” says Kim Karsh, of California Pro Sports.
Meanwhile, Kansas-based Nill Bros. Sports, which operated two locations, one in Kansas City and the other in Overland Park, has always supported wrestling at the youth, high school and college levels. (In early March, BSN Sports acquired Nill Bros.) Former owner Randy Nill believes that the new uniform rules are having a positive impact on participation, especially girls. However, the business sells more traditional singlets than two-piece uniforms in Kansas.
“Giving girls the opportunity to wrestle against opponents of their own gender provides more opportunity to get involved and creates fairer competition. Its exciting to see that women’s wrestling is now being accepted and now we’re exposing new people to the sport,” says Abbott. “We won’t take the growth of women’s wrestling for granted — we’ll continue to educate and promote.”