Cael Sanderson is a titan at seemingly every level of the wrestling world.
He’s the most successful collegiate wrestler in NCAA Division I history, won an Olympic Gold and has won eight NCAA titles as a head coach.
And yet, one of the sport’s biggest names at one of the country’s most well-known universities, feels he only has so much pull when it comes to changing and growing the sport he’s made his livelihood.
“I just try to do the best that I can with the job I’ve been hired to do. That’s how we try to do our best to make the sport more interesting, more competitive and I think that’s happening as we’re seeing just with numbers alone,” Sanderson said. “We’re just gonna do what we can control. That’s always been my philosophy — just do the job I was hired to do.”
Sanderson knows wrestling is a niche sport that is difficult to follow and understand at times.
Of the nine NCAA sanctioned men’s team sports at the Division I level, wrestling ranks fifth with 75 programs, well behind the next closest sport, swimming and diving, which has 131 teams competing.
Penn State however, took in roughly $1.7 million in revenue in 2018, per Penn State’s financial disclosure report.
So it’d be easy for Sanderson to look at the microcosm of Happy Valley and have his blue and white tinted glasses on and think the situation around the country is fine.
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And to an extent, it is.
While Pennsylvania has 11 Division I schools for wrestling, there are several states, including those like Virginia (five), North Carolina and New York (both seven), which aren’t considered wrestling hotbeds but still provide a lot of choice for wrestlers in different regions outside of just Iowa, Oklahoma and Pennsylvania.
No team has been able to catch Penn State in the team race over the last four years, but schools like Virginia Tech, NC State, Arizona State and Rutgers have all cracked the top-10 in that time, suggesting perhaps the regional balance of power is shifting slightly.
Still though, Sanderson wants to make the sport more digestible to the general public.
“We’ve just got to make it more of a mainstream sport just by making it more exciting to watch and the rules are complicated — so if somebody brings somebody new, there’s a pretty high chance they give up doing the score,” Sanderson said.
The silver lining in his eyes though are the TV deals the sport has struck with the Big Ten Network and ESPN — evident in the fact that Penn State’s dual meet with Iowa this season was the most watched wrestling match in Big Ten Network history.
“I think we just keep doing what we’re doing. The TV coverage has continued to increase every year, the national tournament coverage with ESPN, they’ve been great and it’s expanded every year,” Sanderson said. “I think things are going well, we’ve just got to keep moving forward.”
In terms of moving forward, Sanderson pinpointed one area to target.
“The things I’d like to see would be a couple extra scholarships because it’s not very realistic to have 10 weight classes and 9.9 scholarships at a school — and every school has different perks and scholarships and opportunities for kids,” he said.
To outsiders it might seem like a big ask, but it’s one Sanderson views as necessary and one that isn’t a major change in the grand scheme of things.
“I think 12 or 13, 14, 15 scholarships would make the sport more exciting. You wouldn’t have some of those dual meets where there are times when they don’t have anybody and then they forfeit,” Sanderson said. “I think it’s just little things. I don’t think there are any drastic, major changes. I just think it’s all constant small steps.”
Beyond the college ranks, wrestling participation is down, even if it is by force.
The 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo will feature six Olympic weight classes for freestyle wrestling, which Sanderson said is “absurd.”
That number is slightly down from seven weight classes when Sanderson captured his gold medal in 2004 and down from the 11 present in 1988 when Penn State’s first ever Olympic wrestler Ken Chertow, competed in the games.
The reduction in weight classes came after a 2013 vote by the International Olympic Committee to remove wrestling from upcoming summer games despite the sport’s rich tradition and history dating back to the ancient Olympics.
The IOC eventually reversed its decision later that year, meaning Olympic wrestling will continue until at least 2024.
But Sanderson views these all as half-measures and ones with parallels to the NCAA despite feeling the sport deserves more respect and recognition.
“I think as a sport, it’s more about we’ll just take what we can get. You saw the Olympics — they almost threatened, at least, to kick wrestling out. As an organization internationally, we were willing to give whatever we could,” Sanderson said. “We as a sport, we’re just willing to take that and happy to be there instead of fighting for what we probably could get and deserve. It’s the same thing with the NCAA — I don’t think there’s really anyone fighting for more scholarships. I think we’re trying to hang on more than move forward.