Few high profile athletes have supported college wrestling more than former two-division UFC champion Daniel Cormier, who was an All-American himself while competing at Oklahoma State University.
In recent years, college wrestling programs have been forced to fight to survive as funding has been cut or diverted to support other sports instead. Just this past year, Stanford University was on the verge of cutting its wrestling program despite Shane Griffith winning the NCAA title at 165 pounds.
While money has run short to save many wrestling programs, the NCAA just recently changed its rules to allow individual college athletes to start earning their own cash under NIL (name, image, likeness) deals, which has resulted in a flood of money coming in from many big named sponsors.
2020 Olympic gold medalist and NCAA champion wrestler Gable Steveson is a prime example of an athlete working within the new system after he inked a lucrative three-year NIL deal with World Wrestling Entertainment ahead of his junior year competing at the University of Minnesota.
The lure of making money in professional wrestling or even a potential move into mixed martial arts might have forced Steveson to forgo the final two years of eligibility he maintained at Minnesota but instead he’ll get to go back and compete for another NCAA championship while earning money on the side.
As exciting as that deal will be for Steveson so he can return for at least another year, Cormier cautions other athletes that a 21-year-old Olympic champion might be a bit of unicorn in the NIL space compared to what most college wrestlers will make.
“A guy like Gable Steveson can go and get some money,” Cormier explained when speaking to MMA Fighting. “It’s just not there’s boatloads of money out there for these wrestlers. Not trying to be negative, I want to be realistic. If you have a realistic expectation, you can go make a little bit of money in this NIL. But make sure you know what your value is, especially as you’re still in a sport that doesn’t get the coverage that these other sports get.
“These basketball players like Jalen Green and Cade Cunningham, these kids that just got drafted, they’re going to be millionaires before they even leave college now but that isn’t the case for every single sport.”
Cormier has definitely seen the explosion of the NIL deals across college athletics ever since the rules were changed.
The management company that Cormier has called home ever since deciding to become a fighter also just recently inked a deal with an NCAA champion but that still doesn’t mean this will become a new normal for every single college wrestler out there.
“The management company I’m with Zinkin Entertainment signed Austin O’Connor,” Cormier said. “Austin O’Connor is the guy who won the NCAA tournament at 149 pounds from North Carolina. He’s going to be fantastic but it’s only for his name, image, likeness because that’s all you can do for these kids in the meantime.
“But I just believe that you have to have a true idea of what the landscape looks like. Because you can promise these kids the world. You’ve seen [Alabama head coach] Nick Saban saying his quarterback going to make a million dollars. That becomes a recruiting tool for Alabama — you start for Alabama you can make all this money in the NIL whereas other places you can’t do that.”
As much as Cormier would love to see major companies start pumping more money into college wrestling through the athletes, he knows it’s still only a handful who are going to ultimately benefit.
“You have to understand the landscape of wrestling and tell these young men and women a true idea of what they can and cannot make,” Cormier said. “I think that is what people are going to have to navigate as they start getting into these deals.
“Because remember when this thing was first announced, all these young wrestlers had money and green in their eyes and that’s not the reality. People will offer them product.”
The fact that Stanford nearly cut its program the same year that an athlete was competing for an NCAA championship proves that NIL deals might be game changers for some but it doesn’t mean the fight to save college wrestling is over.
“That tells you how much they undervalue these wrestlers, who bring so much to these universities,” Cormier said. “Understand the landscape, set realistic expectations and then have somebody go get that for you.”