Why do cash-strapped Canadian universities often scrap wrestling programs?

Last week, the University of Regina cut its entire varsity wrestling program. Those in the industry say it's not an uncommon move in Canada for universities facing budgetary pressures.

University of Regina latest among many through history to cut its varsity wrestling teams

The 2017/2018 University of Regina men's wrestling team in happier times. A report completed in January 2017 said that the 16 teams the U of R currently had going were not sustainable. (Lucas Hoffert)

When Regina's Jordan Tholl started applying to universities two years ago, he stood at a crossroads.

Now the path he chose has come to an abrupt end.

Tholl was successful at O'Neill high school in both football and wrestling. He had scholarship offers in both, but could only choose one.

He chose wrestling. He took a scholarship at the University of Regina, home to one of the most awarded university wrestling programs in the country.

"Wrestling really was the biggest impact on my life," Tholl said. "I feel like I'm the man I am today because I wrestled."

Jordan Tholl built up his wrestling career at O'Neill high school in Regina, before moving on to compete for the U of R. (Micki Cowan/CBC)

His future in the sport was looking promising. Then the U of R cut its entire wrestling program last week, along with the men's volleyball team.

Tholl got the news at work in a barrage of messages. Only later did he read the email from the university.

"It was really disrespectful just how it's been done, and no forewarning. There could have been a lot of changes I could have made to my life if I would have known this beforehand," he said.

Wrestling gets slammed 

This isn't the first time wrestling has been on the chopping block at Canadian schools.

Universities conduct athletic reviews periodically. David Wilson, who was coach of the University of British Columbia wrestling club for a decade, said that when a sport needs to go the wrestling team is a common target.

"I think it's the least understood sport in terms of it's not always in the public eye. It's usually done in gymnasiums and it's not on TV a lot," Wilson said.

Jordan Tholl is fighting to get wrestling reinstated as a varsity sport at the University of Regina after it was cut on April 20, 2018. (Tony Melgar)

Wilson has experienced plenty of cuts during his 30 years in wrestling.

If you're invisible and no one sees you, it's not helpful.- David Wilson, former UBC wrestling club coach

He was a wrestler at Concordia in the 1990s. He said the university was trying to axe the program at the time, but the wrestlers were able to plead their case and save it.

The University of British Columbia, where Wilson built up his coaching career, had its varsity wrestling team cut in 1987, and became a student-run club.

UBC's club has been fighting for a return to varsity status, but so far has been denied.

"[It's] sort of like being invisible. If you're invisible and no one sees you, it's not helpful," Wilson said.

Other universities have been through the same process, including Manitoba in 2004 and Winnipeg just last year.

Without a varsity title, wrestlers can't compete in the two most important competitions in the country: Canada West and U Sport.

"That's your raison d'être, your reason to be. You need a goal." Wilson said.

Attention from athletic reviews

Regina's cut stemmed from an athletic review. The report recommended prioritizing programs that have a greater impact on institutional branding or attendance at games.

It said that given current resources, supporting the university's 16 programs is unsustainable. 

Harold Riemer, dean of kinesiology at the University of Regina, said he understands that people are upset, and said it was a difficult decision to make. (Micki Cowan/CBC)

Harold Riemer, dean of Kinesiology at the U of R, said finances, attendance at games and community engagement all factored into the decision to cut the teams.

"One of the most important reasons relates to budget. We've been running a deficit in the athletics program for a number of years now," said Riemer.

He pegged the athletic budget deficit at almost $500,000 last year.

"It's not a decision we rushed into lightly," he said. "At the end you have to make a decision and we need to live with that."

A growing sport

Many in the wrestling community felt the U of R's decision didn't make sense.

One of the reasons Riemer gave was a lack of community engagement. But Wrestling Saskatchewan said its community is growing. New membership in the Saskatchewan Amateur Wrestling Association set a new record this year, growing from 662 people in 2015-16 to 904 for 2017-2018.

Jordan Tholl placed second place in the country in his weight class at junior nationals this year. (Wrestling Canada)

And while the U of R men's team hasn't won the U Sports title since 2012, assistant captain Tholl said they were the top performing male team at the school this year.

According to the U Sports website, one athlete, Waylon Decoteau, ranks second in the country in the 100 kg weight category.

"We were going to have a very strong, competitive team next year," Tholl said.

The sport's growth is part of the reason the cuts were so shocking to O'Neill high school coach Rob Nelson, who also coached Tholl.

Former U of R wrestler Jordan Tholl (right) reflects on his time in the sport with his former coach, Rob Nelson from O'Neill high school in Regina. (Micki Cowan/CBC)

Nelson said that, like the Olympics (which has also attempted to cut wrestling), university programs inspire young athletes. He said he is worried about the impact the U of R's decision will have on wrestling in the province.

"Having that local program is such a huge option, not only money-wise, because it's so expensive to move away, but many just aren't ready for a big life change moving away from family and friends, even if they love wrestling," Nelson said. 

Seven of Nelson's former students were on the recently-cut university team.

"That's really the next step for those kids that want to progress to an elite level," he said.

That sentiment is echoed at a national level.

Tamara Medwidsky, executive director of Wrestling Canada, said the news is devastating both to Regina and the community across the country, as U Sports is a huge component of the organization's athlete development pathway.

"A number of our high-performing athletes, Olympic medallists, world championship medallists, have all sort of come through that system, so we recognize and value that particular component of our sporting community," Medwidsky said. 

An uncertain future

Now students like Tholl have to rethink what comes next.

Besides competing, he wanted to eventually become a teacher to pass on his love of the sport.

Tholl said most universities have already doled out their scholarship funding for the fall and registration is largely closed.

The U of R has said it won't be reinstating the program even if funds are raised, but Tholl is resolving to keep fighting for it.

"It's totally an uphill battle, but I'm willing to fight tooth and nail for this," he said.

"Until there's absolutely nothing left and no one back supporting me anymore."


Micki Cowan


Micki is a reporter and producer at CBC Vancouver. Her passions are municipal issues and water security.