The PIAA has passed a proposal to cut the number of weight classes in high school wrestling to 12 from its current number of 14.
At its board of control meeting on Wednesday, the PIAA not only undertook a radical step to counter the devastating effects of forfeits on the sport, but it also took the first steps in possibly saving the sport from extinction.
The only question is this: What took so long?
For too long, wrestling has been plagued by falling numbers of participants and that has led to some incredibly unwatchable dual matches because of the high number of forfeits.
While most coaches probably hate the move because it removes two possible wrestlers from the starting lineup, this action by the PIAA was more than necessary. The PIAA will seek to make the move permanent when it approaches the National High School Federation Association for permission. If denied, the PIAA will try it out in a three-year pilot program.
Forfeits caused by low numbers on rosters have been a consistent problem for wrestling, mainly eating away at Class AA. But it has been seaping into the Class AAA ranks over the years.
No one likes to watch a dual meet filled with forfeits. Some schools do not charge fans to get into matches because of the high number of forfeits. Matches can be held in as little as 10 minutes in some cases, and that frustrates and alienates fans.
Even the wrestlers who receive the forfeits rarely look pleased about getting their hand raised. Contested bouts, even if one-sided, are more entertaining than a forfeit.
Maybe this action by the PIAA will be the start of the revival process.
When the PIAA expanded the weight classes to 14 in 2003, it probably didn’t realize, or worse, didn’t care about the effect it would have on the smaller high schools across the state.
Wrestling is a difficult sport and it takes a great deal of dedication to excel. Many athletes just aren’t willing to make that type of a commitment and maybe the PIAA failed to understand that.
The coaches who I have discussed this issue with make the argument that getting more wrestlers into a program can be the spark the sport needs. But that just doesn’t seem to be the case. If expansion is the cure for the sport, then why are the participation numbers falling? It’s possible to make the argument that all sports are seeing a drop in roster numbers.
But there can’t be any argument about the fact expansion has not solved wrestling’s problems, namely making it an attractive enough support for many students to give it a try.
Fewer weight classes might mean that some athletes will be pushed out of the starting lineup. I am sure coaches fear that might mean those athletes will leave the program. But if that’s the case, how dedicated were they to the sport?
Fewer weight classes probably won’t mean a shift of power from the traditionally strong teams. The change will actually make programs that dominate the sport stronger and harder to beat.
But it also means fewer forfeits and more bouts, especially in the smaller programs. And maybe it becomes more entertaining to watch.
The PIAA made this move at some expense to its bottom line. Anyone who has been to a postseason tournament knows that it’s nearly a day-long event. Wrestling runs from 9 a.m. until 10 p.m or later during the state meet. Cutting the weights means less time in the Giant Center in Hershey for fans. It also means fewer concessions and T-shirts and sweatshirts are sold.
The expanded weight classes have led to some very weak competition in the early rounds of the state tournament. That had to be alarming to the PIAA.
There is no guarantee that this will be the shot in the arm the sport needs. But it does mean the PIAA has readjusted its priorities to some degree to save the sport from deteriorating further.
If this proposal is accepted by the National High School Federation Association, it will go into affect for the 2020–21 season.
Maybe 10 years from now, we will look back on this action by the PIAA as the first step to saving the sport.