Arkansas might not be one of the first states that comes to mind when thinking about the sport of wrestling, but the Natural State will soon be home to the newest college wrestling program in NCAA Division I
Highlighting the spread of the sport outside its traditional geographic footprint in the Midwest and Northeast, the University of Arkansas at Little Rock announced Saturday during the NCAA Wrestling Championship in Cleveland that it will launch a Division I wrestling program in time for the 2019-2020 season.
A major announcement this evening as Little Rock will add wrestling as its 15th intercollegiate sport.
Pending board approval, the Trojans will begin competing at the Division I level in fall 2019. #LittleRocksTeam
— Our City. Our Team. (@LRTrojans) March 17, 2018
"Little Rock Athletics is thrilled to announce the addition of Division I wrestling to our campus," said Director of Athletics Chasse Conque. "This serves as an exciting milestone for our department, adding a program that will complement and enhance the profile of our existing 14 sports."
Launching a wrestling program as the university's 15th sport happened because of a $1.4 million pledge from Greg Hatcher to secure funding to begin the program. The gift from Hatcher, a prominent Little Rock businessman and supporter of youth sports, will help UA Little Rock build a wrestling facility, purchase equipment, and fund operational expenditures.
Hatcher is well known within the wrestling community as the driving force behind establishing high school wrestling in Arkansas.
According to data from the National Federation of State High School Associations, in 2007 there were zero students participating in wrestling in the state of Arkansas – by 2016, the state had 839 participants. Hatcher was one of the driving forces in Arkansas becoming the 49th state to add high school wrestling when the Arkansas Activities Association approved wrestling as a sanctioned sport for the 2008-2009 season, with more than 40 schools participating in the inaugural season.
"Thanks to Chancellor Andrew Rogerson and Athletic Director Chasse Conque, Little Rock and the state of Arkansas will now be the home to Division I wrestling," Hatcher said. "This will now bring wrestling at the highest level to our city in the grandest way possible, and I couldn't be happier for our city and state."
Little Rock becomes the second school in the past year to announce plans to add wrestling. Presbyterian College in South Carolina launched both men’s and women’s programs this year, and will compete this fall under head coach Mark Cody, who previously served as head coach at Oklahoma.
It's noteworthy that the two newest Division I programs are in southern states where wrestling isn't as prevalent as it is in places like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Iowa. The Southeastern Athletic Conference doesn't support wrestling as a sport, and SEC schools who field a team compete in other conferences, as in the case of Missouri in the Mid-American Conference.
Little Rock's conference affiliation is an open question at this point, but Hatcher and the University told Gary Abbott with USA Wrestling that they will support the full 9.9 scholarships allowed under NCAA rules.
Total high school wrestling participation is down slightly over the past decade, but interest in the sport is spreading geographically, with all 50 states now reporting at least some high school wrestling participation.