2020 Olympic Wrestling – Transform or Perish

How We Got Here?

It’s often said, “It’s wiser to whisper advice from cover than risk doing it while walking point.” Although I understand the benefits of whispering, there is simply too much riding on the sport’s current issues to remain silent. 

We’re in a place similar to where we were 50 years ago during the 70’s when a small but determined group of wrestling’s elite decided enough was enough. That was the beginning of the end for the AAU and its reign as America’s national governing body for sports. Now I’m not calling for an organizational coup but I am pointing out there are times when change is absolutely necessary.

We were right then and I’m right today, the leadership of our international styles has failed us again. Besides the Olympic challenge we face, which is the granddaddy of all screw-ups, medal production is way off too.  During the last 10 years of Newt Copple’s reign as AAU chief, when our wrestling programs were in disarray we won 6 Gold and 9 Silver at the World Championships in freestyle.  That’s compared to 2 Gold’s and 4 Silver’s during the most recent 10-year period with techniques, salaries, facilities, nutrition, travel revenue and sports medicine at record levels.

The IOC is certainly aware of wrestling’s leadership issues and made a very public statement about it in February. Television gets it and  continually takes a pass on covering our international events. Even America’s athletic directors see the void in our governance which doesn’t bode well for the sport domestically.

So here I am, a one man press corps asking the questions that need to be asked, sharing with you the other side of the coin that FILA and USAWrestling prefer not to tell you.  Trust me, you’re only being told what management wants you to hear.

More on that in future blogs, but for now here are a few prescriptions for healing.  The first is what FILA needs to tackle and then what USAWrestling should consider:

FILA

  1. First, foremost and paramount, we must take the opportunity for corruption out of the sport. This will take some carefully crafted rule changes complete with penalties that affect both the offending individual(s) and the country(s) they represent. The sport must at all costs put outcomes back in the hands of the athletes.
  2. Actively pursue global sponsors, companies like Chevrolet, Adidas and AT&T.   FILA needs businesses that can “go to the mat” for the sport. Right now would be a good time to have some corporate clout backing our efforts.
  3. Review of all their rules to see if they pass what I propose as the “Additional Scoring” test; do they encourage scoring? If not, they go the way of the dodo bird. Everything FILA has on the books must encourage scoring. The goal is to force athletes out of their comfort zone which will probably have a bunch of them squawking but everything they do must focus on scoring. Sitting on one point leads while fans snooze hasn’t been good for anyone.
  4. Rules that don’t directly affect match outcomes must meet “Marketing Requirements” that advance the sport. An example . . . Hollywood doesn’t save a movie, it markets a movie. We have to stop using the word “save” when we talk about wrestling. I know the word motivates the wrestling community but it strangles the sport in the eyes non-wrestling public. No one wants to be around a loser.
  5. Create a Global Diplomacy Program and promote it like its life depends on it; which it does. With the world being a dangerous place to live, countries that are the most volatile and disliked, all excel in wrestling. Make it impossible for the IOC to touch wrestling again by rebranding who we are; we’re the United Nations of Sport, we bring the world together through wrestling.

USAWrestling

  1. Don’t hire wrestlers in executive positions.  The challenge we face is wrestling has too much baggage. It’s been doing so many things wrong for so many years that anyone who comes from the sport already carries a pre-conditioned mindset that’s primed for failure. Instead, the sport needs individuals who aren’t encumbered by what has been, but rather what could be.  Wrestling needs successful businessmen and if they came with law degrees and MBA’s from prestigious institutions that wouldn’t hurt either. The point I’m trying to make is David Stern stands 5’ 6” and never played basketball, Gary Bettman, the Commissioner of the National Hockey League never skated but during his tenure took the leagues revenues from $400 million to over $3 billion. Bud Selig never played organized baseball. Roger Goodell only played football in high school. These are the types of leaders wrestling needs.
  2. Professional athletes, in any sport, don’t have a say relative to the rules or the operations of the league. Neither should our wrestlers play a part in the decision making process.  I like having an athlete board of advisers but advising is where it should stop. There’s a reason why 97% of the Fortune 500 CEO’s are over the age of 40 and 92% are over 50 – with age comes wisdom.

 What’s on the menu for next week?

Rules that international wrestling needs to adopt, where are the women on this, and FILA’s second largest gaffe.

Please pass this on.  If you care about wrestling – comment, share it, tweet it, post it, email it and help spread the word.

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10 thoughts on “2020 Olympic Wrestling – Transform or Perish

  1. One other thing I want to add. NCAA advertised its championships, advertised Dake vs Taylor several times this year. But then a dream matchup presents itself with Burroughs and Taylor. Had I not checked my email from Flowrestling, I wouldnt have known about it. So I payed for a flowrestling membership to watch what should of have atleast been on ESPN2. now we have world trials coming up with matchups like Dake vs Taylor, Burroughs vs Taylor and even Burroughs vs Dake. I exoect to find that only on Flowrestling as well. I dont mind cause I already am a subscriber now. But think of the thousands of youth to high school wrestlers who arent. Even more importantly, think of the millions that have never wrestled, dont have kids tha do that are missing the sports elite battling each other. If there were Titans of the mat that could get Americans and their moneu backing the sport I would think these three are it. I cant say Burroughs, Dake and Taylor are the greatest of all time, but certainly to have three wrestlers of this caliber with as much of a fan following as they have in one weight class, well its rare. If FILA doesnt take advantage of these three along with Varner, Oliver, Russell, Mango and many others……when will they. You cant build a following outside the sport if you dont present it.

    • Christian . . . you are exactly right, what a great weight class and a shame that every young wrestler isn’t going to get a chance to watch the battles. But understand, everything that happens or doesn’t happen in our sport is a direct result of good or bad leadership. Wrestling’s ingredients are already there for a wonderful meal. It’s our leadership that can’t seem to get them into a bowl or put them in the over at the right temperature. It’s time for them to get chopped.

  2. Very nice post. I just stumbled upon your blog and wanted to say that I’ve really enjoyed browsing your blog posts. In any case I will be subscribing to your rss feed and I hope you write again soon!

  3. Speaking of leadership, I am reminded of the US open the last time it was in Las Vegas. Themat.com advertised that the finals would be streamed live at a particular time. For whatever reason, things went faster than expected, so they started the finals ahead of the advertised time. That, to me, is a perfect example of how “we” don’t “get it”. Is there any wonder that we have no audience? We carry on as if the audience does not matter. I think this is also a perfect illustration we need non-wrestling people at the helm of our organization, at least to some extent, keeping us accountable to our audience and stakeholders.

    • Kevin . . . agreed, you’re right on the money. But it’s wrestling’s fault, it’s our fault. We’ve gotten so used to this sort of behavior that we’re immune to it. There’s no outrage. Can you imagine what would happen if the NFL started the Super Bowl 55 minutes before the advertised kickoff time due to and impending storm. Heads would roll everywhere but in wrestling, it’s like the sport is hooked up to a morphine drip and not only can’t feel the pain but is oblivious to it’s surroundings.

  4. Wade,

    We met once when I was on a trip to Clemson, and then later a few times at the NCAAs in various cities around the US. I have a tremendous amount of respect for you, and for what you’ve meant to our great sport.

    I think your comments here are on point, though I think your list of five important things are almost in reverse order. I think the things at the end of the list happening first will probably take care of the things at the beginning of the list…in time. And I do agree those things will make for a better, more exciting wrestling.

    But right now, there is no time to waste. Corporate backing, sponsorships, and the voice of the world is the ONLY thing that will see wrestling included in future olympic games.

    Unfortunately, for wrestling, the IOC is run by the MBAs and PhDs. And we can’t afford to delude ourselves into thinking the IOC is some revered committee which cares about the history and importance of wrestling.

    Broadcast fees and associated sponsorships make up a large portion of the IOC revenues, and, in my opinion, it is a matter of simple math…or money. The IOC trawls for corporate sponsors and broadcast partners, each who are interested in one thing and one thing only – eyeballs. Broadcasters want ratings because that’s how they sell ads, generate revenue, and make dividends for investors. Sponsors want you to see their shiny new shoes, buy them, and return money to their stockholders.

    When NBC or CCT in China or Doordarshan in India bid to win broadcasting rights they exert tremendous influence over the schedule of the games. They know though very detailed ratings data that basketball, and curling (among other sports) receive higher ratings and more eyeballs than wrestling. They also know that some other televised sports not currently in the olympics also receive higher ratings, and if they’re going to spend $1.2 billion buying the rights to show the olympics they’re going to do it knowing the sports they are buying are going to put butts on coaches in front of the tv.

    What does all that mean? The IOC’s mission is to advance the world of sport, and they do that through spending money. The more money they make the more they can spend the more they can advance sport. So if they have a shot of making $100 million more by pushing rollerblading over wrestling they are going to push it every way they can.

    Is wrestling a great sport? Yes. Does it teach respect for fellow competitors, reverence to fair play? Yes and Yes. But in a world where television ratings means more than history and reverence, wrestling loses.

    Without the Olympics, I think wrestling at all levels will suffer. College wrestling teams will likely lose more funding and high school wrestling will continue to drown in a sea of other more popular sports.

    That’s why ALL of your action points are important to the sustainability of wrestling. To survive, and to thrive, we need to change. And we need to do it yesterday.

    Thank you again for being an ambassador of wrestling. The sport needs more people like you.

    • Craig . . . appreciate the information, it’s good that everyone gets to read it and learn more about our challenges. Your position was well thought out and articulated well. Great insight. And thank you for the kind words by the way. The membership of USAWrestling needs to be heard from on this issue because leadership is going to support leadership. They know they all walk together or they will all hang together.

  5. Great read as usual. Alot of youth wrestlers are turned off of international styles of wrestling because they dont understand the rules. I think if more kids got into it at a younger we would see improvements at world and olympic events. Learning freestyle as a freshman or even a senior is putting us behind. because of folkstyle not much time to teach international styles before state qualifiers. Lose many wrestlers after their first attempt because they were not prepared. Even a state like Pa sees low participation, which shoulnt happen at state and national events.

  6. I need to add one more thing. After the absolutely DISMALL showing by the Greco team in London, and the dismall showings in the previous years, how can USA Wrestling leave the current leadership in place? They have put in their time. They have given their best to the sport. But it is time to start a new chapter.

  7. Please keep posting. We need a new voice!

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