I had the privilege of listening to Mike Novogratz speak at the pre-meet social at this weekend’s NWCA All-Star Classic. He left us all energized and encouraged. Here is his speech below. . . notice if you would the differences between what those who have achieved are saying and those who are struggling to lead are doing?
A Call to Action
By Mike Novogratz – Chairman of the Board-Beat the Streets-New York City
Thanks for inviting me here. What a great event. Thanks to Mike Moyer and the NWCA. I grew up here in Fairfax County, learned to wrestle in the Mount Vernon youth league program, and then wrestled at Fort Hunt High School. It feels good to be home. Last time I was thinking about George Mason University it was because I lost to a guy named Troy Emerson. It was my senior year in college. I’m still pissed off about it. I wasn’t a great wrestler but I rarely lost to guys I thought I was supposed to beat and I look back at that match as an upset. It’s funny how we always remember our losses. 26 years later and I’m still pissed about Troy Emerson. There is something in the character of a wrestler that focuses on the losses.
Wrestlers love to turn losses into gains, to use the ignominy of defeat, and turn it into motivation, to drive, to a yearning for something better. It is part of the DNA of this sport. Yes, Dan Gable is still haunted by Larry Owings, just like all of you are haunted by someone, some match.
I hope we look back on that decision to exclude wrestling from the Olympics as one of the greatest days in our sport. While it was humiliating, and frustrating, and cost a lot of people time and money to reverse, it was wake up call, a shot of adrenaline into a sport that needed energy, a major call to arms. It was Troy Emerson or Larry Owings. It was motivation.
We responded. Here in the US and around the world wrestlers woke up. New energy came into our sport. The Committee for the Preservation of Olympic Wrestling (CPOW) was set up to harness this energy and direct it to a sole mission of keeping wrestling in the Olympics. There were major leadership changes at FILA which have left the international governing body in a far better place. Nenad Lalovic seems to be a decent man and a politically savvy operator who has helped our sport in a time of need. That said, it is my firm belief that this should only be the beginning. We need to continue to push for wrestling’s leadership to be accountable at the international level and to continue to make changes that insure we grow. I fought and lost to have the two styles combined to one, to simplify the sport, to unify the resources around one wrestling, to help with gender parity issues which are important in all levels of the sport. I still believe this should be part of the future of wrestling and will fight for it.
Our own National Governing Body, USAW came under a lot of criticism for its role leading up to the decision to drop wrestling. Rich Bender and his team have worked hard at responding to the challenges we faced as a sport. They deserve credit for a fight well fought. But they also need to be held accountable to make the changes necessary to move our sport forward. I believe the scorecard for how to judge the team at USAW should be easy to create. Is our sport rising or falling? Are the US Open and the world team trials world class events? Are we getting mainstream media coverage? Are we getting on TV? These should be the metrics on how the team is doing. If in two years the answers to these questions aren’t heading in the right direction, then leadership change will be necessary. I want to say publicly that I have faith that we will get there.
I love talking about energy, every time I do I mention Tom and Terry Brands. They have been my role models when it comes to injecting energy into our sport. Theirs is energy of sheer passion. It infects their wrestlers, their room and their program. Go to an Iowa home match, or watch one on TV and you see energy. Our sport needs energy. I have tried in my own way to demonstrate what energy can do with our annual Beat The Streets events – from the Intrepid, to Time Square, to the Grand Central Terminal. These were good first steps, but we can do so much more.
Our sport is at a crossroads. We have a ton of good things going on. Tonight’s matches are a testament to that. Last week I watched wrestlers and ex-wrestlers square off in Agon 1 where the athletes got paid and lots of fans tuned into to Flo Wrestling to watch it live. Soon we will have the Grapple at the Garden. I think tonight, there is a great event at Lehigh, the Russians will wrestle our national team. The college season starts with a new focus on the national duals. We have two legitimate superstars in our sport in Jordan Burroughs and Kyle Dake. I firmly believe both of these kids can be crossover athletes bringing non wrestlers into their following. Wrestling as a sport is on the move. The opportunity is at our feet. The future is now.
The question I want to address is what we can do to go from a great sport with a passionate fan base to the Big Leagues – to rightfully be seen as a tier one sport both here and in the international arena. I am going to start at the most senior levels and work down to youth leagues.
So first and foremost it is to get on TV. I recently decided that I would redirect my efforts around our sport from the non-profit world to the for-profit world. We need to get more wrestling on TV and I am going to try. Furthermore, I am confident this isn’t just a pipe dream. Dana White, the Ferttita Brothers and UFC have shown us the way. What does UFC and MMA do much better that wrestling right now? Three things. They tell stories. They promote. And they put on world class events. The raw material is just another combat sport. It’s no more exciting than a great wrestling match. We need to get into the story telling business – to create narratives around our heroes and our villains. We need to promote our events. And we need to make sure the events have energy. It is that simple and that difficult. This isn’t a one year process, it will take four years to build a crossover fan base but once we do, the dividends will be tremendous. It will change everything.
I want every coach, athletic director or president of a club to know that it is essential to see “putting butts in seats” as part of their job. We have an exciting sport. We have traditionally done a lousy job at selling it. Programs need to focus on developing a narrative around their athletes, their rivalries, their dreams. A full gym is one of the best recruiting tools a coach can have. This requires a commitment to run things on time, to make tournaments fan friendly and maybe not last 12 hours a day, to think about doing things differently. At the college level it requires the coaches and the team to recruit fans, to build a base. In the age of social media every coach or assistant is a marketer – needs to be a marketer. We should publish the attendance of every home meet in the college season as bragging rights and a metric of what a great program is.
Our big events need to run well. The NCAA tourney is the gold standard for a great show. Unfortunately, it falls off tremendously from that.
The national duals need to be a sellout. Period. If we aren’t selling them out, someone else should get the property and have a chance to. We need to build great wrestling properties and then grow them.
In high school, we need to refocus on dual meets and not just tournaments. Dual meets bring in the school, the fans, and make every wrestler’s contribution important. We need to cut back down to 12 weight classes so the duals have fewer forfeits and run tighter. While wrestling is an individual sport, the team component is a huge part of the lessons that it teaches our kids. Let’s not lose sight of this.
Finally, I really believe we need to delay the intense focus on competition until kids are in at least 6th or 7th grade. We lose far too many of the kids who sign up for wrestling. It is a tough sport and not for every kid but there is no reason to have such an intense focus on competition that we drive kids away. I am a firm believer that as long as a kid spends four years in a real tough high school program, he will take with him lessons and skills that will benefit him in life no matter how many medals he wins. My friend, Al Bevilacqua calls it building the base. He is dead right. We are fighting a ton of other great sports for the hearts and minds of the youth and their parents. Let’s be smart about it. I also think we need to continue to develop urban areas and turn an entire new demographic onto the awesomeness of wrestling. There are now Beat the Street programs in 21 cities. In 10 years, I’d like to think every big city in America has a wrestling program.
It is easy for me to stand up here and rant on about what I think needs to happen. Please trust me in that I clearly understand that the agents of change are out there in the audience, in the gyms, in the dank wrestling rooms. What I have tried to do with the Beat the Streets program and what Mike Moyer is doing through the NWCA is to try to give the coaches the assistance and tools necessary to thrive. Our sport needs you. We need a new generation of leaders. Revolution will not happen from the top…it never does. It will happen in lots of ways – Nuway, Agon, and Flo are three examples of ‘disruptive’ technologies that are propelling our sport forward. They are what’s great about America and in lots of ways why I am so optimistic that wrestling is on the verge of a big breakout. I just ask each of you to play your part. I will certainly try to play mine.
Thank you and let’s enjoy some great wrestling.