How Wrestling Wins – Chapter 16

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Chapter 16

So to recap and start to bring to a close How Wrestling Wins, our future depends upon the speed and scope of our reforms. Small alterations in thinking will only assure equally small alterations in achievement. Deciding to wait until next year to finalize that which is clearly obvious this year only insures a continuing decline in our numbers and correspondingly the length of time it will take the sport to rebound.

Focusing on what matters . . . think of wrestling as a restaurant. If you want to make a go of it in the food industry you have to focus on the quality of food you’re serving. Sure the wait staff has to be competent and prompt, the maitre d’ friendly and helpful, the restaurants décor appealing and the rest rooms clean in women’s standards. But if you have all that going for you and the food is so-so, odds are your business won’t last. When you talk restaurants, food is king; it’s the sine qua non of survival.

In the case of wrestling, our food is the excitement we create, the willingness athletes have to battle one another and why we’re failing. The sport is simply boring, and even many of our die-hard spectators are voting with their feet not to attend as often as they used to. Even the hallowed PIAA (PA) State High School Championships have gone from 65k spectators 20 years ago to 45k now.

In International wrestling, the recent World Cup Championships in Los Angeles, America’s second largest city, only attracted 4,200 spectators for the USA-Iran finals. Said another way, that’s two category levels below “extremely poor showing” on any media chart. That’s why the LA Times, the LA Daily and every television network in the city didn’t think the event was worthy of coverage. Zip, nada, not an inch.

Topping that, over half the seats that were filled were being used by Iranians supporting their countrymen. How can that possibly happen in the wrestling rich state of California; a country that is over 7,000 miles away has more spectators there than we do? Now subtract for table workers, coaches, officials, parents and family members and what remains waving the red, white and blue is a paltry number indeed.

So what’s wrestling waiting for, something apocalyptic? The point is the sport is heading in the wrong direction at a frightening pace and we’re still sucking our thumbs. The rules are the reason why our food tastes so bad and we’re still protecting the cooks.

Look at what the UFC is doing in relation to wrestling and you can see why they’re the current media darlings. In the first 7 minutes of any UFC fight, you can count on seeing roughly 100 or so actual attacks as opposed to 15 on average in wrestling; and that number gets cut in half at the NCAA championships as the pressure increases. Wrestlers have become masters of the slowdown process (which are encouraged by the rules) and trust me on this; the spectators have noticed.

Now there are those who say that being aired on television is the answer to our woes and they couldn’t be more wrong. Being featured on TV doesn’t help a restaurant when the food is bad. It doesn’t make anything popular, it only makes it public. If you have good food, television will help the business soar to new heights. But if the food isn’t palatable, which it isn’t in our case, being aired only helps bury our restaurant. Then there’s the thought that putting wrestling on television also stops a certain percentage of our current spectators from attending major events, especially the NCAA Championships. Who wants to spend a grand on air travel, housing, tickets, food and entertainment when all 6 sessions can be viewed (note I didn’t say enjoyed) from the comfort of one’s own living room? The problem with that is wrestling doesn’t receive a dime from ESPN for airing the nationals so in essence, being on television only reduces the sports revenue numbers.

All in all, polishing the silverware, painting the walls and parking customer’s cars doesn’t help the restaurant if the food is forgettable. Granted, all these things are important to receive a 3-Star Michelin rating but without quality food everything’s a bust. Wrestling has to focus on improving what the kitchen is putting out and forget for the time being how clean the bathrooms are and how amenable the maitre d’ is. Most of what the NWCA does, who should be the driver of these initiatives, focuses on everything but the food and I realize that statement isn’t fair to their Executive Director. Mike is doing a wonderful job with the resources he doesn’t have but to set his sights on food is political suicide. Given the NWCA is a membership driven organization whose members are almost exclusively coaches, attempting rule changes is the same as poking a sleeping bear with a stick. How does one point out to his constituents that they’re to blame for that which ails the sport and expect to keep functioning as an organization? So I write How Wrestling Wins and say what he can’t say instead.

Until we serve tasty dishes, and that’s the level of action our wrestlers produce, everything else we do is putting the horse before the cart. Having a Leadership Academy is a very positive step and the NWCA should be commended for taking that responsibility on but it does little good when the sport continues to bleed red on the spread sheets. Who is helped when you have a more organized coach running a program that no longer exists?

Does anyone actually think that administrators care that basketball is equally as bad as wrestling academically? No, and why is that; they produce revenue, we don’t. But you can bet that poor academic performance will be mentioned as one of the reasons why Athletic Directors drop wrestling. What about the number of deaths football has every year? Administrators refer to them as tragedies and they are absolutely that and all of us should do everything possible to protect our student-athletes! But the sport marches on because it’s too lucrative to fail. But when wrestling lost 3 young men over a 100 year period the NCAA was inches away from dropping our sport like they did in 1960 with Boxing.

Why doesn’t wrestling get it? Survival isn’t having clean bathroom stalls or checkered linen table cloths; it’s all about the quality of our food and correspondingly the size of our deposits. Our focus must center on producing action and the only way that can be done is through incentivized legislation.

To begin, let’s not confuse the word scoring with action; they are not interchangeable. Action doesn’t always mean there will be points scored but points always mean action has taken place. Some of the best flurries known to mankind have ended without a point being scored; but there was some terrific spectator pleasing action; exactly where we need to focus our attention.

Ice Hockey and Soccer aren’t high scoring sports but you can count on an immeasurable amount of energy being used by their athletes in the attempt to score. That’s what ticket holders want to see; action. Baseball isn’t far behind in the low scoring metric but every time a pitcher throws the ball there’s a chance it’s heading over the fence so spectators find themselves holding their breath in anticipation of the crack of the bat.

How do I get this across to wrestling’s leadership; they spend too much time and energy treating the sports symptoms and overlooking the causes.

Programs are lost as a result of finances 10 to 1 over Title IX issues.

Any sport that increases its spectator numbers to the point where revenue overshadows expenses moves from endangered species to sacred cow status. To accomplish this for wrestling, our leaders have to stop imitating ostrich’s and being glacial in their decisions. The combination of a raging financial arms race in football and basketball during a declining economy; combined with those newly adopted pay increases for collegiate athletes above a full scholarship; plus the urgent need for equality among the sexes is more than non-revenue sports can bare.

The simple solution, actually the only solution we have, is to get off the non-revenue train and that can only be done by serving better food to our customers. I understand this is a time consuming effort but in the interim as Bob Bowlsby put it to the wrestling coaches at this year’s NCAA Championships, “wrestling’s immediate goal has to be to move itself to the back of the line.” He was referring to all the non-revenue sports and as schools drop programs, the ones that go first are at the head of the line. He said quite clearly, “this is not where wrestling wants to be.”

So to be successful in the short term until we can make it permanent, wrestling has to demonstrate to athletic administrators everywhere that we understand; it’s a financial thing. And then make meaningful course corrections that demonstrate a revenue-producing philosophy.

To achieve this we need to accomplish several objectives which are listed below, a number of which that should be tackled simultaneously.

As you read these final two chapters of How Wrestling Wins, when I mention specific rule changes or marketing ideas I’ll try and place the chapter ( ) in parentheses where you can find a much more expansive account.

So here we go, this is How Wrestling Wins.

1) First, the sports coaches and governance must decide to accept the changes that others will invariably impose on them. For without complete buy in, status quo will remain status quo. And we all know what that means as witnessed by the hundreds of wrestling programs that no longer exist; we don’t have the luxury of creating a committee on committees which will vote to generate a two-year long study on the viability of the initial committee’s suggestion to table the investigation of the proposed changes. That was tongue in cheek if you missed it . . .

2) Next, we must develop a leadership team that will be responsible for drafting a blueprint for growth; a document that will outline what the sport needs to do and in what order if the goal is survival. You’ll read my version of the blueprint in the next several pages.

As to the makeup of this team, each member needs to have enough political or financial clout that when the wrestling community reads their names, they simply acquiesce to what’s being proposed because there isn’t a way to argue with or discredit those that have that level of creditability. I’m not taking about the Mike Moyer’s, Cael Sanderson’s and Jordan Burrough’s of our world even as good as they are; I’m referring to people like retired Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert, UFC’s President Dana White, West Virginia University’s Athletic Director Oliver Luck, Mike Golic from Mike and Mike in the Morning, Goldman-Sachs Steve Friedman and Academy Award winning author John Irving. These are the types of individuals who have the name, power and chutzpah’s that’s necessary to walk the walk. Basically they’re bullet proof. It’s going to take this collective level of respect before any proposed changes will be accepted by the wrestling community.

We might also consider adding a few individuals that aren’t from our sport because many of our greatest challenges aren’t unique to wrestling. People like the Vice President of Technology for Twitter would be a good choice. I bet whoever that is knows a few things about using social media as a marketing tool and already oversees a wide swath of that fabric. Maybe the Director of Promotions for the WWE could help us? These are the types of business champions we could learn from and use their resources to benefit our efforts. One of the main strengths that these individuals bring to the mix is they’re void of any preconceived notions regarding the way wrestling has always done things. All too often it’s this knowledge of our history that keeps us trapped on the hamster wheel of progress.

If we’re to have a chance of winning we can’t involve current members of wrestling’s leadership team.

The sport has tried that on numerous occasions in the past. And every organizational meeting, leadership coalition and event partnership they’ve tried has failed. For those in power, be they coaches, athletes or Executive Directors of wrestling’s various organizations, have always found it to be politically adventitious to say they’re willing to do anything that’s “in the best interests of wrestling” and then quietly ignore the very tenets of any meeting they voted to implement.

Who can blame them? It’s actually the sports gullibility that’s at fault here for believing the notion that leadership is actually interested in change. They’re not. It’s never the case because the simple act of change always brings with it a shift in power; some it benefits, others it doesn’t. But the problem with that is no one knows who will be the beneficiary of change until it happens. Basically, those who govern fear change more than they do prostrate surgery and the sport would have a better chance of Congress agreeing on Row v. Wade than wrestling has of fixing itself by involving our existing governance structure. They’re the ones who got us in this mess.

3) The creation and adoption of major rule changes that might not significantly increase scoring but will genuinely increase our athlete’s attempts at scoring.

I could spend pages explaining how every successful sport relative to revenue production and media effectiveness routinely make those types of changes for the sole purpose of increased action. And in almost every example I could also tell you about the firestorm of protests that emanated from the coaches when those changes were first proposed. Then later on it’s those same coaches who take credit for the changes, for it was their forward thinking and subsequent action that made it happen.

Bottom line, we need to craft rules that motivate athletes to action, not ones that penalize. When the rules committee has done that in the past, athletes and coaches get creative to find new ways to circumvent those very rules because it’s what they do; they’re competitors. Then another set of rules have to be created to remedy those very work-arounds the coaches and athletes developed. This has become a huge one ups-man-ship cycle, rules committee vs. those they impose their power over. That’s what happens when you penalize instead of incentivize.

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“I just read your piece; absolutely wonderful. Obviously you have an insight for the sport that few others have. Your writing is very engaging and an easy on the eyes. The sport needs you.”

 Jake Shannon, Salt Lake City, Utah

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Over the years too many matches are won by clever athletes who use ill-conceived rules to draw stalling calls and receive penalty points. Granted, it’s far easier to lean on the rules for help than open yourself up to being scored on as a result of an offensive misstep. Most recently we have some from leadership who would like to see a “push out” rule put in place to penalize those who play the edge. Great, just what we need, another rule that doesn’t incentivize athletes to take shots. Instead they’re thinking about voting to allow athletes to score points by shoving someone out of bounds. Am I the only one who sees a problem with this thinking? Haven’t we just spent decades penalizing athletes for going out of bounds and now we’re going to reward athletes for accomplishing what we’ve been trying to stop.

Warning to the rules committee; all that will happen if you pass a rule like that is shoving will replace shooting; just as it has done internationally.

Only when we make points really mean something relative to team scores will coaches force their athletes out of their protective cocoon. Only when coaches become terrified of losing dual meets to programs they used to dominate will they impose their will on their athletes to create more action and score more points.

In Chapter 9 of How Wrestling Wins I outlined what is by far the most important rule alteration we could enact if the goal is increased action and spectator enjoyment.

A point earned is a team point scored.

If you believe our sport needs more action then scoring has to become significantly more important than it is now. Currently the way the sport is crafted, the only thing that’s important is having 1 more point at the end of the match than your opponent. That’s good for the athlete and his team but it’s lousy for the spectator and sport because way too often that 1 point win had so little action associated with it. Our continuing decline in attendance numbers only proves my point.

For those who disagree and point to the Penn State’s, Iowa’s and Minnesota’s of our world as a way to prove we’re on solid ground, I will remind them that there are also hundreds of other collegiate programs where athletes have been known to outnumber spectators.

To change this we must alter the way we score dual meets and tournaments. If an athlete wins his match by a score of 7-2 the sport should respect his efforts enough that his team receives the same number of points he worked so hard to achieve. And the 2 points the vanquished earned should go to his teams score as well.

Some might initially think that’s not reasonable or fair. That one team could win 8 out of 10 individual bouts and potentially lose the dual meet. Yes that’s exactly what I’m proposing! But let me ask, how many times do you think you’d actually see that happen? But it’s that exact fear of losing a dual to an inferior team that will incentivize coaches to push their athletes to do more. Currently the exact opposite is true . . . coaches instruct their athletes to protect their lead, they train them in the art of the slowdown approach to winning and how to play the edge in ways that keeps referee’s off their backs. Successful wrestling today is all about reduced activity.

As you can read in both Chapter 9 and my blog entitled A Point Earned is a Point Scored I answer all the questions you might have of how to handle pins, forfeits and disqualifications using this system.

All one has to do is look to the last 50 years to notice that the average number of points scored in the finals of the NCAA Championships went from 19.5 in 1979 to 6.9 in 2013. Here’s a breakdown of wrestling’s scoring decline. You can see how rules which coaches have influenced over the years has impacted the game starting in the 70’s when the rules committee adopted the 4 point major and 5 point technical fall.

   Year       Points Scored

1979                 19.5

1981                 13.2

1986                 11.0

1994                   9.0

2002                   8.0

2005                   7.9

2013                   6.9

Creating those two team outcomes weren’t bad decisions; but leaving the pin where it was at 6 team points devastated the incentive to do more and it immediately eliminated the need for athletes to learn down wrestling. Why would anyone want to learn a completely new set of skills when being proficient on your feet could earn 5 team points? Remember, prior to majors and techs being introduced, a decision was worth 3 points and the pin was worth twice as much, 6 points.

A point earned is a team point scored fixes most of the sports challenges regarding action and excitement.

But you’ll have to give this change some time to see the benefits. You won’t notice any change in action the first time it’s tried. Only when it becomes law and coaches become scared of what might happen if they don’t change, will they change.

This isn’t a breaker box fix; just throw the switch and everything’s different. It will take some time for the coaches to start screaming and their athletes to respond to the idea of doing more. Year 1 won’t be as memorable for change as year 2 will be and in year 3 everyone will notice a major shift in attitudes and actions.

Are there other rule alterations which are critical to wrestling continuing as a collegiate sport, you bet there are? Will it be painful, only for those who view it as painful? Personally I believe it will be great fun watching the transformation; coaches and athlete’s alike being pulled out their comfort zones. I can already hear the fans roaring their approval as they witness significant increases in action and as important, strategic interplay between the two head coaches and then between the spectators and the decisions the coaches made. Trust me on this . . . those who are whining today will be the ones whining tomorrow and those who are winning today will be winning tomorrow. Great programs will remain great, average will remain average. This change in scoring won’t impact the nation’s pecking order of teams as much as it will make a significant change in the number of points scored by athletes and the level of action that we’ll all enjoy.

Overall any changes we adopt must fall into one of four categories, each one playing a crucial role in our continuance as a sport.

  1. Cost Containment . . . we have to voluntarily decide to reduce our expenses.
  2. Revenue Production . . . by increasing spectator numbers and private giving.
  3. New and Improved . . . adopting very visual changes that demonstrate to consumers the sports willingness to completely transform itself so, “won’t you give us a try!”
  4. Tactical Advances . . . calculated rule modifications that are designed to decrease inactivity and increase the number of strategies a coach could employ to win and the spectators could use to second guess the coaches.

The concept of a point scored is a point earned falls under Tactical Advances. Nothing we can possibly do will impact scoring, activity and excitement like it will.

Chapter 17 next Sunday.

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4 thoughts on “How Wrestling Wins – Chapter 16

  1. Clearly rule changes are needed. They must be simple and understandable to the viewer; especially for the typical sports fan. However, one of the biggest problems has been the lack of implementing a current rule which has been the enforcement of stalling. When in doubt we need to hear the refs make that stalling shout!

    One of the best suggestions made is involving “non wrestling” people in this change process.

    • Ed . . . thank you for writing. We’re working hard at making a difference. Refs will never make the tough stalling calls as long as the coaches influence who works when and how often. And it’s not fair for them to have to read the minds of the wrestler and make decisions based on what they think they’re thinking. How often has that worked for you with your wife? Or me with mine?

      The only person who can make a difference is the coach. He controls who’s going to be varsity and the type of wrestling he expects to see from his athletes. If he’s worried about losing dual meets and tournaments because he has a bunch of anemic athletes, he will alter his coaching style to push each wrestler to do more, and score more often. Everything starts with the coach.

      As a result the rules have to be crafted in a way that turns the thumb screws on those who run the show. From there they will motivate their troops. Of course the coaches don’t want that responsibility, they would rather point fingers at the officials. Wade

  2. Ted . . . as always, nice to read you. Thanks for the support. I’m currently working on the last segment of How Wrestling Wins that will outline my solutions or partial solutions to the sports continual decline. When I post later this week it should have people either howling or nodding in agreement. But either way I promise creativity. Wade

  3. Years ago a professional freestyle wrestling league was tried. I loaded up my van with wrestlers and went to Rosemont, IL and the Allstate Arena to watch a dual. The crowd left disappointed and the league folded quickly. Why? Because the coaches and wrestlers didn’t get it. The people didn’t come to watch 2-1 defensive struggles, they came to see exciting action. Old guard wrestling fans can find excitement in a scrabbling counter that goes to neutral, but fans ask “did anybody score, why are you cheering”? You are right as Pogo once said “We have found the enemy and it is us”.

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