COVID-19

Another wrestling season is here and a lot has happened since August.

I’d like to begin by paying tribute to the many legends of the sport who have sadly passed away in the last 12 months. Without a doubt, these gentlemen left their mark on the sport; and in our hearts.

May each of these warriors Rest in Peace.

Greg Strobel, Ken Kraft, Rick Lawinger, Carlton Haselrig, Earl Fuller, Mickey Martin, Dick DiBatista, and Kirk Douglas, who always enjoyed telling stories of his wrestling days and how his background in the sport made a huge difference with many of his movie roles.

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COVID-19 news . . . recently the sport had a study done of 4500 high school and youth wrestlers. Of those, less than 1% tested positive for the disease.

Certainly that’s an encouraging number, especially when you consider those with the disease could have contracted it in a classroom, from a friend, family member, or actually anywhere they might have been for the other 22 hours a day.

Now, the State of Vermont has canceled the entire high school wrestling season due to the pandemic, as well as the entire Ivy League canceling all winter sports. And interestingly, it seems, both did so unilaterally, without any empirical evidence to support their decisions.

More on the Ivy League decision in the next blog.

So, I wonder if Vermont’s decision is based on the thought process that wrestling doesn’t adhere very well to the concept of social distancing, or might it be something else? 

Would this make a good court case? Considering we are the only sport that has members of every community imaginable participating; tall, short, male, female, gay, straight, religious, atheist, one leg, no legs, with vision or without, black, white and every color in-between, the question should be asked.

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It’s been interesting to see this year, both at the collegiate and professional levels, marketers piping crowd noise into football stadiums, and using cardboard cutouts to make the arenas look at least somewhat full.

But how many of you remember where those ideas were originally developed, and implemented?

Both ideas were the brain child of professional wrestling, the grunt and groan boys, not to be confused with the George Hackenschmidt’s and Frank Gotch’s of the early 1900’s.

Through the advent of television in the 1950’s, the studios, where the earliest matches took place, struggled to attract crowds. All the executives had was a dream, some seed money, and plenty of would-be athletes ready to become stars in a new medium.

So, the promoters put cameras on one side of the ring, and on the other side they erected wooden stands. Then they pulled people off the street, paid them a small fee to attend, and filled up as many rows as they could. Above that, for what wasn’t filled, they placed cardboard cutouts of people, and then piped in crowd noise. From there, with the studio lights turned down, and the spot lights turned up, focusing on the action, they had the beginnings of what we see today.  

Question; why haven’t we taken a page out of this book for ourselves? It was wrestling’s idea.

When we know gymnasiums aren’t going to be full, and television is going to be present, why aren’t we making the fans sit on one side, fill up the lower rows first, place the cameras on the opposite side and pipe in crowd noise? To me, that’s a daa, and marketing 101.

And I know why our leadership hasn’t, and I could share it with you, but all that would do is continue to upset those that already dislike these blogs.    

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What do you think about this concept; adding a technical fall option to the rule book? I think the fans would love it. Once a 15-point separation occurs between athletes, the individual with the lead has the option of continuing the match, and going for the fall, or having his hand raised. Maybe give the pin, if it occurs after the 15-point spread, an extra team point. Or not. But don’t dismiss the idea because you didn’t like the suggestion of an extra team point.   

P.S. Can you name any sport at the collegiate level that has a mercy rule besides wrestling? That thought process has always sounded millennial to me, and it comes from a sport who, with pride, and a puffed up chest, believes that wrestlers are the toughest athletes on the planet. Isn’t this a contradiction of ideologies? 

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In other news, besides the pandemic, it seems to be the loss of another major Division I wrestling program, this time it’s Stanford.

That decision might very well nudge the remaining two PAC-12 schools to consider following the Cardinals lead, and do what the entire Southeastern Conference did in the 1980’s.

Don’t say, that won’t happen. Instead, we should be asking ourselves, why wouldn’t it?

When you consider that Arizona State and Oregon State live 1272 miles apart, and no other member institution has the sport, you do the math. Especially when, given there are only two teams left, the entire conference will only have one dual meet a year, starting with the 2021-2022 season.

These problems aren’t the fault of administrators; it has to fall in the laps of wrestling’s leadership. They always seem to spend their energy, and the sports resources, fighting wars after they’ve already been declared, and lost.

But, in this one case, if anyone can win one of these battles, it’s the leadership group at Stanford. I have to give it to them, they have been diligent, consistent and intelligent in this fight.

But, here’s the ever-present but, wrestling is like owning a car, and never taking it in for an oil change, or service. Eventually bad things happen. Not because anyone was too lazy, or cheap, but it has everything to do with not realizing they should.

I wonder, has any individual with an administrative title in the sport of wrestling ever asked the question; why are we losing programs, and then worked to correct the specific issues?

The answer is yes; they have asked the question; many times before. But if we’re still leaking programs like a car leaks oil at 300,000 miles, obviously their analysis continues to be incorrect.

More on that in a minute.

Let’s look at a map of the most western 13 states. I’ll list them here: Washington, Oregon, California, Nevada, Arizona, Utah, Idaho, Montana, New Mexico, Colorado and Wyoming.

And of those 13, how many major institutions, as seen through the eyes of non-wrestling fans, can you name that have wrestling? The answer is three, maybe four. And one of them is completely funded by the U.S. government; Air Force.  

It wasn’t all that long ago when the University of Washington had the sport, and a Top 20 program. So too with the University of Oregon, Cal-Berkley, Stanford, UCLA, and the University of Arizona. All of them are gone now, with the exception of Stanford which is slated to go at the end of this season.

How about along the entire length of the southern United States? Again, California, Arizona, New Mexico, and then Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida. Other than that one program in Tempe, it’s crickets. How about the Southeastern Conference, nope, as I mentioned earlier, not one wrestling program, and the Big 12 that represents most of the mid-west, they only have 4 member institutions that field a wrestling program.

My point is, our map is shrinking from the west moving east, from the south going north and from Maine on down.

And I must give Mike Moyer credit here, he and the NWCA, of which he is the Executive Director, have done a wonderful job adding collegiate programs. And he deserves a large at-a-boy from all of us. But the schools that have said yes to his persuasive nature, are mostly state level institutions, certainly nothing of national note.

Don’t be misled into thinking we’re doing okay because our numbers are stabilizing. It’s like a war we’re in and our battle ships and carriers are being sunk while we’re replacing them with mine sweepers. The number of ships we have may be the same, but the war isn’t going our way, and that’s scary.     

And yet, not one Blue Ribbon Panel from wrestling’s leadership, not one Gold Medal Board, or Leadership Council to address the problems before the transmission drops out of the car.

The problem we have is one of image. That’s the immediate battle we have to win. Forget those who classify themselves as wrestling aficionados, but the public in general. If you ask someone to list where they might find collegiate wrestling academically, more people would say it’s at the bottom of non-revenue sports than they’d say it’s in the middle, or at the top. If you would ask people to fill in the blank here, I can’t believe those darn _________ , they’re always causing problems and getting in fights downtown, what sport would be mentioned more than any other? And it doesn’t matter if it’s true or not, it’s the perception that makes the difference.

What sport has the highest percentage of injuries, yep, wrestling. And yet, our leadership doesn’t do anything to have dermatological issues reclassified as a category unto its own. Think about it, when someone talks about injuries in sports, for a vast majority of Americans, they think broken bones, stretched ligaments, concussions and stitches.

Were you aware that ringworm, and all the other forms of facial crud wrestling has to endure, according to the NCAA, falls into the category of injuries? No wonder people think the sport is dangerous and they don’t have a problem when programs get axed. This is exactly how, and why, intercollegiate boxing went the way of the dodo bird in 1960.      

Speaking of why; why are all those things we know to be false about the sport, allowed to be perpetuated? And why are all those things we know about the sport to be good, are well-kept secrets? The answer is, a non-existent marketing program. Basically, God forbid we’d want anyone to know we’re more than just a group of knuckle draggers.           

We can fight the image war, but our leadership doesn’t seem to know one is being waged, or if they are, they’re obviously not willing to become engaged.

In the interim, this should be our game plan. At Stanford for example, the leadership said their decision for discontinuing those 11 sports was a financial one. However, what we either don’t know or choose to overlook is Wade’s Rule 7, when it comes to programs being discontinued; never believe what the administrators are saying. They are only going to list that which is the easiest to defend, and the hardest to overcome; never the real reason.

As with Stanford, with the school having an endowment of 28 billion, which is spelled with a capital B, I’m not so sure they have to worry about paying their bills for at least a couple years. And, if it’s not the money, has anyone asked what the actual reasons might be regarding the 11 non-revenue sports?

I believe they just felt they had too many of them. The work load, the toll on administrators, and the thought of being exposed to that many potential academic, athletic, and/or social scandals, it all becomes unbearable. And there’s that image thing with wrestling. Not to mention the headaches that come from 33 head coaches who are always trying to better their programs. Not that their competitive nature is bad, but it does become problematic with administrators.

The question we should always ask ourselves; every time a wrestling program is dropped, why wasn’t some other non-revenue sport chosen over ours? When we answer that, which should be fairly easy to identify, then we’ll know how to fight.

But you can never win a war, that you don’t know you’re in, or who your enemy is, until the final blow is struck. Then it’s too late. 

I believe it all comes back to the overall image of wrestling; outside of our sport with the school’s administrators, the academic community, the various booster groups, the national media, and even the merchants downtown.

But what is also a part of our image, is being a sport that has a non-existent corporate structure. Wrestling doesn’t have a Dana White, or a Roger Goodell overseeing the sport like they do for the UFC and NFL.

Instead, we have Executive Directors of associations and organizations, but no one speaking for the sport as a whole. No overarching leader, no one with an orchestra wand coordinating our image, managing our rules, building our brand and leading the charge. It’s hard to win matches without a coach, and a sport to succeed without unified leadership.

Why can’t we have that? Every NBA team is owned by some corporation, individual, or family. And they see the need for consistency, and the power that comes from unity. Isn’t that exactly what the NCAA is, out of many, one?

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But not wrestling, we’re different, we’re special.

Why can’t the Hall of Fame, the AAU, USAWrestling, NWCA, WIN Magazine, Brute, Cliff Keen, Resilite and all the rest come together, give up some revenue, set up a headquarters and hire a corporate team of business professionals?

It’s only worked for every other major sporting organization in the country. But why in the world would we want to become successful? That would mean we’d have less issues to bitch about, more power and revenue to do good things with.

And none of this is going to happen anytime soon, unless someone finally decides they want wrestling to win. Sadly, they don’t.

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6 Comments

  • Wade Schalles says:

    Thanks for the comments and Suggestions. Interesting ideas. .

  • Fred Mahnke says:

    Great Post. Love the idea of setting up a team of business porofessionals to address wrestling’s image issues and promote the sport!

  • Rick S. says:

    Fans in the stands attracts advertisers, who pay for media coverage.

    How do you attract fans in the stands?

    You want your sport to be “exciting”. What is “exciting”.

    You don’t even know. You have some idea, but have you done any audience testing?

    Asking those in the wrestling family isn’t enough because the wrestling family isn’t big enough to support the sport.

    Get a diverse set of matches recorded on video. Pay a target audience to watch them and rate which are exciting and which are not…did I say pay them? Can you get a target audience any other way?

    Maybe you can get some business majors in college to do this audience testing for you. Maybe they have ways to get target audiences. I don’t know.

    Don’t be surprised if what is “exciting” to one person is not “exciting” to another. Don’t be surprised if what is “exciting” to you is not “exciting” to those who are not part of the amateur wrestling family.

  • Rick S. says:

    What media coverage is there for amateur wrestling? How many high school and college football and basketball games are on TV, or cable TV? How many high school and college wrestling matches are there on TV or cable TV?

    Show me an area that is a hotbed of amateur wrestling, and I will ask, what is the media coverage?

    Pretty good, huh?

    Who are the advertisers?

    Is it a diverse field of advertisers, and not just those who make wrestling mats and wrestling shoes?

    Would an advertiser rather advertise during a sport with one thousand viewers or one hundred thousand viewers? Would a media outlet rather show a sport that attracts one thousand viewers or one hundred thousand viewers?

    I wouldn’t assume the Internet is our savior or the answer. Anyone can broadcast on the Internet, but do you still get the advertising revenue?

    You can always do a subscription on the Internet. Could someone ask those who try charging a subscription for content how well that is working.

  • Rick S. says:

    Providing an endowment is like putting the patient on life support. The patient is getting better, and starting to look healthy, until taken off life support.

    One needs fans in the stands, i.e., a way to attract advertisers to get a revenue stream. Fans in the stands are the product one offers to the advertisers. Why advertise for a sport if the target audience is invisible.

    One needs media coverage of the sport. Fans in the stands is not enough. Advertisers need places to advertise.

    It’s a chicken and egg problem. Without advertisers, where is the media coverage? Without media coverage, where are the advertisers? One needs to build advertisers and media coverage by offering fans in the stands.

  • Rick S. says:

    Modify the technical fall option as follows: if a wrestler is ahead by 15 or more points, at any time, and the clock is stopped (wrestling is stopped for some reason, out-of-bounds, illegal hold, whatever), the wrestler (really the coach of the wrestler) who is ahead by 15 or more points, can request the technical fall ending the match.

    If time runs out ending the match, and a wrestler is ahead by 15 or more points, the wrestler gets the technical fall.

    There will be times when the coach wants the technical fall. There will be other times when the coach wants the extra point that comes from getting a pin. Let the coach of the wrestler who is ahead by 15 or more points decide.

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