Nothing we do to save wrestling will work in the short term, or the long term for that matter without spectators. They are the lifeblood of any sport and the first step in any significant amount of national exposure or income.
I’m not trying to be Captain Obvious here but without spectators, corporations aren’t going to be interested in man’s oldest sport. Most CEO’s are absolutely set in their ways about receiving a return on investment, a term our sport seemingly doesn’t understand nor do we have the current ability to provide.
Don’t misunderstand how wrestling acquired the few sponsors we do have. In every case they became part of wrestling due to their ties with the sport, be it the CEO wrestled or the sponsorship is actually a rebate program. Most of our equipment manufacturers give back to the sport but their contributions typically parallel the number of units they sell so is that a sponsorship or a rebate program?
The point I’m trying to make is as much as we appreciate all the help we receive from where ever it comes, the simple fact is wrestling can’t attract sponsors because it’s not a good business model for them.
And without spectators wrestling can also forget any type of relationship with television networks. We have nothing that fits their business model either. Who’s going to be interested in, what company is foolish enough to buy commercial time on a program that has an insignificant number of eyeballs watching?
Not only won’t we be on television without spectators, if we were smart we shouldn’t want it to happen either.
Showing potential spectators something we can’t sell or even give to the networks should tell us something; no one wants to watch our sport in its current state.
Last season, the average number of spectators per dual meet for the nation’s Top 15 collegiate programs was 2,742. I’m talking the Penn State’s of the world, the Iowa’s, Minnesota’s and Oklahoma State’s. That’s a pretty dismal number given a typical high school play attracts that many.
What I’m trying to say is we need to work on income progression. As form follows function, revenue streams follows public interest. We have to sell tickets before we knock on any sponsor doors or approach the networks. Putting the cart before the horse doesn’t work.
To become relevant, wrestling has to change the way our athletes preform. The sport has to find a way to become exciting for the spectators we don’t have, not one ones we do have. The ones that do attend wrestling are our fanatical fans. Every sport has them and they amount to about 10% of any successful sports base. In wrestling, that 10% is our total base and I love every one of them dearly. But the sport can’t ask them what they think, because they’re fanatical, they’ll like whatever happens; especially if it means more scoring.
The ones we have to attract are the other 90% that doesn’t exist and to do that we have to find out why they aren’t already with us? On second thought we already know, the sport’s boring.
Don’t get upset at the messenger here, I’m referring to the opinions of the 10’s of millions of spectators we don’t have, not the 500,000 we do. The sports faithful can no longer point to the 1 great match they saw 4 weeks ago or the spectator appeal of an Iowa/Penn State dual as a way to make their point about wrestling being golden. There needs to be 10 great matches per dual meet, not 1 every 4 weeks. And the Penn State/Iowa match only happens once a year and is just 1 of 750 other Division I dual meets that take place each season.
And if I were to guess, I’d say that our largest duals in terms of attendance are more a result of spectators wanting to be present to support their favorite institution than for the anticipated excitement of the matches. I know that’s true for the Pittsburgh Steelers, which is the nearest professional team to my home town. They’ve done several marketing surveys regarding the whys of attendance. What they found was of course ticket holders went to enjoy watching Big Ben perform but everyone to a person said they were there to support their team, in their city, who to a man represent their way of life. They identify with the spirit of being a hardy stout group of hard working Americans. It was far more about feeling superior to those who lived in Cleveland, Baltimore and San Francisco as the game came to a close (assuming Pittsburgh was ahead) than the game itself. Football was a means to an end for those who attended.
That’s human nature and there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s far easier to feel superior by going to a sporting event than to move up at work through continual effort and persistence.
Stop and think for a moment, are the fans at the Iowa-Minnesota dual meet there primarily for the wrestling or for the pride in knowing that “my state is tougher than your state?” Not everyone is there because they can’t wait to see 10 bouts. Granted there is a percentage that truly enjoy the sport but more are there in the anticipation that 2 hours from now they’ll feel superior to those sitting across the gym floor from them. That’s not a bad thing but we can’t assume all spectators attend matches because they love to watch our athletes protect a lead.
If you’re curious and really want to see who enjoys wrestling because it’s wrestling, announce before any collegiate meet that due to some rule violation that the home team must forfeit 5 weight classes. They’re still going to wrestle all 10 bouts but the score is going to be 30-0 before the first whistle blows and see how many spectators show up?
I’m just trying to educate people to the fact that our attendance numbers are extremely poor and even those are elevated.
Some fun facts, last year, here is what some of America’s top wrestling programs netted after expenses. See anything that might be a concern to administrators?
Major Wrestling Programs
University Net Income
Penn State -59,833
Okla. State -736,303
Ohio State -977,912
Arizona State -979,000
Iowa State -1,005,000
I truly get all the things wrestling has to do to become relevant and everyone I talk to pretty much understands it as well. Where we fail as a sport is our unwillingness to come together, prioritize the challenges by putting them in an attack order and set out to actually fix that which isn’t working.
It’s natural to want to commercialize wrestling like some of the sports more recent attempts at semi-pro wrestling or to have our events broadcasted. But you can’t build a skyscraper from the top floor down just as you can’t sell carburetors to car manufacturers when everyone has switched over to fuel ejectors. Living in the past doesn’t work.
As for living in the past, where do you think singlets come from that athletes wear? Weren’t they fashioned by cave men from animal skins? There are other parallels as well but I’m sure you are already aware of them.
Broadcasting wrestling just confirms what those who are not spectators already know; it’s not worth their time to watch or we would already be on television weekly. It’s that simple.
It’s also well-known that you only get one shot at a first impression. When we finally get our foot in the door with a potential sponsor and begin the presentation by answering their question regarding the number of eyeballs they can expect to receive as a result of the relationship, well, the meeting is over before it begins. The problem with that is the difficultly you’ll have getting a second meeting with that same group when your numbers are worthy of their time. Fool me once, shame on you; fool me twice, shame on me.
Scoring has to be our first priority! Matches are too defensive, the athletes are too careful; bouts are orchestrated to be boring. Spectator numbers will not grow until scoring is not only encouraged but a lack of it comes at great cost to the coach. Yes, the coach! He’s the person who decides how aggressive his athletes are in matches as surely as the manners of children at a dining table is a direct reflection on the parents.
It all begins with the coaches. When they start losing dual meets as a result of anemic offenses things will change . . . and change quickly.
You might ask what those changes I’m espousing are; well, go back and read the How Wrestling Wins series. Especially the section where I talk about an individual point scored is a team point recorded. When each point an athlete scores goes to the teams bottom-line, coaches will be screaming for more shots, more offense, more points.
But as you look back over what I’ve written, understand I’m not married to anyone of the ideas I put forth. They’re just starting points for discussion. I do believe though until we begin seeing double digit matches on a regular basis and significantly expanded strategies that encourage spectator involvement, wrestling is going to diminish in size and stature. And we have ourselves to blame, we’re watching it happen.
We also have to abolish all multi-event days that have become commonplace. Triangulars, Quadrangulars and Dual Meet tournaments have to end. They’re killing our spectator numbers while fine-tuning the athletes. So if it’s good for the athletes but bad for the sport, where do you think the coaches are on this subject?
Spectators will only budget 2-hour segments of their day for entertainment. Offering them 4, 6 and 8 hour events is absolutely criminal if we’re trying to save wrestling.
For those who think I’m off base here on anything I’ve written so far, I invite you to ask the 90% that aren’t sitting in the seats next to you what they think?
Earlier this month I watched the Navy-Lehigh match and I can say without question that I’ve never seen a more comatose Navy team. Not in the way they wrestled although their performance was let’s say uneventful; it was the team’s matside state of unconsciousness that had my attention.
If teammates won’t cheer for those they live, eat and train with, how can anyone expect spectators to “catch” the excitement the sport has been known for on occasion? Have we completely morphed into an “it’s all about me” sport? This isn’t just Navy, there are more programs like this than not.
Excitement is contagious. With it we grow, without it bad things happen.
In every case excitement has to begin with the wrestlers who are on the mat. If they’re not into the battle, everything dies with them. However if they’re engaged, then the benches have to be engaged or everything dies at that level. Just as a magnet is attracted to metal, spectators are drawn in by excitement. As fire needs fuel, oxygen and heat to become a source for cooking, spectators need to know that the athletes will scramble and the benches will cheer before they decide to attend.
Can you imagine going to a football game where the players just sit on the bench instead of standing on the sidelines? No animation, no one yelling encouragement, just a bunch of store front mannequins in shoulder pads sitting on benches. Wouldn’t that have a deflating effect well below the allowable excitement level of 12.5 psi for watching a professional game?
How about basketball without cheerleaders, halftime shows, replay screens, shot clocks or t-shirt cannons? Heck, what are the Dallas Cowboys without their cheerleaders jumping about? Baseball even has concession people who bring food and drink directly to the fans. Wrestling does none of this . . . or really much of anything that might add to the enjoyment of the evening. At most matches they don’t even give the spectators a halftime or 7th inning stretch to go to the rest rooms.
So what is it that Iowa does at matches with their wrestlers? They allow them to get ready for their bout out of sight of the spectators and then when they’re done wrestling they’re allowed to run off into the tunnel. What other team sport has athletes who only show up when they’re expected to compete and then disappear when they’re done? It obviously works for the Hawks competitively but I wonder how much that hurts Iowa’s spectator numbers. Granted, winning is important but it’s only part of the show, the other half is what surrounds the action.
Now I just mentioned something that might hurt Iowa’s spectator numbers. And you say, they’re pretty strong numbers Wade, are you sure you know what you’re talking about?
I’m afraid I do or at least happen to believe that wrestling could be such a magnificent spectator sport that we’d have to find larger arenas for or duals and have live feeds piped into the school’s auditorium to accommodate the over flow crowd each week. Wrestling could command twice or three times the price it’s currently charging for tickets and still fill the gyms. We could be as popular as the UFC if we knew how to commercialize the sport. But everything begins with us providing the consumer with a product they want to see.
In essence, we have to become fan centric and work to produce fabulous shows. Dead and gone are the days where the sport alone can carry the day. Competition for the spectator dollar is too keen not to pour more than a winning attitude into the program.
We are working so hard at making it a me, me, I, I sport that we’re losing not only our spectators but our programs are disappearing with them.
We must, we have to generate enough energy in and around every match that spectators become engaged. This includes having so many different but related distractions that the fans are overwhelmed with stimulants.
We focus so much on the individual that it discourages team unity; we focus so much on winning that scoring points become irrelevant as long as you have 1 more than your opponent.
I don’t know how other people feel but the most exciting duals I’ve ever been to have both benches engaged in every match. This is what television looks for and requires of a sport if you expect to see their trucks in your parking lot. It’s simple; ESPN demands a total effort from the athletes, coaches and both benches just as we expect a total effort from them. Quid-pro-quo, one hand washes the other, tit for tat. It all boils down to if we aren’t willing to play ball with them, they’re not going to show up with theirs.
The answer to most, if not all of our problems with excitement is to make changes from the bottom up. Start with our youth programs where our nation’s leadership seldom travels and make adjustments there first. Then each season as the athletes move from one division to the next, attitudes, behavior and techniques follow until a complete cleansing of the sport occurs.
Any rules we alter should meet at least one and preferably several of the following criteria; the big four of safety, action, excitement and retention.
I’m sure we all realize how fruitless it is trying to alter the thought processes of those at the top levels of our sport. Been there, tried it, have the t-shirt and scars to prove it. Wrestling would actually have a better chance of convincing Isis that America is good than changing the path we’re currently on so it’s simple, we start at the bottom and work our way up. That is unless we can incite wrestling’s masses to stage an internal revolution, minus the beheadings of course.
I’d like to revisit my continuing displeasure with the leadership at USAWrestling. They’ve been in power for most of this century and has presided over 15 years of the worst international performances in our nation’s history. So the question is; why aren’t they being held accountable? Of course we also had the Olympic debacle of last summer and continuing record levels of retention issues in Colorado Springs yet everyone seems to accept this as the cost of doing business. I always thought if you want a bushier, healthier plant the best way to achieve it is to prune it from the top down.
What others think:
“I always like to read Wade’s articles. He is certainly our top realist and visionary for wrestling at this time.”
Major General Ken Leuer, NCAA Champion, University of Iowa
Now here’s a yippee and double at-a-boy for the United World Wrestling group (formally FILA) and mega kudo’s to their President Nenad Lalovic for their recent announcement that the singlet is dead! God Save the Queen and hip, hip, hooray! The UWW is not only changing the uniforms that wrestlers wear but also those of the officials and the colors of the wrestling mats; the impact of which can’t be overstated. I think they received the message that the IOC sent them last summer . . . retool or perish.
Hopefully the NCAA Rules Committee will take notice and be somewhat embarrassed that they’re being upstaged by a group that has demonstrated far higher levels of self-interest.
America’s collegiate program should be the rabbit of innovation, not the turtle. We’re so competitive that the question persists; why aren’t we competing? Didn’t the Olympic message make it to the NCAA Rules Committee that wrestling had better modernize? USAWrestling waited as did FILA until the hammer dropped then they responded. One would think that would have been a wakeup call for folkstyle as well.
The new baseball commissioner, Rob Manfred, had only been in office for 12 hours when he began making some interesting waves. In an interview that aired on ESPN he made it clear that examining the pace of the game was his first priority. His goal was to find ways to inject additional offense into the sport because their ticket sales have continually declined over the last several decades. If it wasn’t for television their books would be blood red.
I guess that’s why baseball is baseball and wrestling is well, wrestling; they have leadership. We use to be the largest spectator sport in the world during the time of the first Olympiad. That’s not where we are today, quite a fall from grace wasn’t it; from Penthouse to Outhouse, all in a couple hundred years.
What’s the definition of leadership if it’s not to lead? Mr. Manfred understands leadership, I wonder how much it would cost us to pull him over to wrestling so he could oust those who talk the talk but do nothing but walk the golf courses.
The issue is a simple one; we’re dying a death of a thousand cuts and the pain is so slight that no one is noticing. That’s just the opposite of what the IOC did to FILA, they punched them square in the nose; it’s what is known as an impact attitude adjustment and the international wrestling community has been scrambling to get back on their feet ever since. Can’t our domestic programs learn from the experience of others? The warning bells are clanging.
Did anyone watch last weekend’s Australian Open in tennis? How great were the outfits their athletes wore? Electrically charged lime green shoes with non-matching socks; neon colored tops and contrasting shorts. Boy has tennis changed with society’s interest in fun colors and designer labeled clothing. Gone are the days of their restaurant white attire and court room decorum. Wake up wrestling.
As to the UWW mats, they will be painted a darker shade of orange and blue so the new lighter colored uniforms will stand out by contrast. Although the look hasn’t been unveiled yet, rumor has it they will be a combination of compression shorts and short sleeve tops that will accent the curves and bulges of those wearing them and gives way to enough space to print the countries name across the back. It’s always nice to know who you’re rooting for . . . as to uniform colors, replacing the traditional red and blue singlet will be those that match the flag of each athlete’s nation.
How smart is all this . . . these designs, along with a new look for officials is meant to modernize the sport and appeal to the spectator. Imagine that, they’re finally doing something for their fans and of course the broadcast community. You can bet Colorado Springs didn’t have a hand in any of this . . . it’s way too avant garde for them.
The question we should be asking at this point is what was the impetus for these changes? Why now and not 2, 5 or 15 years ago? The answer should be obvious; the IOC’s decision to drop wrestling from the Olympics. It seems wrestling never gets the message until it’s crammed down their throats.
Which leads me to the next question; when will our domestic programs get the memo? Are America’s wrestling coaches and administrators actually waiting until the sport disappears from our educational institutions before they act?
If we’d ask USAWrestling about their experiences, I believe they’d say, “don’t wait, we were not only blindsided but irresponsible in the way we handled the sport and it cost us dearly. Being proactive is the only way to go.”
As a “can you believe it”, I saw this a couple of weeks ago on the UWW website. It’s regarding the Yarygin Grand Prix tournament in Russia and how well the host country was doing. Read the caption in italics that accompanied the photo.
Though the day was a triumph for the Russians, it didn’t come without controversy. At 74kg Andrew HOWE (USA) was in late on a double leg against Ahmed ADZHIMAGOMEDOV (RUS), but with the points seemingly locked up the referee stopped the action for an illegal hold. After the American coaches failed to challenge, the match ended 2-2, with Gadzhimagomedov winning by largest technical maneuver.
Say what; “After the American coaches failed to challenge”, what does that mean? Even the author of the article who wasn’t an American is scratching his head over this and I think I’ll join him?
As an overview of how bad the programming is in Colorado Springs with regards to training America’s best athletes, as of this writing the U.S. only has 1 male athlete with a world ranking of 4th or better in either freestyle or Greco-Roman wrestling. Said another way; only 1 of the world’s best 64 wrestlers, or 1½% call the United States home and that individual is ranked 3rd in his weight class.
So either our product is inferior or management is inept. I refuse to believe it’s the former because we have talented, dedicated wrestlers who are willing to work. But yet our international programs are in bankruptcy with nothing but grey clouds on the horizon.
Chapter 15 next Sunday.