How Wrestling Wins – Chapter 3

If you like what you’re reading, please pass this on to others. The only way change will occur is by awakening those who make a difference; our fans. It’s obvious leadership isn’t making the changes.

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Chapter 3

Now I’m not sure whether our wrestling community is eternal optimists or ostriches, but too many of them point to the new spectator base at Penn State as an example of the sports health; while others are encouraged by the number of young children that join our ranks each year. ESPN adds fuel to the belief there’s a turn-around coming based on their willingness to broadcast, and impressively I might add, every session of this past year’s sold out NCAA Championships. Then there were not 1 but 3 staff writers in Oklahoma City from USAToday.

All these have to be good signs; right?

Well, not really. What Penn State is doing is nothing more than what Iowa did when they were number one. And no one is mentioning that Iowa’s spectator numbers dropped off last year given their three year fall from grace as the nation’s best program. So it’s unreasonable to point to whoever happens to be the flavor of the day and use them as an example regarding the sports health. How institutions like Oregon State, Purdue, UT-Chattanooga and Lock Haven are doing with attendance numbers are far more indicative of the sports health.

To be clear our #1 challenge, wrestling’s 500 pound gorilla is too few spectators.

It’s so bad at times that the revenue schools receive from individual dual meets doesn’t even cover the evening’s janitorial expenses. That single issue is the torpedo that will sink wrestling’s ship unless we agree that revenue production is the issue all of us have to address and then focus our efforts to correct it.

That is why these pages are so important to wrestling; if we were to ask wrestling’s leadership what they believe the sports largest threats are I doubt very much if anyone would mention ticket sales. I actually did a short survey to see what I’d hear from some of my wrestling friends who are some of the sports leaders and not a one mentioned ticket sales. Instead their attention was focused on Title IX issues, poor classroom (APR) performance, a lack of excitement in matches, the need for more media coverage and our inability to retain athletes during their developmental years. Granted, these are all real issues in wrestling but if the sport had more money coming in than going out, these issues would become non-issues.

Now regarding the little tikes, we do have a lot of youngsters trying the sport for the first time each year but close to a majority of them, certainly over 40%, won’t return for their second season. We’ll cover the why of that later but if any corporation in America lost as many new customers as wrestling does, two things would happen. Stock holders would go on a corporate executive firing spree and then look to outside help to figure out why their customer retention rate is so bad.

But not wrestling, no sir, not us because the way we do business has little to do with how the business community does business. We consider those that quit not worthy of our time and prefer to repeat what we’ve always done which is run the sport like a governmental handout program; where the recipients aren’t aware or even sympathetic to the producers struggles. In folkstyle, which is our life blood, it’s all about their inability to balance the books and unfortunately it seems that coaches aren’t even aware there are books. Money just appears in their budget every year; where it comes from or who produces it isn’t their concern. That in and by itself should have alarm bells ringing everywhere. It seems the only way our sport is going to survive their naïveté is by the use of a two by four upside the head. Well, maybe that’s a little harsh but you get the idea. Wrestling has to become a business where our W’s and L’s are judged by our P’s and L’s.

As to the athletes, wouldn’t it be nice, or logical, or prudent or sensible to find out why we lose so many wrestlers each year and actually address the issues? Isn’t that what business does every hour, day and week; don’t they evaluate their products and services and marry the results with the needs of the consumer? But not wrestling!

Granted, it’s nice to know that ESPN thinks enough of us to broadcast our national championships but I wonder; is being on television a good thing? If our product is as inferior as could be argued given our non-existent spectator base, why would we want the country to see something we can’t sell?

Broadcasting doesn’t make a product good or bad; it just makes it very public and that’s never good when the product your selling people don’t care to see.

It’s sort of like a vitamin deficiency but in wrestling’s case it’s a excitement deficiency. Television is never the answer when the product being broadcast is damaged. It’s so bad we can’t even give it away for free to the networks.

Back to the NCAA’s; when you take into account that the numbers of networks and sports channels are growing faster than the availability of quality content, being broadcast on ESPN or any other network isn’t as impressive as it used to be.

Some might not realize it but the NCAA bundles their championships so when a network wins the right to broadcast a highly desirable series of events like the Men’s Final Four in basketball, they are also signing on to air Women’s Field Hockey, Women’s Cross Country and Men’s Wrestling as an example. It’s all or nothing for the networks when they win the bid and you have to give the NCAA credit here, they’re doing their part to help the lesser financed sports. But to automatically assume that wrestling is doing okay as a result of such exposure is a bit of a stretch.

Now regarding last year’s (2013) NCAA Wrestling Championships, ESPN had 800,000 viewers as opposed to 1.2 million who watched the Division III Football Championships. Women’s softball and men’s lacrosse, that has fewer D-I teams than wrestling does, outperformed us in viewership numbers as well. At the 2012 Olympics in London, all three of wrestling’s disciplines had a little over 8 hours of total television coverage during 8 days of competition compared to women’s soccer that had over 9 hours of coverage in just their first day of competition. So we might ask ourselves, “How well is wrestling really doing?”

On the subject of television, there are three types of broadcasts; earned, bought and novel.

If you have an earned status like baseball or football you’re on television because they pay for themselves in spades through advertising dollars. But on the other hand are sports like wrestling who have to pay networks to show up because no sponsor wants to risk their money given our poor viewership numbers.

As to novel, the X-Games when they started were novel, Chinese ping pong was novel when it aired in the 60’s and the Olympic sport of Curling is always novel because it’s the type of competition that’s never broadcast or so infrequently that networks know the Nelson Ratings will be strong enough out of public curiosity to justify the expense.

Wrestling is like two school teachers who are trying to apply for federal aid to send their son to college. They’re too poor to afford $40,000 a year but they make too much to qualify for any financial assistance. With wrestling being the world’s oldest sport, it’s too well known to be classified as novel but too boring to justify the expense of coverage. So if we want to make it on television we have to:

  1. Improve wrestling’s value proposition so sponsors see a financial reason to jump onboard. That means finding a way to seriously increase the number of eyeballs we have watching the sport.
  2. Wrestling needs to produce its broadcasts like the sport of golf. Jump around from mat to mat like they do from hole to hole and in both cases highlight great shots. Seldom do you ever witness an outstanding approach shot in real time. Everything is video delay. Wrestling should consider that as well so we can cut and splice great scoring techniques together.

Can you imagine how bad the television ratings would be for golf if the cameras just followed one foursome around for an entire 18 holes? We have a similar issue when the networks try and broadcast two wrestlers who score a total of 3 points during 11 minutes of a championship bout. Definitely crickets.

As to this year’s sellout, the NCAA finals had just over 16K spectators sitting in an arena that seats just over 18K. So it wasn’t quite as sold out as people were saying and many of the seats that weren’t filled were in the lower bowl where television audience could see the spectator gaps. What message does that send the country about the importance of our sport when prime seating at our premiere event goes unfilled? Does that happen at the Super Bowl, the World Series or in any NBA playoff game? I think not.

For this year’s NCAA’s when those gaps appeared, where was the NCAA’s decision makers? If we’re going to be broadcast in primetime, how tough is it to move people from the upper bowl into the empty seats in the lower bowl where the television cameras pick up everything? This is Marketing 101, but not in wrestling. We don’t have people in power that look around and say, “Houston, we have a problem” and then set out to correct that which is both obvious and correctable.

This is how the WWE (originally the World Wrestling Federation) made it in television. In the 1950’s when they first began broadcasting their events they would place their ring in the center of a large room with bleachers on one side and TV cameras on the other. They would then “paper” the room each night which is a theatrical term for handing tickets out to anyone they could find who had a heartbeat for the purpose of filling unsold seats and building “buzz.” Throw in some simulated crowd noise to make 400 sound like 4000, some well-placed spot lights, low lighting, a few cardboard cutouts of spectators in the upper rows and that’s how they became the industry of smoke and mirrors. Today they’re worth somewhere close to a billion dollars.

Amateur wrestling would never think of ever doing anything like that . . . it’s too disingenuously successful. But we should think about the facilities we select for competition because perception is often reality and the basis of a strong marketing program. The size of the facility coaches select OR the way they set up what they’re given matters. Atmosphere is everything.

Ideally, if you’re expecting 2 people to show up for a match, coaches need to find a gym that seats 1.

During my years of coaching wrestling at Clemson University the football program decided they wanted to add a 10,000 seat upper deck to the north side of the stadium. The first step in this process was to sign a contract with a marketing company out of California to determine the viability of the project.

Cutting the story short, Clemson paid a half million dollars for the following conclusion. “If you have more than 10,000 spectators on a waiting list for season tickets, then build the upper deck. If you have 9,999 or less; wait until you hit 10,000!”

The company based their conclusions on the principle of supply and demand. They wrote that the most important reason why Clemson had such a large waiting list was envy. Those who didn’t have tickets were jealous of those who did and those who did felt fortunate or superior to those who didn’t. Emotions like these elevate the perceived value of a product or in this case a season ticket beyond that of its face value.

They indicated the reverse was true as well. The greater the number of empty seats, the more the perceived value of each ticket drops below face value.

What does this mean to wrestling? When coaches select large basketball arenas for competition they do immeasurable harm to the sport through perception. It’s all about supply and demand. Attract 5,000 spectators to a match and put them in a 15,000 seat arena and wrestling coaches become excited. But those in attendance tend to feel they overpaid and are stupid for coming given so many others didn’t. Having two-thirds of the arena empty sends the message that the event wasn’t worth attending. This is what happens when supply outstrips demand and one of the reasons why our spectator numbers drop.

For my larger matches at Clemson back in the 70’s, I would move them to the universities smaller of two fine arts theaters and put the mat on the stage. The hall sat roughly 600 which was a third of what our smallest gymnasium sat. The mat just fit and the only drawback we had; out of bounds on one side was a 4 foot drop into someone’s lap. No one complained though, the first three rows we’re reserved for sororities. What meant the most was we’d fill the hall and have students on campus complaining about not being able to get in.

Grace Hall on the campus of Lehigh University was unique in its own way. What a great place to wrestle; but only if you were wearing a Lehigh singlet. It had the appearance of a 1930’s smoke filled boxing arena complete with fans sitting in the rafters. Athletes would literally have to step over fans to get to the mat to wrestle.

Liberty University (then Liberty Baptist) had a similar hall where they use to wrestle. Built in the late 1800’s or so it seemed, it sat maybe 500 and had impossible acoustics. I hated wrestling there as a coach because I couldn’t hear myself think. The crowd noise would echo back and forth off the brick and mortar and they always drew a standing room only crowd. I think the students loved intimidating the visiting teams more than they enjoyed whatever sport they were watching; but it certainly worked for them.

So what does this mean today; wrestling needs to scale back and find facilities that are more closely aligned to the number of spectators they expect to attract. The sport must elevate its perceived value and nothing does that better than filling a gym.

Chapter 4 next Sunday.

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4 thoughts on “How Wrestling Wins – Chapter 3

  1. Wade, you are hitting on a ton of topics that need to be in the faces of all coaches in our wrestling communities! I hope they are reading this info..

  2. Also there is something to think about as far as coverage. In your early rounds bouncing around a little more to show more action is great. But as someone that enjoys watching whether its a shootout or defensive battle I like seeing the entire match. What I like to help, get rid of riding time. Utilize more of afreestyle approach. 15 seconds to turn or be close to a turn. If not, stand them up again. For this to be a legit fix you have to be willing to call stalling in the neutral position. Some guys stall, its how they get by. If you stand them up they will still stall.

  3. I was just at Grace Hall yesterday for Who’s #1. What a great place. Small enough that every seat is a good seat. But I also attended a UCONN @ WVU womens basketball game in 2002. Billed as the best womens team ever. 10,000 empty seats. And all sporting events for WVU students were free at that time. That had to look terrible for anyone watching at home.

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