The following article appeared recently in FloWrestling which I find consistently to be the sports leader in original journalism. They always cover stories that others shy away from with a writing style that is always smart and crisp.
Recently, United World Wrestling announced a multi-year partnership with NBC Sports — an agreement that will land the World Championships, Continental Championships, and, yes, the 2017 World Cup on the broadcasting network.
In August, Willie Saylor wrote about how NBC slapped wrestling in the face. NBC Sports chose to not show Helen Maroulis’ thrilling and historic Olympic finals victory against three-time Olympic champion Saori Yoshida in the primetime NBC broadcast. Instead, it elected to air an interview of Ryan Lochte (who failed to earn even an individual medal at the 2016 Games) regarding his fabricated story of getting robbed in Brazil during the Olympics.
NBC’s coverage fell short in Rio and is currently non-existent while the world’s eyes are focused on the World Cup in Iran. This incredible script writes itself: President Trump signs the order banning immigration from seven different nations, including Iran. Iran reciprocates and the U.S. is unable to attend the World Cup. A judge overturns Trump’s decision, and Team USA is back in.
This week, Iran welcomed the U.S. and showered our athletes with admiration and open arms. Two days of incredible wrestling ensued, and it culminated with a storybook finish: Iran versus the USA in the World Cup finals.
CNN even took notice of the magnitude of the event, sending a reporter to Iran and producing content around the World Cup.
During Friday’s finals in Kermanshah, Iran, would NBC Sports at least acknowledge the event that they had ignored up to this point?
The lead story on the NBC Sports Olympic page during the World Cup finals is an article that was posted Thursday at 11:53 AM.
This is confusing after reading a quote from NBC’s president of production and programming, Jim Bell, in the United World Wrestling press release. Bell mentioned being “thrilled” about the opportunity to showcase more wrestling.
“NBC Sports Group is thrilled to showcase more wrestling, one of the world’s oldest, and best Olympic sports,” said Bell to United World Wrestling in the press release. “This is great news for us and for wrestling fans alike, as more content will now be available on more platforms than ever before.”
What did Bell actually mean when he said the words “showcase more wrestling?”
If our sport is truly the “one of the best Olympic sports,” why does NBC Sports so frequently ignore it — especially on its Olympic page during a time of the year with minimal Olympic sports storylines? Whether it’s laziness or just apathy toward our sport, wrestling deserves better.
The most recent piece of wrestling-related content was an Associated Press release regarding Iran lifting the ban against USA on February 5.
NBC has shown a reluctant or, at best, apathetic approach to covering wrestling. We hope that improves during the life of the current contract. We’d like to see wrestling, and its premier events, elevated to their highest potential.
As FloSports CEO Martin Floreani said on FRL in response to NBC’s poor Olympic Coverage, “When wrestling wins, we win. If the tide rises, then we rise.”
Martin has a point but I would have preferred to see another paragraph or two covering why NBC continues to overlook wrestling. It’s not always helpful to cover what without mentioning the why. And in this case I believe the why is:
Wrestling doesn’t have a product worthy of coverage.
Now I know that wrestling thinks it does, but no one outside the sport feels that way. And it’s those “no one else’s” that matters most to NBC. If we had half the spectator numbers we think we have, but don’t, we’d see NBC at many of our events. If we had the demographics and purchasing power that Chevrolet, Coors or Target finds meaningful, our events would be televised in prime time. None of this perceived snub is NBC’s doing because wrestling always looks everywhere except within. It’s always someone else’s fault. We point fingers wherever we can without realizing that every time we do that there are 3 other fingers pointing back at us.
Regarding Rio, no one else cheated the wrestlers; it was FILA’s (now the UWW) refereeing corps that did the dirty work for the organizations leadership. And NBC was watching. It wasn’t the IOC’s fault that they washed their hands of the sport 4 years ago. It was FILA’s deafness to IOC concerns and their amazing sense of importance that sealed the deal against us. NBC was watching once again.
As for the recent World Cup, I wonder, did the UWW enter into a contract with NBC or just had a conversation with their leadership? They used the word “agreement” in Flo’s article but is that the same as a handshake or was it a wink, wink, nod, nod sort of arrangement that the UWW is so familiar? If we have something in writing, then the sport has a way to be made whole again. If we don’t, what was anyone thinking to announce a relationship that kind of, sort of, is but isn’t? It sounds like our friends in Switzerland just got put on their backs again, so don’t blame NBC.
Summing this up; our international program and the world’s governing body doesn’t care enough about the sport to do what’s necessary to endear them to any network or major media outlet. And that’s the back story behind the perceived snub.
Some Domestic Thoughts
Similar to our international challenges, domestically we shouldn’t blame Title IX for our decline in programming numbers; might this be an internal issue. It’s not the ladies who are decimating our ranks, nor are they responsible for the loss of over 500 programs. Instead we need to look to the coaches of those institutions who didn’t illuminate their programs in the eyes of their administrators. Once again, Title IX has not been responsible for the loss of a single wrestling program so we need to stop blaming those who just want equality in sports. It was, is and will be the Athletic Directors who decide which sports go and which ones stay in order for their institutions to become Title IX compliant. Painfully, wrestling has become the preferred sport for elimination as it is the weakest of the non-revenues socially, academically and politically. And as we all should know, Athletic Directors are not inept, they keep their jobs by 1) doing their jobs and 2) being able to identify which sports have the strongest support base. The ones that don’t have a team of politically active alumni become the path of least resistance when decisions are made.
Regarding the sports lack of excitement as defined by our fan base, it’s not the athlete’s fault they have to wrestle to misguided rules that encourage, and almost demand, inactivity. Of course my apologies to Nolf, Rutherford and Nichols on the collegiate side of things and Stieber, Dake, Taylor and Snyder internationally. They make any match they’re in worth watching. But if we’re looking for the reason why wrestling fails to fill gyms and the media ignores us, it’s the other 12,243 athletes who wrestle to the rules.
For those who think I’m off the mark here; have you ever been to a sports bar when someone is broadcasting wrestling and taken the time to look around? If you have, you noticed that no one is paying attention to the television airing wrestling. Instead, the patrons are watching the ones that are broadcasting golf, auto racing, soccer etc. etc.; exactly what NBC executives are noticing as well.
Recently we even have a sport video parody out there on YouTube regarding a summer wrestling camp that specializes in stalling. I get it, it’s meant to be funny. But the closer something is to being true the more humor people find in it. That’s why a parody is popular and this is so funny; it’s a satirical look at something we consider as serious. So what does that tell you about our sport?
You can watch it at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cZbIOOpLuds
We also have to do better at reading between the lines when our leadership shares numbers with us. As an example, it was exciting to hear that in the last 15 years the sport has added 170 new collegiate programs. Great news indeed! But then I began to wonder, what weren’t we being told? Then it dawned on me; how many of those new schools are marquee institutions? That’s the one fact that tells us all we need to know.
To the best of my knowledge Auburn hasn’t started wrestling, nor has UCLA, Notre Dame or LSU. Wake me up when Alabama decides to start a program or Syracuse University. I’ve never seen a Kansas singlet at the NCAA’s or one from Washington, California or the University of Arizona in the last 30 years. Why is that? Where’s the University of Colorado, the University of Georgia, Florida, Miami or Yale? The fact remains that most, if not all of our newest programs are D-II and D-III schools with names most of us have never heard of. That’s not a bad thing, nor are these numbers as exciting as one might think.
Now I’m not saying that we’re not doing our best to improve our numbers. We are, but until the time comes when some of those previously mentioned big boys decide to field teams, we’re still not relevant and this is exactly why the media is ignoring us.
Another thought might be, why would any company hitch its wagon to wrestling when opposing coaches have the power to keep their opponents best athletes on the bench as a result of forfeiting? Think about that for a moment, how many sports are there where that’s possible except in wrestling? And name any network that would be crazy enough to invest in a sport that on average doesn’t put a full team on the mat or wrestles in front of crowds that are 1/8th as large as a women’s NBA game?
How can we possibly get better when all you hear coaches say to every suggestion for improvement, “I don’t know what we should do but that’s not it!” How can anyone in their right mind look at how we’re trending and say “wrestling’s okay, let’s do more of what we’re doing.”
Were you aware that in 1985 the sport had 146 Division I wrestling programs and today we have 77. And unfortunately those numbers are a little misleading because we’ve added 10 Division I programs during that time. So actually we’ve lost 79 programs or over 50% of our strength since the days of Jim Jordan and Barry Davis. And of those 10 programs, they’re mostly mid-major in size in relation to marquee losses.
Maybe a suggestion to those who make decisions for the sport . . .
Hope is not a good strategy.
As to our NCAA D-I tournament and the belief that the sport is doing well because they sell-out every year, well, is that actually true? I always hear the tickets are gone come February but when I look around the arena, other than during the finals; there are always plenty of empty seats. And that is exactly what potential sponsors see and care about, numbers of eyeballs, and in the absence of those, so too is Sports Illustrated, the New York Times and USAToday absent.
Did you know that approximately 60% of those who attend the NCAA’s are either coaches, former coaches, wrestlers or former wrestlers? And most of the remaining 40% are family members of those who are competing. That shouldn’t be a surprise to most of us but it does explain why sponsors and networks aren’t interested. If you can’t attract fans that find the sport entertaining on its own merit as opposed to being a participant or supportive family member, why should NBC be interested?
Maybe something to think about, in economics, when the market is flooded with a particular product, prices drop proportionally. If there’s a shortage of product, prices rise. Might there be a parallel here with regards to the number of matches and tournaments wrestling offers the consumer? The short answer is yes, we wrestle way too many times a season which doesn’t help the sports academic average, injury numbers or budget expenditures.
In closing, if we can’t get our own house in order, and that seems to be an impossible task, we have no right to expect anything more from NBC than we’re willing to do for ourselves.