What’s not to like; certainly not the wrestling. The competitors did their job and the fans responded in kind. For me, the real fun began in the semi’s when the number one seeds in the first two weights found themselves in the consolation bracket; and then in the finals when two out of three wrestlers who were shoe-ins to win their third NCAA titles had to settle for second place.
I especially enjoyed watching Cory Clark win his first title in his final collegiate match. The Hawkeye competed all season with a severe shoulder injury that would have sidelined most wrestlers and a much higher percentage of athletes from other sports. Cory was the epitome of toughness which defines our sport and an Iowa coached wrestler; and why the Hawks finished a few places higher than the pundits thought possible.
Then there were the Cowboys from Stillwater with 8 All-Americans coming in third place when in any normal year that would have been good enough to win it all. But I guess there’s a new normal that the Midwest and west is going to have to get used to.
Then we have the city of St. Louis who was again a very gracious host. I’m sure those who took the time to attend the event left pleased with their experience.
This year ESPN recorded their highest ratings ever for wrestling; 8.6 million viewers in all tuned in over the 3 days and combined with their internet streaming viewership increased by 24% from last year.
For the individual markets Columbus, Ohio was first with a 1.60 ratings followed closely by Pittsburgh with a 1.40 and then Philadelphia and Oklahoma City.
In laymen’s terms, ESPN loves covering wrestling, especially when you consider that a lot of the consumption occurs on digital and mobile devises which is where the younger generation resides. And since ESPN’s coverage is a made for television event where they air every single match, these numbers are great for both groups.
Now if you’re like me and don’t have a clue how to evaluate ratings, I asked Chris Bevilacqua, accomplished son of Al Bevilacqua and an All-American wrestler from Penn State to help out. Because he knows television like no other as founder of CSTV which later became CBS Sports and then the model for the BIG 10, Pac 12 and Mountain West Networks. Here’s what he gave me.
“In relation to our 1.60 Columbus ratings, the cities NHL hockey team, the Blue Jackets, average 1.97. In Pittsburg the Penguins pull a 5.56 rating to wrestling’s 1.40 so you have an idea where wrestling ranks in the larger picture.”
We Are . . . Penn State
“Wow” is probably the best adjective to use if you were from the east. Again, Penn State and their neighbors to the west walked away with a “lion’s share” of the hardware.
So kudos and salutations to both Coach Ryan and the other guy the country knows as Cael . . . each of them came from dynasties and are obviously busy building their own.
I believe Gable had his share of success to go along with 6 NCAA Finalists and 5 Champions in 1986 but no school has ever had 5 returning champions like the Nittany Lions do, or two from the same team that were freshman, or 5 that won in consecutive weight classes.
That is until now.
And as a native Pennsylvanian I can’t begin to tell you how much this shift in power pleases me. The Midwest had their day in the sun, now it’s our turn.
And given what’s happening on the recruiting front with athletes de-committing from some of the nation’s previous powerhouses, I’m not sure there will be another day when those who wrestle for programs west of Ohio will have an opportunity to crow again.
Someone asked me this week what I thought the definition of dominance was in wrestling? I responded, “For next season, if all the other Division I schools in America put together an All-Star team; they won’t be able to beat Penn State in a dual meet. The Nittany Lions are that dominant and will probably begin the season with 6 of their athletes ranked #1 in their respective weights.”
Think about that for a moment, can anyone remember a time or a sport where that’s ever happened? Football, basketball, track, swimming, baseball; is anyone aware of another institution or sport that can say, “bring it on” and then whoop the rest of the country?
Interestingly, I had another conversation with a coach who has to compete against Cael. He mentioned, in passing, (that if I didn’t know better may have been mistaken for a bitch), “with all the 5-Star recruits that want to be a Nittany Lion, everyone else will be fighting for second.”
After thinking for a moment I replied, “you’re right, they’re certainly firing on all cylinders but there’s a danger here that Cael has to be aware of that most coaches never have to worry about; it’s called too much success. You can actually have too many studs in your stable, and at times that’s as difficult to handle as having too few.”
To which he responded, “how can you have too many studs?”
Well, when you’re three deep in every weight class with athletes who all have multiple state titles and only have 10 starting slots, there’s a problem. Given that almost all of them are regarded as Mr. All World by their high schools, family and friends want to know why their star isn’t wrestling. Seldom will those who are second, third or fourth string say they’re not good enough to break into the lineup. So they come up with reasons why they’re not wrestling. They might say, “the coach won’t spend any time with me in the room” or “I was cheated in eliminations.” They’ll say almost anything that sounds plausible but you can bet whatever it is, they’re not admitting to not being good enough. You can see how this might cause a few dark clouds of doubt to form over a program.
Then what typically happens is those who are frustrated sitting the bench will start forming cliques among other teammates who are in similar positions. None of this is ever pretty and it has nothing to do with anything the coach did or didn’t do; other than have too many studs. But the biggest reason this is a serious threat to mega programs is there are so very few coaches who ever reach this point in their careers that you’ll find it as a chapter in any “How To Coach” manuals or as a topic of discussion at coaching seminars. So it’s basically uncharted territory in sports but regardless, my money is on Cael to figure it out.
Now Some Not So Positives
Before I begin my less glowing observations of the NCAA tournament, I feel I should apologize to each of you but then I wonder why I feel that way? If we can’t speak openly among ourselves, how can the sport possibly improve? If all anyone wants to read are highlights, then it’s quite possible we’re destined to live the lowlights.
But either way, I have one rule to live by when I write. I absolutely refuse to mention anything that’s negative without counterbalancing it with at least one suggestion for improvement. Anyone can bitch, that’s easy to do. The hard part is coming up with potential fixes while enduring the arrows that invariably come your way from those who disagree. Oh well, here are my thoughts.
NCAA Tickets, Diminishing Numbers
It’s probably not a good sign when the NCAA was selling tickets the day before the championships started and the NWCA still had a bunch of lower bowl tickets they needed to dump.
I mention this as a reminder to everyone that our spectator numbers are melting faster than the arctic icepack. So I wonder if and when we need to panic? Or have we already passed that juncture and prefer denial or indifference to the energy that’s necessary for change? Either way please don’t point to the incredible number of spectators that Penn State is attracting as evidence that all is well with our sport. Any team that’s America’s best will pack their arena just as Iowa, Oklahoma State, Iowa State and Oklahoma did decades before; but sadly no longer. Our collegiate numbers are so bad that it would take a combined effort by the last three universities I just mentioned to fill a gym for one dual meet. And that still might not get it done.
The fact is wrestling shouldn’t point to the flavor of the day as evidence that all is well just as we shouldn’t point to the worst institution for the opposite reason. But if there’s one thing I know; when consumer numbers drop that’s never good for business.
Here are several photos of this year’s NCAA tournament that you might find enlightening. Each was taken at the beginning of a new session. Note the empty seats; I hope you find these photographs worth a thousand words.
Second Round Thursday Evening
Friday Evening Semi-Finals
Friday Evening Semi-Finals
Saturday Morning Consolations
What isn’t so noticeable is the average age of those in attendance. Now I don’t have any evidence to support this but it certainly appeared from walking around the arena that the average age of our fan base is heading north faster than the number of millennials are back-filling our losses.
Solution: we need a bigger dream and then work the dream. Wrestling has far larger problems than our feeble attempts at improvement will fix. We don’t have a vision for what we want the sport to become. We coach our kids to reach for the stars but can’t find a way out of our atmosphere when setting our own goals for the sport. We’re a ship without a rudder and that’s everyone’s fault; leadership for not caring enough to elevate the sport and the fans for not forcing them to care.
Here’s where I would start if I were leading . . . I’d develop a model that had the sport increasing its participation rate by 10% every year and a five year goal of improving our spectator numbers to a point where the salaries of college coaches would range from a low of 6 figures to almost a million dollars. And that’s only to get started.
But I refuse to see why we can’t be like the UFC; have our own television network and become a multi-billion dollar industry. The only thing that’s stopping us is the size of the dream. If you dream big, you’ll plan big and then execute big.
Hoping things will get better is where we are now and that clearly isn’t working.
The referees were consistent; and for any wrestler that’s their biggest wish. No one wants to be on the wrong end of a “what the hell was that” call. From season to season this aspect of the sport has gotten even more efficient and professional; so kudos to those who make the calls and of course those who administer them.
Now for the however . . . there has to be a better way of handling video reviews other than having the same person who made the call evaluate his own decision. This is inherently wrong given the nature of man being what it is, that we seldom admit to ever being wrong regardless of any evidence to the contrary and of course our extreme refusal to stop and ask for directions when we know we’re lost.
Now I get it, 18% of the calls that are protested do get overturned but it’s the appearance of either impropriety or obstanance that doesn’t do the sport any favors. Wouldn’t you think it would be wise to bring in a fresh set of eyes to evaluate protested calls? And it doesn’t help that the video review isn’t shown on the larger overhead screens for all to see. Why not, we’re all curious and would love to get a second look at whatever the point of contention is just like football does but in the absence of that, one begins to wonder? We know the technology exists, so why not? Could it be that this, like so many other things in our sport, seems too logical for logic to dictate?
Customer Service and Sales
As anyone who’s in business will tell you, poor customer service doesn’t help the bottom line or the sustainability of any company. Even with a solid marketing campaign no one can survive when the business fails to develop repeat customers.
With that said, once again this year, and last year and the one before that the NCAA set those @#$%& clocks on the floor next to the mats with large white mat numbers stacked on top of each one. Why? Movie theaters don’t place obstacles in front of the screen; restaurants don’t have dividers on the tables so you can’t see the person you’re eating with so what the heck are we doing?
I’ve been nice over the last several years in my attempts to nudge the tournament committee along on this issue but it still hasn’t worked.
How inconsiderate of them, why, why haven’t they taken those blankity blank numbered signs off the tops of the clocks and put them on the floor and lean them against the tripod clock bases? Don’t they like us? Get them out of our line of sight. We can’t see the matches! It’s so simple and it’s even less expensive; they only need 3 pieces of foam board per clock instead of 4 so please let common sense and consideration prevail.
As to the clocks in general . . . why hasn’t anyone figured out it might be nice to hang them from the ceiling and center them over each mat? I’m assuming that blue tooth technology has reached wrestling by now so what’s the issue. Maybe come up with a projection system that would display times and scores onto something much larger than our current scoreboards which hasn’t changed in 40 years and can’t possibly be read by people over the age of 50 or those in the upper deck.
Damn guys, there are solutions, why do I have to come up with them. Stop being inconsiderate at $245.00 a ticket; we want to watch the wrestling and know who’s winning and if there’s any riding time.
I get it, none of us are perfect and I’m okay with that; but refusing to attempt to make even the simplest of improvements is not a good sign (pun not intended).