The NCAA Tournament

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.

Television Coverage

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.

4

Second Round Thursday Evening

3

Friday Evening Semi-Finals

2

Friday Evening Semi-Finals

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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.

Officiating

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).

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11 thoughts on “The NCAA Tournament

  1. Re-watching some of the finals thru the lens of these comments, Martinez / Joseph was exactly the kind of action that can fill seats (and what a way to finish — opposite of “hit and run”!). And I bet our blog host enjoys watching guys like Retherford who know how to turn. That seems like a good recent scoring change, making a long turn worth two sprawl-and-spin TDs. Once upon a time a TD was viewed as the first step toward a chance to turn…

    For some of the other matches, I appreciated great defensive skills (as an “initiated” watcher) but found myself wishing we could reward the aggressor more (like Greco does)…maybe give the shooter the benefit of the ever-looser “touch and go” / sideline TDs, while a counter-sprawler has to establish clearer position?

    I also just heard about some proposed changes for next year that allegedly could result in less scrambling, which makes me wonder if this once again misses the point that what’s needed isn’t more scoring per se but *more action*, and scrambling IS entertaining action. Giving more points for the same action doesn’t add entertainment value, and in this case could even be a step backward. Maybe someone has better insight on this.

  2. Is wrestling too complicated for unsophisticated spectators?

    I’m ignorant. You are the experts. What’s your definition of wrestling?

    In my ignorance I have two definitions for wrestling.

    My first definition is the beat ‘em up without hurting ‘em definition. Is wrestling a sport where two fairly matched competitors try to beat each other up, without hurting each other? Do you beat your opponent up, humble him, control and dominate him, by pinning him?

    My second definition is hit and run, where you show everyone you have better technique and skill definition. You don’t want to take needless chances with a dangerous opponent. You want to be safe. Your dangerous opponent knows how to attack and defend. You want to show your superior technique and skill taking them down, turning them if you can, but then you let them up or the referee thinks there’s no progress and stands you up, so you get to take them down again. You are happy just to win the match. You are happy to be ahead by a single point, as long as you win the match. I call this definition hit and run, because that’s what you do. You hit, score a few points, and then run.

    Aren’t both definitions valid?

    Don’t you try to beat ‘em up if you can, but to be safe, you hit and run, if you must, to win the match?

    Let’s consider the evolution (growth) of a wrestler for a moment.

    What definition will first year wrestlers give? Wouldn’t they give the beat ‘em up definition? They have no sense of self-awareness. They don’t know how to attack or defend. You teach them a few take downs, a few ways to pin, a few ways to escape, a few ways to reverse, try to get them in condition, and send them out. They have to think before they can do anything. They meet an opponent with more experience, who doesn’t have to think as much, and they get beat. They face another opponent, and get beat. They get beat, again and again, and finally quit. They don’t want to be masochists. They don’t like to get beaten up, even if they aren’t getting hurt.

    When do your wrestlers start to believe the second definition, the hit and run definition, is the correct definition for wrestling? Well? When do they? I’m too ignorant to know the answer.

    Let’s consider spectators. What definition will spectators give?

    I believe ignorant, unsophisticated spectators, like me, will give the beat ‘em up definition. We attend matches because a family member or relative is participating. When the family member or relative drops out of wrestling, we are done being a spectator. We view, at least I view, the hit and run style as boring, almost akin to stalling.

    Sophisticated spectators will understand the nuances, of feints and attacks, and will be comfortable with the hit and run definition. I believe these are the spectators more willing to attend wrestling matches for the sake of watching a wrestling match as a sport.

    What spectators do you need to get to be viable? From the remarks on this website, it seems there aren’t enough sophisticated spectators.

    I believe you have two choices.

    You can educate spectators so they become sophisticated. One way to do this is to have casual wrestling classes for adult much as martial arts have casual classes. There were judo classes for adults, who can decide never to be competitive or can compete, as they wish. The classes were promoted through a local YMCA as learning some self defense, and as good exercise. You might even be able to charge money for the class; hopefully you can charge money for the class.

    Alternatively, if you need unsophisticated spectators for your sport to be viable, don’t you have to change your style to focus more on beat ‘em up, and less on hit and run? In this case, don’t be afraid of having a match end in a draw. Have only 4 ways a match can be scored: by pin, by draw, by forfeit, or by disqualification. Get rid of the idea of decisions or scoring points.

    You can lampoon professional wrestling all you want, but they were showmen. They knew what the unsophisticated spectator wanted. They gave the unsophisticated spectator a beat ‘em up style. They didn’t score points or have decisions. They didn’t let too many matches end in a draw.

    You have problems with draws in individual tournaments. In individual tournaments, you need a way to advance wrestlers to the next round.

    You don’t have the same problems with draws in a dual meet. An individual contributes (or not) to the team score. You don’t need every wrestler to contribute points to win the dual meet.

    Somewhere else you complained your mat stars don’t get enough mat time, and suggested they be allowed to wrestle multiple weight classes. I have an alternative suggestion for a dual meet format.

    In a dual meet, have 10 minutes of continuous wrestling per weight class. Don’t have periods. Let them wrestle; don’t be quick to stand them up if you think there’s no progress. Let them exhaust each other. When a pin is scored, one or both combatants can be replaced by a fresh wrestler of the same weight class. Wrestling continues immediately. If you have a star at that weight class, your star might decide to stay in, to pin two or three opponents. If the two combatants had a hard fought match, both may wish to be replaced. If a pin is in progress when the 10 minutes time limit is running out, let the match continue until either a pin is scored or the defensive wrestler gets out of danger.

    These rule changes allow your star to get more mat time. Spectators get to see your star wrestle longer. More wrestlers of the same weight class have the opportunity to wrestle. Wrestling becomes more of a team sport rather than being an individual sport with a team score.

    How many unsophisticated spectators think an individual wrestling tournament is exciting the first part of a day when there are lots of pins, but become bored and wish they weren’t there toward the end of the day when matches seem to be more hit and run? Thankfully, your family member or relative probably isn’t that experienced, and has been eliminated early on, and is willing to leave early as the matches get progressively boring.

    How many unsophisticated spectators prefer dual meets to individual tournaments because they expect more pins? One team may have stars at one set of weight classes while the other team has stars at different weight classes.

    Do some coaches teach a beat ‘em up style of wrestling or a hit and run style of wrestling?

    Who are the great coaches and what do they teach?

    I heard the name, Dan Gable. Was he a beat ‘em up coach or a hit and run coach?

    You speak of Cael. Is he a beat ‘em up coach or a hit and run coach?

    One final question. Isn’t the problem with wrestling in the Olympics, it has become too much hit and run and not enough beat ‘em up?

    • I should add, in my radical suggestion regarding having a weight class have 10 minutes of wrestling in dual meets with one or more wrestlers being replaced each time a pin occurs, there are situations where I would relax the 10 minute rule, adding an additional 5 or 10 minutes for the weight class.

      Let me offer the following scenario.

      Suppose, at a weight class, two really good wrestlers meet and one gets a fall. Suppose both wrestlers decide to stay in to see who can get the second fall and the loser of the first fall wins the second fall. Suppose both wrestlers stay in to decide the rubber and see who can win two out of three falls. I wouldn’t stop them wrestling at the end of 10 minutes. I would give them additional time to see who can get the third fall.

      Clearly such a match where both wrestlers are good, and each has one fall, both wrestlers want to beat each other up and prove who is better. Spectators, even unsophisticated spectators, will want to see who can get the third and deciding fall. I wouldn’t end the excitement and drama just because 10 minutes had elapsed.

      Perhaps I see a problem with the hit and run style of wrestling. One is good at using the out of bounds and good at using the clock and good at waiting for the referee to call inactivity and good at waiting for the referee to stand them up when they are in the down position. As an unsophisticated spectator, I think these clever tricks make wrestling boring. I think these clever tricks are one step away from stalling.

    • Gable and Cael are known (as competitors and coaches) for constant attacking and scoring, so what you call “beat em up” I think. Of course that requires incredible fitness, but I agree with you “hit and run” (i.e. nursing a lead) is the big issue for the sport’s spectator value. Of course this is the basis for Wade’s “a point scored is a point earned”. Your “pro wrestling” ideas of running time and tag-offs seem both crazy and fascinating at the same time, but definitely consumer-oriented. However if 5 guys can wrestle 2 or 3 matches each PSU might never lose again. Of course that too requires incredible fitness.

      • Yes, my ideas are from an older, “pro wrestling” style. My father liked to watch professional wrestling before McMahon and company got into the act. McMahon had too much pretend blood and chairs in the ring and pretend violence and tried to make professional wrestling a theatrical, dare I say, joke. I watched what my father watched or watched nothing. We only had one TV.

        He liked professional wrestling from the 60’s and he liked to watch baseball games with the TV sound off while listening to the baseball game on the radio.

        I believe wrestling should appeal to the killer instinct while trying to keep the competitors safe. It’s beat ‘em up, pin ‘em down, show ‘em who’s boss. I don’t see how a “hit and run”, “take down/stand up” style of wrestling appeals to a killer instinct.

        It doesn’t mean knowledgeable spectators can’t enjoy the ‘hit and run” style. They understand and can appreciate it. They can see how hard the competitors are working. For the rest of us sitting in the Roman Colosseum thinking kill, kill, kill, the “hit and run” style just doesn’t seem to make it.

        Of course family members will be (may be?) satisfied with hit and run because their goal is different. They want to see their family member win anyway they can.

        You aren’t trying to appeal to family members or knowledgeable spectators. You’re trying to appeal to the rest of us.

        Let me finish by saying, kill! Kill! Kill! But keep them safe.

        • I don’t think “take em down and let em up” is so much the problem, at least that’s action (although turning and throwing is becoming a lost art in folkstyle). To me “hit and *run*” is “get your 2 then milk the clock by doing just enough to not get called for stalling”

      • Let me add, I don’t see anything wrong if 5 PSU guys face 2 or 3 challengers at their weight every dual, and beat ‘em up,

        PSU might never lose another dual again, but is that bad? The spectators would get their money’s worth.

  3. Young families don’t go because it’s expensive to bring everyone, and little kids don’t want to be there anyway. As for me, my wife wouldn’t be too happy if I left her to watch the kids alone for half the week to go watch wrestling. I plan to go every year when my kids are older. Perhaps that has something to do with the aging live audience.

    • Something to think about but arenas never holds more than maybe 18K. And in PA alone they get that for three days straight at the state high school championships. And easily 50% of those spectators have to drive and get hotel rooms for the 3 days. Now multiply that by 50 states and granted not all states are like PA but add in collegiate interest and there should be 45K every year trying to get 18K tickets for any NCAA Championship. In the absence of that, what we’re seeing is less than 15K in America can find the time and or resources to attend. That was never an issue 10, 20 and 40 years ago so what happened? And this is a prime example of our thinking in wrestling, and it’s not your fault and I’m not trying to use you as an example but we constantly defend smaller numbers versus asking the real question, “why is wrestling getting smaller” in terms of spectators, wrestlers and programs? In business if you had a modest growth of 2% a year the company would either be out of business and/or has fired their entire management staff. Over the last 40 years we should have 1200 college programs instead of 300 and all state tournaments should be sellouts, dual meets never have a forfeit and have Chevy commercials using our sport as a backdrop. We’re not trying to get bigger, we constantly are trying to defend our decline or act if it doesn’t exist. A drug addict will only recover when he or she first admits they have a problem. We aren’t willing to do that yet. And so it goes.

  4. The sport of wrestling isn’t a social event. It’s more a cerebral event where you have to know the rules to plan strategic attacks at least in your own head to truly enjoy wrestling.

    There are students who don’t like football as well but won’t miss the socialness of tailgating parties. They love painting themselves up or getting smashed before the game and cheer whenever everyone else cheers. That’s one thing.

    Another is the TV cameras are usually front and center and those who are directly opposite the cameras are the ones who have the money and clout to rate the best seats. AKA the older generation.

    I would imagine there are more younger members of the audience than you realize but they are up higher away from the cameras.

    To your point, we have to ask ourselves what do the millennials like and need and then work to provide it. That is if we want them in the stands. Wrestling never seems to care about those who pay the freight, only leadership and their opinions and why we falter.

  5. I was wondering about the age also. Where are the young people? PSU grad, SC HS wrestler (69). I also notice at the PSU home matches that the seats are filled with more older fans than the students.

    Is this part of “Liberal” conditioning that is taking place in our schools, or is wrestling just not at the top of the list for young people.

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