Wrestling’s Attendance Numbers

Just back from a few MMA clinics in Europe and it’s good to be home. I’ve missed my readership but I’ve also been tied up with my novel. I hope everyone is doing well.

Let me begin with the health of wrestling on the collegiate level, which means, the health of all wrestling.

Nothing explains that better than income produced.

Sure, winning the World Championships is amazing but it doesn’t equate to revenue produced. Having NCAA tournaments that are sold out each season is crow worthy, but it doesn’t mean much to those who have to subsidize the sport.

What is important to the health and well-being of our sport, and I do mean everything, is paid attendance. All else is fluff, smoke and mirrors and talking points. AD’s only care about one thing; is their wrestling program a business, or is it a charity? The answer to that determines whether they elect to keep us on life support or feel they need to pull the plug.

Below are the average attendance numbers, per dual meet, for America’s Top 10 collegiate programs. What do they say to you?

  1. 1. Iowa, 8996
    2. Penn State, 7693
    3. Ohio State, 6681
    4. Rutgers, 4680
    5. Fresno State, 4566
    6. Iowa State, 3361
    7. Oklahoma State, 3152
    8. Lehigh, 2705
    9. Michigan, 2615
    10. Minnesota, 2185

I’m sure each of you have a few thoughts, so until I read them in the comment section below, here’s mine.

I believe these numbers absolutely reflect the state of the sport as seen through the eyes of those who decide our fate.

What they say to me, when I stop to listen, is wrestling has decided to put its survival in the hands of everyone else, except where it belongs. With us. And that’s our fault.

Why I feel this way . . . have any of you read or heard one coach, sports writer, business owner or member of wrestling’s leadership team verbally say, or put in writing, what their goals are for the sport? Not what their goals are for their program, magazine, company or organization, but for wrestling? Simply stated, the answer is none.

That’s why we cringe every year when we read about programs being dropped, all the while watching the UFC continue their meteoric rise.

Has anyone you know, come up with a 1, 3 or 5-year plan for increasing the sports overall revenue production, or even its image? I’m not aware of any . . . except me.

It’s not the sport’s lack of leadership, but it is in a way. Rich is definitely leading USAW, Mike has the NWCA’s back, Lee Roy is doing a great job in Stillwater but no one is overseeing the sport as a whole.

I’ve written this before, but it’s worth typing again; wrestling is like a corporation with roughly 7 department heads and no Vice Presidents, President or CEO.

So, without a common vision, or overall leadership, we’re living the outcome.

If we could get leadership together, which won’t happen in my lifetime, I would suggest that we find a way as a sport to jump on the Wounded Warrior team. Support their efforts across all our platforms. We could use the support and good will something like this would develop in the media. It’s actually a match made in heaven. Even their logo is that of one soldier carrying another in a fireman’s carry.

Next, I would find a way to tout out academic successes wherever we can find them. The sport has to kill the dumb jock, toothless mouth breather image that’s definitely not true, but has plagued us for decades.

Of course, we have to, across the board, cheer about the fact that wrestling is the most drug free sport of them all. Whether that’s completely true or not, by claiming it, we’re challenging the other sports to prove us wrong. And they can’t!

The idea is to find ways to elevate the sport, all of us singing together from the same hymnal. The AAU, USAW, NuWay, Cliff Keen, the NWCA, WIN, Wrestler’s in Business, the NCAA, etc. etc.

Folks, our spectator numbers aren’t scary, they’re horrible. When we don’t have one program, not one program in the country making money, we’re not a business. And if you think our administrators aren’t painfully aware of that, you don’t live on this planet.

Did you know that the 60th worst basketball program in the country relative to attendance, Texas A&M, had the same spectator average as Iowa, wrestling’s best?

And Kentucky, who leads the nation in basketball, averages 3 times more fans per game/dual than Iowa does. Plus, they also produce incredible amounts of revenue from television, a word you won’t find anywhere in wrestling’s dictionary.

Yea, yea, I know, we have some reasonable television ratings for our NCAA tournament, but any money that’s generated from that event goes directly to the NCAA and isn’t profit-shared with our institutions. And on those rare occasions when we do receive broadcast coverage, it’s because we paid them to be there, not the other way around. So, in essence, as far as our administrators are concerned, for wrestling, television doesn’t exist.

Continuing with parallels, DePaul, the 100th worst basketball program in America regarding attendance, has more spectators in the stands than the average of the ten best wrestling programs. Ditto for the basketball powerhouse, the University of Hawaii.

But, to get the actual picture of wrestling’s health, we need to see the spectator numbers for the other 65 D-I programs. And although I don’t have them, they have to be far below the 1000 fans per dual mark. And sadly, some programs don’t even generate enough money to pay the referees.

None of this makes wrestling a business, but it does classify us as a charity.

Okay, enough with the charity stuff, but if we’re in such dire straits, how is it we read about the addition of new programs coming online every year?

That’s a very good question, and here’s the answer.

Because Mike Moyer, the Executive Director of the NWCA, is at the pinnacle of our sports administrative leadership. The work he accomplishes, especially given the number of political landmines he has to sidestep, is mindboggling.

Now, for the however. Of all the new wrestling programs that we’re reading about that Mike had a hand in creating, they’re all small institutions who are in desperate need of revenue. And often, they’re schools no one has ever heard of unless you live within 4 miles of their campus’s. That doesn’t make any of these schools less significant, or relevant to wrestling, but in turn, we can’t say, “hey look, the sports holding its own, it’s on its way back.”

It’s all a numbers game.

When institutions add wrestling to their portfolio, the school typically sees an increase to their enrollment of 20 to 30 students. And at private schools, which most of them are, with tuition and fees ranging around 50k a pop, you do the numbers. It works out to be a substantial boost to any colleges bottom-line.

All Mike asks in return, is the school to kick back 200k or so of the 1 million plus they receive. That covers coaches’ salaries and enough coinage for operational expenses. Thus, a win-win.

Most of the wrestling programs we’ve seen added recently, have done so based on this model.

There’s no question this is good for wrestling, but it doesn’t signal a resurgence of the sport.

Only if, and when, we read about major D-I institutions adding the sport, schools whose classrooms are already full, then we will have something to cheer about.

But that isn’t going to happen because wrestling is far more a liability than an asset.

And if my memory serves me right, the last serious D-I program to add wrestling, was Clemson University in 1976. That’s over 40 years ago, yet the sport is still operating like everything is hunky-dory peachy-keen.

On the other side of the coin, the most recent institution to discontinue wrestling is the University of Regina, in western Canada. It cut both its men’s and women’s wrestling programs; so much for those who feel the answer to our challenges is to have offsetting Title IX wrestling programs.

Does anyone care to guess what Regina gave as a reason for dropping the two programs; yep, to save money. The university determined wrestling was “financially unsustainable.” To me, that sounds like another way of saying we can’t afford any more charities.

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On a different subject, I’d like to revisit a small change to our sport that I’ve written about before. It doesn’t mean very much to the big picture but it is one of dozens of changes the sport needs to make.

Like basketball does for their NCAA tournament, they have four of every seed. Four 1st seeds, four 2nd seeds, four 3rd seeds and so on. Basically, they divide their 64-team tournament into four quarter brackets. Each quarter bracket has a number one seed, a number two seed etc.

Why don’t we do that for each of our 10 weight classes? Take the top four seeds in each weight class and give each one a 1st seed designation in their respective quarter brackets. I realize this might be semantics and have some of my readers saying, “I don’t like it.” But it does elevate every one of our seeded wrestlers.

So, why is that a bad thing?

The best wrestler in the weight class is still going to win. The second best will still take second. And we will always know who’s the 16th seeded wrestler is, we’re not fooling the wrestling community. But that young man will now be the 4th seed in the second quarter bracket. Why not uplift him?

But regarding the media, when the 1st seed hits the 2nd seed in the quarter finals of any weight class, the commentators have the ability to hype the match more than ever. It’s a Gold Medal move if Marketing 101 is our objective.

And isn’t it better for someone to be able to tell his grandchildren that, “when I wrestled, I was the 3rd seed my senior year at the NCAA’s. Doesn’t that sound better than saying, “I was the 12th seed? Why deny him the opportunity to elevate his achievements?

What’s the downside?

Unless we’re so proud that we can’t bring ourselves to admit that basketball (a revenue sport) had an idea that makes sense for wrestling (a charity sport).

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And finally, my congratulations go out to Bo Nickal and Mason Parris who won The Schalles and The Junior Schalles awards this season. Here’s what I wrote for WIN Magazine when they asked for a comment on the two:

Bo Nickal . . . In all the years The Schalles Award has been given out, this is the first time where the recipient parallels exactly what I envisioned the award to represent. Bo Nickal is exciting, he’s unique and creative. He’s the type of wrestler that sells tickets – from spladles to elevators to a natural feel for positioning, pressure and balance, Bo has it all.

Mason Parris . . . For the Junior Schalles, the committee felt that of all the great scholastic wrestlers we had to choose from, Mason stood out above the rest. He’s everything a collegiate coach looks for in a recruit; a disciplined and focused student-athlete who’s bonus point driven.”

 

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