This is how I remember high school wrestling where I lived; packed gyms and enthusiastic crowds. The photo is representative of a typical District Championship in the state, a week before Regionals and two before States.
During these golden days of wrestling in Pennsylvania if you were lucky enough to snag a pair of tickets to anyone of these events, and you let people know you had them, you were opening yourself up to a home invasion. The sport was that popular.
And yet, what you can’t see in this photograph is the hundreds of fans that were turned away after standing in line for hours hoping for a ticket. Support of high school wrestling in America was that strong and at its zenith during the 60’s and collegiately in the 70’s when almost 800 campuses had wrestling. Today you can find a seat at almost any scholastic match and anywhere you’d like to sit regardless of when you arrived while there are only 77 Division I wrestling programs left. Oops, now it’s 76 and falling as you read this . . .
So what’s going on; how did all this happen?
Probably the largest reason is the sport hasn’t kept pace with America’s insatiable hunger for quality entertainment in connection with the planet’s rapid growth of technology.
Today, the number of diversions available as a result of this technology is mind boggling. What can’t you watch in the comfort of your own living room? What can’t you find to read on a Kindle or learn from Siri that between the two of them has made libraries virtually obsolete?
The world now has Play Stations, iPhones, iPads, iTunes, iPods and iCan do whatever I want, whenever I want at almost wherever I want; but not us, no sir, not wrestling. We’re man’s oldest sport and if people don’t see wresting’s greatness, that’s their issue. And that’s exactly the attitude that companies who are no longer in business embraced. Where’s Sears now, once the leader in retail sales who thought they were too big to fail is owned by K-Mart, a company whose current slogan is “We Still Exist.” Seriously, that’s their slogan . . . sounds like someone from wrestling gave them advice.
The bottom line is if you’re not finding ways to make your product faster, higher or better you’re about to get passed up or swallowed by those who are.
As to the outdoors, kids have motorized skate boards, drones, blue toothed sound systems and the opportunity to compete in anyone of 741 sports that didn’t exist 40 years ago; everything from 3D Archery to Zui Quan which is a form of boxing with a twist, of lemon that is, given that the competitors must be inebriated to participate.
There’s even one called Aquathlon that I can’t imagine you’ve heard of before. I know I hadn’t. It’s a water sport where two competitors wearing masks and fins wrestle underwater in an attempt to remove a ribbon from the other person’s ankle. The match consists of three 30 seconds periods; I assume a 3-2-2 would be out of the question if they wanted to end the competition with the same number of combatants as they had when it started.
Now granted, wrestling has gotten better but by comparison to the competition that is listening to the consumer and doing something about it, we appear slower, lower, and worse. All you have to do is look at the number of empty seats we have at our events, the percentage of young men who don’t return to the sport from one year to the next, the record number of forfeits we’re registering at duals, and the dramatic drop in program numbers. What else does anyone need to know; or dare I mention, there’s not a single program in America that’s making money.
The point is, global competition for eyeballs is exploding exponentially and the hunger for entertainment options has never been greater. But only those who are actively working to provide faster, higher, and better will manage to exist. Wrestling, on the other hand, spends its time focusing on what coaches want or believe they need, and if anything positive happens after that, it’s by mistake or as an afterthought.
This might be one of the reasons why FloWrestling doesn’t always get great reviews from wrestling’s elite; they thumb their nose at traditional thoughts, and you might say, go with the Flo regarding faster, higher, and better. Some don’t like Martin due to his roguishness, but it’s made him a millionaire several times over and that’s in spite of wrestling’s decline. Maybe treating our sport as a business really works; we should try that someday.
Here’s what I believe I know . . . in order to get back in the race for survival, we need to focus on the consumer and have an aggressive business plan. No wait; that would mean we’d have to have something that resembles a corporate structure and leadership team. Sadly, neither of those has ever existed and why the photo above will always be reminiscent of the best we could do.
Regarding the negativity I expressed above, it’s clearly a fault I have when I’m frustrated. And it’s maddening because our community always sees the glass as being half full just as I do in my personal life. But we’re talking about the future of wrestling and don’t have time for rainbows and lemonade. It’s our lack of goal setting that’s so strange and funny if it weren’t sad. Talk about a dichotomy, there isn’t a member of our sport who hasn’t set lofty goals when it came to their days as a competitor – or as a coach. But they turnaround and seem clueless – or apathetic when the future of the sport is on the line. It’s confusing and it’s discouraging.
Dome Stadiums, Bad Idea
God help us, the NCAA is kicking around the idea of taking our NCAA tournament to some of the nations domed football stadiums. Talk about a terrible idea but I do have to give the NCAA two thumbs up for looking at alternatives, it’s more creativeness than our leadership is showing.
But I have to ask them to think twice before they pull the trigger on this idea. I understand the pluses, yes, you would have more space to spread the mats out and be able to place the scoring tables a safer distance from the action. Both sound like good ideas but are minor when you consider the number of injuries that tables haven’t caused over the years. And why would anyone want to wear silk scarfs to minimize the chaffing that would occur from swiveling their head from Mat 1 to Mat 8 and back again for 3 solid days? Having the mats closer together only enhances the spectator experience.
One NCAA Executive, who’s in charge of our championships, recently expressed that the use of dome stadiums may be appealing from an ascetic standpoint so when you look down on the 8 wrestling mats on the first day of the championships, you see all of them perfectly framed by an acre of artificial turf. In addition, the athletes would have more space to warm up as well as additional space for the media personnel to set up. But are any of these really pluses?
Me thinks this executive is missing the obvious – which is servicing the needs, wants, and desires of the fans while enhancing the spectator experience. Sadly, that was never mentioned. The conversation was only about the athletes and event logistics.
Why are we always overlooking the important? No one cares where the athlete’s warm-up or if they do, as long as it’s not in one’s line of sight. K.I.S.S. Keep it simple . . . spectators want, expect, and demand a reasonable return of enjoyment for their expenditure in time and money. Allowing athletes to warm-up anywhere except in the tunnels means someone is getting cheated out of seeing what is taking place on at least one of the mats. And if the tunnels are used for warm-ups, isn’t that two to three times farther away for the athletes to walk to get to their mat? Why is that a plus?
And think about it, in a football stadium – the best seats in the house will be over 100 feet away from the nearest action and 250 feet away from the outside mats. Then add to that those impossible to read Lilliputian sized score clocks; how are the folks going to see without binoculars or have a clue as to who is actually wrestling and winning? To really enjoy wrestling, you have be able to see where a hand is placed on a leg, notice how each athlete is fighting for inside control, heck, for those who did see how Valencia’s fingers ended up inside Hall’s headgear you can forget seeing that again if you’re in a football stadium. Sitting in the upper deck of a basketball arena makes the combatants look like ants, can you imagine how small they would seem in a domed stadium.
If anyone wants to point to the Iowa – Oklahoma State dual meet two years ago as an example of what’s possible with fan support, many may not realize that dual preceded one of the Hawks football games. So having an impressive number of spectators, although memorable, might be a little misleading.
None of this will increase our fan base and will only frustrate those who bought into the idea. The old adage about seating for events has never been truer. “If you’re only going to have 2 people show up for your event, hold it in a location that seats 1. That way you’re assured to have a sell out and standing room only crowd.” That’s Economics and Marketing 101.
As an aside, the first location the NCAA is considering is the yet to be a constructed stadium in Las Vegas for the Oakland Raiders. Vegas might be fun if we weren’t in session afternoons and evenings for three straight days. Two things to consider here . . . 1) 80% of all the college programs in America and their fan bases reside east of the Mississippi so why are we flying out west and 2) how many more seats will be unoccupied during the opening rounds on Thursday and the consolations Saturday morning by those who are sleeping in because they enjoyed the city too much?
As I mentioned in my last blog, we aren’t filling all the seats at the NCAA’s now, and they’re being held in stadiums that average around 17K seats. So tell me one more time, why in God’s green earth would we want to put 15K fans in a 75K seat stadium? Who’s been smoking what? Think for a moment when you watch some of the NCAA Bowl Games on TV and you see the end zones and upper decks devoid of fans, what goes through your mind?
Folks, it’s a football stadium, are we really going to allow the NCAA to pick a location where 70% of the seats are guaranteed to be empty? It’s ludicrous and almost laughable until you realize they’re actually serious.
Might it be time to reach out to our wrestling fans to determine what they want and need and then be creative in the fulfillment – why are we guessing?