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Jeff Byers: Leave the NCAA Wrestling Championships Alone

by on March 17, 2012 6:00 AM

ST. LOUIS — There has been a lot of talk about changing the championship format for NCAA wrestling, and the discussions at the highest levels are getting serious.

Here’s one vote against changing the championships.

The proposal is to make two championships — a dual meet championship that would determine the team championship and then a separate individual tournament that would not keep team scoring. The belief is that with the US culture emphasizing team competition, this will help grow the sport. Unfortunately, if wrestling goes down this path, I believe it is signing its own death notice.

The current NCAA tournament brings in fans from more than 60 teams each year and usually sells out. In each of the last two years, it is setting new attendance and television viewing records for the sport. Coaches, athletes and fans look forward to the weekend as the celebration of the sport they love.

It continues to draw increasing interest, and the atmosphere at the tournament is electric. Fans of the contending teams grow more and more passionate with each passing round and cheer not only for their wrestlers but for the wrestlers competing against the other contending teams.

It is a great atmosphere, specifically because of the rooting interests of both the individuals and the teams. There is tradition behind great moments for individuals and teams over the years, and it will all be significantly altered, I believe for the worse, if the proposed changes go into effect.

While the individual tournament would still draw some interest, without the team dynamic, fewer fringe fans would likely attend, and you would substantially lessen the impact of the tournament on the sport as a whole.

And while the dual meets are an important part of the sport, we saw with this year’s National Duals that the interest in a dual-meet championship does not significantly increase the interest in attendance.

It seems unlikely that ESPN or any other national network would cover the National Dual meet format live, and instead of drawing interest from fans of more than 60 teams, you would draw some interest from fans of 16 to 20 teams, largely the same fans that are already attending those teams' dual meets.

This sport, in an attempt to grow, is going to kill the one thing that has promoted growth if it gets rid of the current format for the NCAA championships. Instead, the NCAA should look at sanctioning some early season dual tournaments in areas of the country that have strong high school wrestling but lack college programs (places like Dallas, Orlando and Atlanta).

If the coaches and promoters of the sport would get together and bring in four or five premiere programs and some other teams to compete over a weekend, you could bring out some big money donors in those states and administrators from colleges in those states and showcase the sport and what it could do for young student-athletes in their state to have a program or multiple programs with the sport.

Bring in an Olympian or two and make it a marquee early season event — a destination event. Fans would be more likely to attend an early season event that is billed as something special and would take them to a destination they might not otherwise visit.

I hope the NCAA thinks everything through before acting because this sport has one thing right now that is going strong. The interest in the current NCAA championship format is at an all-time high and continues to grow. The numbers don’t lie. Looking around the Scottrade Center in St. Louis this week is fun. The fans are looking at the brackets, adding up the numbers, figuring out what the matchups mean for the team race. There is no reason to fix the one thing in this sport that is clearly not broken.

I’m all for being open to change, but I fear the authorities in charge of this sport are not really aware of the potential damage they could be doing to the real growth of the sport, and may so marginalize the championships by splitting them up, that they ultimately render them meaningless to the overall fans.

Here’s hoping the sport continues to look at ways it can change and promote positive growth. Let’s not change the sport by weakening the impact of the national championships and what it brings. The NCAA championships do not need to be altered or watered down. Use the strength of that event to build on, but don’t try to rebuild from tearing down the strongest foundation of wrestling.

This weekend should reaffirm that the sport can draw fans and TV interest, and it should capitalize on that opportunity. Here’s hoping fans get the opportunity to enjoy the NCAA championship weekend in the future.

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Jeff Byers has been the wrestling team’s traveling announcer since 1990.
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