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Jeff Byers: More Wrestling Events Could Pique Interest

by on February 11, 2012 6:00 AM

For decades, people involved with college wrestling have tried to figure out how to grow the sport — they’ve threatened, pleaded, promised and continually searched for new and creative ways to expand the fan base and generate increased media interest.

Penn State and its coaching staff find themselves being criticized for not participating in the National Team Duals this season. A new format is being tried, and Penn State opted out of the Duals which is causing consternation for many of the organizers and participants.

While nobody associated with the sport argues with the notion of creating more fans, there is considerable disagreement over the best way to do that.

First and foremost, it may be worth considering what are the realistic expectations. College wrestling has never been at the forefront of the American sports scene. Football is the undisputed king of American sports. Basketball and baseball line up behind it with a variety of other sports — more now than ever before — competing for fans, participants and dollars. Hockey, soccer, golf, tennis, volleyball, track and field, UFC, X-game sports, other Olympic sports, etc. are all battling for fans, media coverage and ultimately, money. 

I am a big fan of having big dreams, but wrestling isn’t going to dethrone football anytime soon. What you want to do is carve a loyal niche and then see if you can pick off additional interest along the way. Wrestling has the loyal niche.

The best way to grow the fan base in any program is to win. Penn State football saw a need to expand after it won a couple of national titles in the 1980s. Penn State wrestling has always had a nice following, but it is now selling out virtually all home duals. Of course, to win, you need to first have a program.

Cody Sanderson saw an opportunity to grow the sport in his native state of Utah. With arguably the sport’s greatest athlete as a native, Utah had no college program. Utah Valley State (now Utah Valley University) began a program under Cody’s direction and last year, Ben Kjar earned the school’s first All-America honor. It is a program that is continuing to build.

Penn State’s trip to Utah Valley is expected to draw a crowd of more than 6,000 and chances are, some of those fans will be impressed and entertained by seeing the sport’s best compete in a venue near their homes.

The National Duals will compete in four venues this weekend and then have four teams in another venue the following weekend for the “Final Four” of the Duals. While this may draw some fans out, it seems unlikely that a large number of fans will follow their teams to a distant location when many have made their reservations for conference championships and/or the NCAA tournament as well.

And the fact is, this format allows the best to grow stronger but does little to help programs outside the top 20 build up toward that. None of the money generated from the Duals will help revive an SEC wrestling program.

Having teams compete in places like Utah Valley is what will help strengthen interest and support. There is no clear-cut, definitive way to grow the sport, but the hope here is that bringing the sport to different areas of the country might be more beneficial.

Take a few teams, including a powerhouse or two, and have them compete in an early season or even a mid-season dual tournament in a Dallas or Miami. Maybe feature it as part of a UFC weekend or a multi-sport event. Get newspaper reporters and television stations that don’t normally cover wrestling to come out for an event so that sports fans read, see and hear about college wrestling. It’s not going to become the lead story on those sports pages or in those newscasts, but it just might spark a few more people to take notice and start following that guy or that team they saw in their area earlier in the year.

There seems to be a notion that wrestling needs to have a dual meet champion, and while I love the dual meet format and the idea of recognizing a champion, the fact is the sport has a well-attended, well-watched championship at the end of the season. There is no need to compete with the national championship that already is in the sport.

Instead, why not create additional events of interest?

Penn State national champion, former assistant and current Lehigh assistant John Hughes had the Pennsylvania Duals. An early season event that could feature strong programs to bring fans in would be a way to create some early season excitement not unlike the interest created by those basketball tournaments.

Trying to build interest in areas that don’t have college wrestling but have strong high school programs could lead to what would really allow the sport to thrive and that is more programs generating more opportunities and more fans.

Instead of trying to build more interest in programs like Iowa and Penn State, perhaps the sport and the NWCA should look to build on the interest in California, Texas and yes, Utah.

Rivalries are healthy for the sport and the Oklahoma-Oklahoma State meets, the Penn State-Lehigh matches, the Iowa-Iowa State meets create a lot of attention and a lot of buzz. But does having those teams meet two or three times a year really help the sport, or would it be more beneficial to have those teams go to ACC country and generate a little more excitement around a program like Duke or North Carolina State? Or have those premiere teams wrestle schools in California or in the Northeast where having a top-ranked team could draw in thousands of additional fans to those venues.

Right now, the NWCA seem to be throwing stuff against the wall and seeing if it sticks and demanding that if you don’t get in line to watch them throw this stuff against the wall, you don’t care about the sport. Instead, perhaps those that run the sport could really sit down, gather input from a variety of sources and develop a well thought-out strategy for long-term growth.

Wrestling is strong as the sold-out crowds and national television coverage of the NCAA championships would attest. The key now is to build on that strength, to use the strength that it has to help the weaker areas become stronger. Let’s spread the word of the benefits of wrestling not just from State College to Iowa City and to Stillwater but from Seattle to Portland and from Southern California to Gainesville.

It’s just an idea.

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