Monday, May 5, 2008

Do we want wrestling to be more popular - or not?

Do we want wrestling to be more popular – or not?

Shawn Johnson is from Iowa and all of us from the Hawkeye state are proud that she is. It’s already evident that NBC is pinning at least part of its’ Olympic coverage rating hopes on a cute, effervescent - but very dominating athlete.

It is almost certain that no American wrestler – men’s freestyle, Greco-Roman or women’s freestyle – will be featured in the TV spots leading up to Beijing. In fact – you may have to get up pretty early just to see any wrestling.

TV or not TV – that is the question

Tuesday was a rare night on American sports television – amateur wrestling was featured in prime time on a major sports network – ESPN 2. Kelly Ripa and Mark Consuelos produced, The Streak, a two-hour documentary on the 34-year winning streak of the Brandon, FL High School wrestling team. Yes – you read correctly – not 34 meets –34 years. It was extremely well done and generally showed the coach, the athletes, the parents and THE SPORT in a positive light.

So what was the general reaction of the wrestling “community” to this excellent exposure? If internet message boards are any gauge, more people were intent on belittling the accomplishment (“They’d have never done that in Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, New Jersey” – pick your favorite wrestling state) than on praising the production. It is the nature of wrestlers to have an “I can kick your butt” attitude, but – talk about not seeing the forest for the trees!

The day prior to that, Jason Bryant of wrote an excellent blog on the developing debate over the relative merits of more television coverage versus greater internet access to matches and meets.

The debate continues to escalate. Yesterday (May 4th), Martin Floreani of posted a blog in which he states that wrestling is an “underground sport” and that initiatives to get more television coverage are “diluting our sport”.

I’m just a fan of the “world’s oldest and greatest sport”. I’ve always made it clear that I never wrestled, never had any family that wrestled and have no ties to any wrestling-related organization. I just want to watch more wrestling. Frankly, I’m not sure that either side of the argument is concerned enough with the fans’ viewpoint.
There is a commonly held belief that the potential viewing audience for all forms of amateur wrestling is small. More than one “authority” has written that only ex-wrestlers or their families will watch wrestling. That notion is misguided. Yes, from my seats in Section GG of the nation’s most raucous (and most populated) wrestling venue – Carver Hawkeye Arena – I see what wrestling can be – sports entertainment that can appeal to a broader audience.

No – I’m not naïve enough to think that some day wrestling will surpass football or basketball in American viewer popularity, but, jeez – the World Series of Poker?

First – take a few steps backward and improve the product. Yes, from the fan’s perspective, all forms of wrestling used to be more exciting. Is this “diluting the sport”? I think not. I recently posted freestyle match videos of John Smith, Randy Lewis and Ed Banach on a couple of different wrestling sites and the reaction was enlightening. Fans want scoring far more than they want “fighting for good position”. Yes, this will require once again tinkering with the rules, which in itself challenges the fans. More important then rule changes, however, is the need for a philosophical change among coaches and athletes. If you want fans in the seats – score some points! Pin some people! If you’re content with wrestling in an empty gym – well – you’re headed down the right path.

Fan base growth can only come from greater exposure – television. The 30+ years that Iowa Public Television has aired college wrestling has certainly contributed to the popularity of the sport in Iowa.

Does this mean that the internet has no role? Of course not! Online sites like,, flowrestling, revwrestling and the various team message board sites all serve to heighten a new fan’s interest. This ought to be a conscious effort.

Look at the Dancing with the Stars phenomenon. How can that show be as popular as it is? For one thing – the network created an online element to the broadcast package from the very beginning. Could that carry over to wrestling coverage? You bet. Here’s a scenario. During a wrestling broadcast the on-air team would frequently mention the broadcast website. Viewers could be encouraged to vote for the “most valuable” wrestler of the event or enticed to view video of past matches involving that evening’s competitors. Someone just needs to think creatively.

Which leads us to the primary problem – too many organizations and institutions working at cross-purposes. American wrestling is governed or influenced by the US Olympic Committee, FILA, the National Wrestling Coaches Association, USA Wrestling and the NCAA (and so on). Each has its’ own priorities and its’ own marketing and promotional efforts. There appears to be little coordination. Why not create a “wrestling marketing board” to oversee a unified promotional effort? To avoid the “too many chefs” effect, their biggest task would be to hire a good marketing agency and let the agency do its job. The board could be funded in a couple of ways. One possibility is a “checkoff” system similar to that formerly used by the Beef Industry Council and the National Pork Producers. Each participating institution would add 50 cents to a dollar to every membership fee, ticket price or entry fee. All of that money would go into the pooled marketing fund. Corporate sponsorships would also play a role.

Do we want wrestling to be more popular – or not? If the answer is “yes”, changes need to be made.


Horse said...

Wrestling absolutely needs to re-brand itself in the USA. The proposed hiring a marketing firm to do this is an idea that others have bandied about, but it seems that very few of those in charge of the major wrestling organizations are very eager to embrace such change or relinquish such control of their image. Too bad, really, because I know for a fact that there are more than a few advertising professionals with wrestling backgrounds who would like to help wrestling help itself, myself included.

Jim Brown said...

horse - I'm glad you found the blog. I'm enjoying the comments.