Monday, December 8, 2008

Me and 15,954 of my closest friends

Wrestling history was made Saturday night and, for once, I can honestly say I contributed. The Iowa/Iowa State dual meet broke the all-time NCAA attendance record when 15,955 people jammed into Carver Hawkeye Arena. That’s about 500 more than Carver can actually seat, but the university got special permission to sell reserved “standing room” along the rail at the top of the concourse.

It was a special moment in college wrestling. I talked with one Hawkeye fan who drove from Colorado to see his first dual in Carver. He had to leave right after the meet and drive straight home. I know of a University of Michigan fan who came in to the meet just to have the experience. At least four or five fans flew in from New Jersey. Press row was completely packed.

If a wrestling meet can be a sporting event of this magnitude in Iowa City (attracting pre-meet attention from USA Today and Jim Rome), why can’t wrestling attract more fans in places like Stillwater or Happy Valley or Ithaca? If we can do it in Iowa – why not elsewhere?

Whenever that question is asked, there’s a fairly stock set of responses.

“Iowa doesn’t have any major professional sports teams, so fans gravitate more toward their college teams – even wrestling.”

“The Hawkeyes have won 21 NCAA titles in the last 33 years – it’s easy to attract fans when you win all the time.”

“What else are you going to do in Iowa in the winter?”

“Our school is a (plug in “football” or “basketball” here) school. If Iowa and Iowa State had better football or basketball teams, they wouldn’t care so much about wrestling.”

These comments are often repeated because there is an element of truth in each one. They don’t, however, really answer the basic questions - Why are so many schools willing to accept empty seats as the norm? Why is the American wrestling establishment content with the current level of fan following? The fault would seem to lie at all levels – administrations, organizations, coaches and fans. Even the University of Iowa can be subject to administrative whim. The Hawkeye athletic department recently scheduled the dual meet with Arizona State at 3:00 on a Friday afternoon. (Note: read Jason Bryant’s commentary in the current issue of WIN Magazine for a better perspective on this).

College athletic directors are faced with the fact that wrestling cannot make money. Recent financial statements from the University of Iowa show that wrestling costs the university about $960,000 a year and generates about $300,000 in direct revenue. Any sane person would ask, “If that’s the case, why SHOULD a college support or promote wrestling?” Alumni financial support is one answer. Wrestling fans and former wrestlers are major contributors at many institutions large and small. Educational opportunity is another. College wrestling is on the resumes of countless government, business, medical and education leaders – even a Nobel laureate.

Coaches are another part of the promotion puzzle. Perhaps Tom Brands said it best in his press conference last Tuesday, “Without a product, you don’t generate the excitement. Winning is promotion. I’ve said that from Day One. Winning is promotion. We have to give fans a reason to come, and entertaining wrestling is promotion. Entertaining and winning go hand in hand, and you have a pretty good product. That’s what we communicate to our guys, it’s about how you go out and entertain. It’s not about getting your hand raised, it’s wrestling with a certain energy level, being able to go hard for the entire match, whatever that length is.” Quite simply – you need a great product.

Wrestling fans are a puzzling lot, many clamoring for more and better internet and television coverage, while attending no more than one or two live events a year – if that. We want more exposure for the sport, we want participation to grow and we want more college programs – but only if someone else will do it for us.

Is there anything to be done? This fan hopes so.


Understand the value that wrestling can offer your institution. At some small colleges, a wrestling team can increase enrollment. Schools like Jamestown College in North Dakota have realized that adding women’s wrestling can do just that. You also never know when the next Art Martori or Roy Carver or Bill Krause (major donors to higher education) will be wearing one of your singlets or sitting matside.

Aim higher. The standard was set Saturday and you now know what college wrestling can be. Don’t accept 1,000 attendees as the norm.

Become more fan-friendly. Some college wrestling tournaments are notorious for what fans must endure to attend. Limited views, insufficient seating and inadequate restroom facilities are all too common at college wrestling events. In some cases little can be done. In others, a change of venue might be in order.

Promote wisely – but promote! I recently watched the dual meet between Central and Coe Colleges free online. Will that translate into fans attending more events at Central? I don’t know – but it didn’t cost much and it gave their team exposure to a broader audience.


I’ve never wrestled and I’ve never coached, so I can’t tell a coach how to win. But – I can tell you what fans like. We like action. We like scoring. We like the Mark Ironside approach to wrestling – score early and score often and winning will take care of itself.


It has been said by some (including me) that the way to increase attendance at any wrestling event is to hold it somewhere between Des Moines and Iowa City. While that’s true, it doesn’t really help the sport grow (subliminal suggestion – 2012 Olympic Trials in Cedar Rapids).

The National Wrestling Coaches Association has initiated a marketing study to find ways to increase attendance at the annual All Star Classic. This is a solid first step.

USA Wrestling recently announced the launch of The College Wrestling Network , a partnership of some of the most respected media outlets in the sport., Intermat, Wrestling 411, RevWrestling, WIN Magazine, Takedown Radio, The Wrestling Mall,, and Michigan Grappler have come together with the goal of making more and better content available on the web. This, too, is a great step forward. I hope they’ll include “more butts in seats” as a part of their mission.

(subliminal suggestion – 2012 Olympic Trials in Cedar Rapids)


I’m initiating a new movement – “Take a Friend to a Wrestling Meet”. Find a friend that has never attended a wrestling meet and take him/her to the very next meet near you. If you can, take two. I’m guessing that perhaps a thousand or more fans in Carver Saturday night were “first timers”. Many of them will never be back – but some will, and thus college wrestling will grow in popularity. Don’t put this off. Look at the schedule of your favorite team right now and plan an outing with a “newbie”. Don’t sit back and wait on others – take action yourself.

Together we can help this great sport grow.

Oh yeah – Iowa won 20 – 15.

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