Monday, July 27, 2009

How I'd start a college wresting program

Eighteen years ago I started my own company. I took ten years’ experience working for others, found an underserved niche and took the plunge. In those 18 years I have developed and managed direct marketing campaigns that launched department stores, pizzerias, groceries and banks.

As an outsider looking in – how would I start a new college wrestling program?

Step 1 – Call the National Wrestling Coaches Association.

Mike Moyer and his staff have developed invaluable materials to help anyone that wants intercollegiate wrestling to grow. They work behind the scenes with organizations that are trying to expand the sport at all levels. Their website is a wealth of ammunition for those that want to take up the battle for wrestling. Almost all of the data in this blog is taken directly from

Step 2 – Build a constituency.

Few college administrators are looking to add a wrestling team (either men’s or women’s). Someone has to start the ball rolling. High school coaches can be great catalysts for action. Recently retired after 20 years of coaching at Amarillo (TX) Tascosa High School, Johnny Cobb heads up a group working to establish wrestling at West Texas A & M. One of Johnny’s partners in his effort is another prime example of someone who can spearhead a startup – Olympic champion, Brandon Slay. Which prominent athletes, business people, politicians, etc. can you enlist to join you?

Parents of wrestlers can provide a major impetus. Alan Leet, father of Iowa Hawkeye wrestler, T. H. Leet, is one of the leaders of a coalition that was instrumental in bringing Georgia’s only intercollegiate varsity wrestling team to Darton College. Theirs is an excellent model for how to attack the challenge: start with a grass roots group that loves wrestling, enlist the aid of the NWCA and then get Dan Gable to help with your fund raising.

Step 3 – Make your case.

Wrestling ranks sixth nationally in high school athletic participation. Of the ten sports that rank highest in high school participation, wrestling ranks last in opportunities to participate at the intercollegiate level. Only 2.3% of high school wrestlers can go on to compete in college.

There are two areas of the country that are distinctly underserved. The Western and Rocky Mountain States have one-fifth of America’s high school wrestlers and less than 30 college teams. The situation in the Deep South is even worse, with no college varsity teams in states like Texas, Florida, Alabama and Louisiana.

The numbers make sense – especially for a tuition-driven school. A wrestling team would attract 25 – 30 new students (a women’s team an additional 15 – 20). Beloit College recently laid off 40 employees because 35 fewer students enrolled than expected. Startup costs could be as low $20,000 (the cost of 2 mats for a school that already has a weight room and space for the mats), but would more realistically be in the $75,000 - $100,000 range. Annual operating costs (including coaches salaries) will range from $125,000 (according to Baker University) to $250,000. Average 4-year private college tuition is $25,000. Let’s assume that scholarships and other financial aid discount that by 50%. Wrestling not only pays for itself – it has the opportunity to generate positive revenue for any school that is smart enough to add it.

Don’t forget the long term implications. Every additional enrollee is a potential future alumni donor.

Step 4 – Prime the pump.

Yes, the numbers make sense, but every college administrator will be more open to investing in wrestling if you bring financial commitment to the table. Aim high. Get creative. Believe in the value of wrestling. If you had to – could you convince John Jones, the president of Acme Widget Company to write you a $10,000 check – especially if he had no wrestling background?

Here’s the most important factor – someone has to want to. Someone has to take the first step. Is it you?

Monday, July 20, 2009

Forty years ago today

Forty years ago today I was working at the East Locust Street Dairy Queen in Davenport, IA – trying to earn enough tuition money for my sophomore year at Saint Ambrose College. In between serving banana splits and Dilly Bars I watched Neil Armstrong land on the moon. The manager had brought in a black and white portable TV so that none of us would miss history being made. NASA taught us an important lesson – a group of people can accomplish anything if it means enough to them.

Forty years ago today Dan Gable was preparing for his senior season at Iowa State University. He had not lost a wrestling match in high school or college and on July 20, 1969 most of the American wrestling community thought him unbeatable. Just a few months later, in Evanston, IL, Larry Owings shocked Gable and the wrestling world by winning the 1970 NCAA wrestling championship. Gable would rebound from that loss and go on to a World Championship and an Olympic Gold medal as an athlete and then would coach the University of Iowa to 15 NCAA team titles. Dan Gable taught us another important lesson – you can triumph over setbacks and go on to greatness.

Forty years ago today 226,681 high school boys were anticipating the beginning of wrestling season. In the 2008-2009 season 259,688 high school boys and 5,527 high school girls wrestled interscholastically.

Forty years ago today there were over 250 more college wrestling programs than there are today. It’s a pretty simple observation – there are more potential college wrestlers than in 1969, but at least 6,000 fewer opportunities.

The wrestling world spends so much time fighting the elimination of college programs that we think very little about adding teams – and yet every year new squads enter intercollegiate wrestling. There are many roadblocks to starting a new program – finances in these economic times, lack of alumni recognition, Title IX, etc. Let’s use the lessons taught us by NASA and Dan Gable. Let’s join together and fight back.

Of all of the things standing in the way – the current interpretations of Title IX may be the most steadfast. It will be a long and arduous battle to bring sanity to gender equity discussions. Let’s look instead at schools where gender proportionality is not an issue. (I’ve picked a random school from all divisions but NJCAA). Please note that these selections are based primarily on numbers.


Park University in suburban Kansas City has an enrollment that is 51% male and currently has three more women filling athletic roster spots than men. Three other schools in their conference have wrestling teams. One of those, Missouri Baptist, also has a women’s team. Even with Baker University beginning interscholastic competition in 2009-2010, Kansas high school wrestlers are underserved with future opportunities. Park would seem a good prospect for adding both a men’s and women’s team.

NCAA Division III

Green Mountain College

The reinstatement of wrestling at Norwich University still leaves Vermont with only one college wrestling team. Green Mountain’s enrollment is 52% male, but 59% of all athletic roster spots are filled by women.

NCAA Division II

Florida Institute of Technology is 65% male. They have more women’s teams than men’s, but roster spots are 53/47 male to female, leaving room, under proportionality, for a wrestling team. Major League baseball player, Tim Wakefield is a Florida Tech grad and has a history of supporting athletics in Florida (not just baseball).

NCAA Division I

Toledo University is evenly split by gender. According to data on their website they have 185 female athletes and 162 male. That leaves just enough room for a wrestling team. Toledo has a wrestling history, including 1971 NCAA HWT champion. Greg Wojciechowski. They are also in the MAC Conference, which has other wrestling teams.

Does this mean that establishing wrestling at these schools will be easy? No!

Does this mean that these are the only schools that should be targeted for expansion? No!

I offer this up only as a slightly different way to approach the growth of college wrestling.

Next week we’ll discuss the rest of the battle.

Monday, July 13, 2009

You say you want more coverage?

One of wrestling’s best writers is looking for work today. Last week The Des Moines Register announced the layoff of 36 employees, including sportswriter – and wrestling maven – Dan McCool. Dan covered wrestling for the Register for 25 years. He wrote unique stories about every level of the sport. I hope he finds a new venue soon. Wrestling needs writers like Dan.

The announcement of Dan’s layoff led to a couple of online discussions – one about the extent – or lack thereof – of wrestling coverage and the other about the state of print journalism in general.

“Wrestling doesn’t get enough coverage”. That’s a common complaint among fans, wrestling board posters and even many of the sport’s leaders. Really? Have you been on the internet lately? Web coverage of wrestling began in 1995 with and InterMat (see Mark Palmer's interview with InterMat founder, Tom Owens). In the time since then we’ve seen the addition of sites like Flowrestling, The Wrestling Mall, The Wrestling Talk and RevWrestling – along with dozens of state-specific sites and hundreds of high school and college team sites.

Live interviews and podcasts are becoming a staple of internet coverage. Wrestling 411 and Scott Casber’s Takedown Radio air lively, informative and entertaining discussions with wrestling’s biggest names.

Internet coverage of wrestling is still growing. Eric Betterman and Ray Brinzer recently launched The Open Mat. In their mission statement Eric and Ray say, “The Open Mat is developing the internet’s most comprehensive web-based wrestling/MMA news and social networking site. This web-based system will allow users to view and contribute news on all aspects of wrestling and mixed martial arts.” – and later – “Our number one goal is to expand the reach of our sport and bring wrestling back to the front page.”

Here’s my question – Does internet coverage really “expand the reach” of the sport? I honestly don’t know. Does the wealth of online videos eventually get more kids on the mat? Does college wrestling attendance increase because of message board discussions? Have the recent internet articles on the addition of teams at Grand View University and Baker University inspired anyone to lead a movement to bring wrestling to a school near them? I wish I knew. But – as the old saying goes – it can’t hurt.

As a long-time marketing professional, I do know this – if our desire for more exposure is to sell the sport – we need a mix of media. There are at least three magazines dedicated to amateur wrestling, WIN, Amateur Wrestling News and Wrestling USA. All provide in-depth analysis that exceeds what is typically provided on the internet. They all face multiple threats. Publishing costs like paper and postage continue to rise. Free internet content is forcing them to provide even stronger value differentiation. Will they all rise to the challenge? I hope so. A well-read fan is a stronger fan.

There are still many wrestling fans who rely on their daily newspapers. That’s too bad. The newspaper publishing business model no longer seems to work. As the overall size of most papers shrinks, wrestling must fight even harder for space on the sports page. If The Des Moines Register is willing to reduce wrestling coverage to cut costs, think what dailies in other parts of the country might do.

Let’s look at this strictly as a marketing problem. Every new kid who takes up the sport is one “sale”. Every person who attends his or her first wrestling meet is another “sale”. Every new donor to a wrestling-related cause is another “sale”. Recent research by AdWeek Media and Harris Interactive found that television still influences buying decisions more than any other medium. So – if our desire is to make more wrestling “sales” – we need more television exposure.

Television coverage of amateur wrestling is better now than at any time in my memory. It still isn’t enough to really help the sport grow. How do we get more wrestling on TV? Well first of all – watch it when it’s on. Except for public television, networks are in business to make money and they make money by selling advertising. Advertisers buy time based on the number of projected viewers. The more you watch, the more it will be on.

Secondly - support those who are fighting to get more wrestling on the air. Wrestling 411 has a great concept – a weekly Sports Center-like highlight show. We all know that some wrestling matches can be pretty boring. If a prospective fan’s first exposure to college wrestling was the 2009 NCAA 125 pound championship match, he might never watch again. Let’s show the public the best that wrestling can be first. Right now Wrestling 411 is live on the internet and then podcast, but Kyle Klingman, Jason Bryant and the rest of the team are working to get it on the air. However, they need financial support and you can help. Do you want wrestling on TV badly enough to do something about it? You do? Then click here.

Television might have been the most influential MEDIUM on buying decisions in the AdWeek/Harris study but it wasn’t the most influential FACTOR. Nothing beats “word-of-mouth” (and personal WOM is twice as powerful as internet recommendation). That’s you. You - talking about wrestling to anyone who’ll listen. You - taking kids to wrestling events. You - organizing clubs. You - convincing alumni and administrations of the value of the sport.

You want more coverage? Join in.

Monday, July 6, 2009

Second anniversary

For most of us, blogging is a self-indulgent endeavor. Yes, I know – there are professional journalists, scientists, business leaders and educators who write blogs with tangible value. Most of the rest of us, however, just believe that we have something to say and are arrogant enough to think that someone might care enough to read it.

Today marks the second anniversary of The View from Section GG. The title reflects the fact that I have watched a lot of wrestling from section GG (row 12, seat 1) in Carver Hawkeye Arena. It started as a myspace blog because I wanted a way to discuss “the world’s oldest and greatest sport” from a fan’s viewpoint. With the exception of winning an 8th grade intramural championship at Frank L Smart Junior High in Davenport, IA – I never wrestled. The first posting was called, “Blame it on Gable” and explained the beginnings of my love for the sport. Twenty-three people read it.

I tell this story all of the time. In the winter of 1970 a friend of mine who wrestled at Augustana College asked me to ride with him to Ames to watch Dan Gable wrestle. He just wanted someone to talk to and share the driving. I am just a little younger than Gable and had spent all of my youth as a sports fan in Iowa, so I was well aware of his accomplishments. Unless you lived here at the time, it’s hard for most people to grasp the full extent to which the state embraced his success. But – before that night I had never seen him wrestle.

I don’t remember the opponent – either the school or the individual. I don’t remember any of the other matches – except that the Cyclones won. I clearly remember Gable pushing this guy across the mat like he was pushing a wheelbarrow with a flat tire (my friend explained on the drive home that those were called “double arm bars”), then turning him and pinning him. Something struck a chord with me that night and over the years my love for wrestling has continued to grow.

During the season, roughly a thousand people a week read the blog. That number will spike to about 1,500 if the content is in any way related to the Hawkeyes. The busiest week ever was when Iowa Public Television allowed me to post the video of the Dave Osenbaugh upset of Lou Banach. There were 3,500 views that week – most of them probably Cyclone fans watching that match over and over.

It has been a rewarding two years. I’ve “met” some amazing people along the way – people with an unbelievable passion for wrestling.

Photographer, web developer, wrestler and now MMA fighter, Danielle Hobeika, graciously gave me my first interview. Then she did something for which I will ever be grateful – she introduced me to Al Bevilacqua.

Al is zealous about one thing – get as many American kids on the mat as possible. He’s very clear on the best way to accomplish that – make wrestling an urban sport. He walks the walk – Al and Michael Novogratz and the others at Beat the Streets have been phenomenal in bringing youth, middle school and high school wrestling to every borough in New York City. They (and others) are now reaching out to other areas of the country. A Beat the Streets offshoot in Detroit (led by Mark Churella) recently helped launch that city’s first middle school team. Others will follow.

I got to meet Karissa Avallone and her dad, Tony. Karissa is one of the thousands of girls in this country forced to fight prejudice and stereotype – and wrestle on the boys team – just to have the opportunity to compete in the sport she loves. By the way – she’s good.

Natural disaster – and blogging about it – introduced me to a dynamo of a wrestling mom, promoter, supporter and WIN Magazine “fan of the year” – Gail Rush. Gail and her son, 2X Coe College All-American, Clayton, responded to my friend Terrance’s flood loss with great kindness. They also contributed to the first of The Road to Cedar Rapids blogs, promoting the Division III Championships. On the night that I actually met Gail face to face in the Eby Fieldhouse at Coe, she had arranged to bring the entire middle school wrestling team from Aledo, IL to watch the dual meet between Coe and Cornell College.

Speaking of Cornell – the blog introduced me to Mike Duroe, the Rams’ head coach. Mike has coached at every possible level and has a treasure of experiences. Sitting in his office and talking with him about wrestling is just about as much fun as a wrestling fan can have.

The blog led to Mike Moyer of the National Wrestling Coaches calling me on the phone. Be prepared when Mike calls because he’s going to ask you to join in the fight to save college wrestling – and you won’t be able to say no.

Jason Bryant was one of my first regular readers. He and Kyle Klingman are now working diligently to improve wrestling coverage with Wrestling 411. Currently a webcast, it is their goal to also get the show on television as a weekly highlight broadcast. They are fighting an uphill battle – but they are fighting.

Lee Roy Smith, the executive director of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame and Museum, has been wonderfully supportive. Lee Roy and his staff strive to make the Hall of Fame so much more than a repository of wrestling memorabilia. In the past couple of years they have created outreach and educational programs stressing the relevance of wrestling in American history and culture. He was also kind enough to share personal memories for a blog about mothers and wrestling.

Gary Abbott of USA Wrestling honored me be inviting me to contribute to the College Wrestling Network. Gary – I’m just a fan (and occasionally I’m a little too “black and gold”), but thank you.

Thanks, also, to those folks who give me feedback – Sandy Stevens, Ken Chertow, Mark Palmer, Gregg Dinderman and Scott Casber. Maybe you shouldn’t encourage me so much.

I hope you’ll forgive me if I continue to indulge myself.