“That’s the way we’ve always done things.”
You hear that refrain all the time, especially in wrestling. We get comfortable with a situation because it’s familiar.
But sometimes it helps to change things up a bit. Try something new.
You never know what good things can come from changing things up. Even when it comes to the oldest and greatest sport.
Making changes to the typical wrestling dual meet — a change in location, or trying new promotions — can help grow the sport. It can help energize athletes and coaches … put more fans in the seats … and build a bigger, stronger fan base.
As the prospect of a new wrestling season looms on the horizon — and programs reveal their schedules for 2018-19 — it seems like a great time to look at how some college mat programs have employed a “change of venue” — or changed things up in other ways — to generate more excitement … greater attendance … and more positive media coverage.
The genesis for this feature came from a “year in review” story from Duke University wrestling about how the Blue Devils had moved some of their home dual meets during the 2017-18 season from Card Gymnasium to the larger, flashier, arguably more famous Cameron Indoor Stadium, one of the most iconic sports venues in all of college athletics.
Jacob Kasper, who completed his collegiate career this past season by earning All-American honors in the heavyweight bracket at the 2018 NCAAs (and is now investigating the possibility of a career in WWE or MMA), weighed in with his thoughts on the venue.
“Cameron Indoor is one of the most iconic and historic arenas in college athletics. So many of Duke’s finest athletes have competed and continue to compete within the building’s confines, both on the basketball and volleyball courts,” Kasper told InterMat. “To have the opportunity to compete within a stadium of such significance is certainly exciting. To be able to etch your name alongside other legends and leave a lasting legacy is forever motivational … “
As the article on the Blue Devils wrestling program’s change of venue stated, “Though Cameron Indoor Stadium will always be a treasured gem on Duke’s campus because of Blue Devil basketball, its ambiance seems to have a magical power to transform any sporting event into an unforgettable one.”
In addition to greater seating capacity, Cameron Indoor Stadium has other “bells and whistles” that make a Blue Devil dual meet more engaging for fans and athletes, such as the overhead scoreboard that shows highlight videos, and the LED boards installed on press row, displaying each wrestler’s name and photo before he competed. As Duke head coach Glen Lanham put it, “it was a better vibe” to have the team wrestle in Cameron.
Other schools have experimented with conducting some of their dual meets in a larger arena. One example is Penn State. The NCAA team champions for seven of the past eight seasons normally conduct their home events at Rec Hall, an iconic wrestling facility built 90 years ago for nearly 7,000 frenetic fans. However, the Nittany Lions have, from time to time, have brought their championship mat form to the much larger — and newer — Bryce Jordan Center, a basketball arena opened in 1996 which seats over 16,000 for concerts and, um, pro wrestling events.
Get up close and personal
In the past couple years, some colleges have embraced the notion that, when it comes to wrestling venues, small is beautiful.
Arizona State, Indiana University and Ohio State are among the schools that are building new facilities for wrestling and other Olympic sports (such as gymnastics) which will seat 3,000-5,000 fans. This new type of wrestling-friendly venue brings the fans closer to the action in a way that no 19,000-seat basketball arena can.
In addition to providing a fan-friendly environment, these new facilities can serve as a powerful recruiting tool.
Tom Ryan, head wrestling coach at Ohio State, said of the new wrestling facilities — which include a spacious wrestling room in the same structure as a new 3,700-seat arena, all currently under construction in the heart of the campus — “When you have a facility to the standard that this one is going to be, it screams value; it screams importance; it screams that when you come here, you are going to be treated in a first-class way.”
Take the stage
Some college wrestling programs — including the University of Missouri, and Virginia Tech — have conducted some dual meets on the stage of the campus theater or performance arts center.
Back in 2015, Virginia Tech held three home dual meets in its modern Moss Arts Center. In November 2016, Missouri hosted a dual featuring Virginia Tech on stage at venerable Jesse Auditorium, first opened in the 1890s. It wasn’t the first time the Tigers had wrestled on stage, having hosted the Ohio Bobcats back in 2013.
“Good wrestlers are individual in nature and really good wrestlers are performers,” Virginia Tech’s then head wrestling coach Kevin Dresser told TheKeyPlay.com. “They love to be out on the big stage, they love to be out on the big stage by themselves, they want everybody watching them and only them. I’ve got a lot of guys like that, and what better place to showcase that.”
“I know this is a business, and we’re all serious about it, but it’s OK to have a little bit of fun every now and then too,” said Whit Babcock, Tech’s athletics director. “I like some of the creative stuff that breaks the mold and some unique things to draw attention to our sports.”
The powers-that-be at Virginia Tech cited Missouri hosting wrestling events on stage at Jesse Auditorium as inspiration for trying out the idea at their glittering, five-year-old performing arts center on their campus in Blacksburg, Va.
This kind of change-of-venue can make headlines on its own, especially in arts publications … which reach an audience that is normally more interested in symphonies and plays than suplays. And that sort of outreach can help generate positive publicity for a much wider audience than tried-and-true wrestling fans.
Dinner at the dual
Perhaps you’ve taken in a play at your local dinner theater … laughed at a favorite comedian while munching on tacos and nachos at a comedy club … or enjoyed beer and brats at a big-league baseball or football game.
Who says you can’t feed your stomach while feeding your love of your favorite sport?
A couple weeks ago, the National Wrestling Coaches Association announced that this fall’s NWCA All-Star Classic to be held in Denver will be offering some new aspects to make the event even more appealing to a wider audience. In addition to showcasing college wrestling’s best talent on a raised mat a la the NCAA Division I finals, this year’s All-Stars will feature “several seating options including front row VIP table seating that offers drinks and finger food …”
One college wrestling program that has featured “dinner and a dual” events is University of Tennessee-Chattanooga. UTC called the event the “Candlelight Dinner Dual.” Here’s how the school described the event in November 2016: “Instead of pulling out the bleachers in the lower section of Maclellan Gym, UTC is bringing in tables of eight, with formal place settings, for a full mat-side meal during the match.
“Doors open at 6:00 p.m. and valet parking is available at the Douglas Street entrance to those who purchased the Candlelight experience.
“Fans with a dinner ticket will be closest to the action and enjoy the meal catered by Taziki’s Mediterranean Café. Members of the wrestling team not competing will work the room as your hosts and servers.”
Take it outside!
Just about all of have wrestled outdoors — tussling with a brother in the grass in our yard at home, or grappling with a classmate on the school playground. However, when it comes to school or college wrestling programs, it’s pretty rare to conduct wrestling events outside … outside places which remain warm even in winter. (For example, in researching Arizona State heavyweight Curley Culp, I came across an amusing account of a dual meet held outdoors in the heart of the Tempe campus back in the mid-1960s.) California Baptist in the greater Los Angeles area has attracted great crowds by hosting wrestling events out on the lawn in what they call “Take It Outside!”, where students, faculty and passers-by find themselves drawn to the sight of two athletes grappling on the mats on the grass.
What really generates wide media attention is when schools in cold-weather climes take their wrestling outdoors, at a time of year when snow is a serious possibility. Arguably the greatest example of this was Grapple on the Gridiron, the November 2015 dual meet between Oklahoma State and University of Iowa at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City. There were legitimate concerns about the weather — it’s been known to snow in Iowa in mid-November, and, even if snowflakes weren’t an issue, some feared cold weather might hurt the shock-absorbing quality of the wrestling mat … the performance of the wrestlers … and overall attendance. None of these were a factor; with bright sunshine and temps in the mid 50s, wrestlers and mats performed to their highest potential … and attendance shattered previous dual-meet records, with just over 42,000 fans in the stands, about two-and-a-half-times the previous record set at Penn State’s Bryce Jordan Center.
Just as important as these factors was the publicity factor.
“Grapple on the Gridiron generated plenty of positive press prior to and after the event,” InterMat reported at the time. “For starters, just about every media outlet in the state of Iowa — as well as major newspapers and TV stations in Oklahoma — served up stories in anticipation of Grapple on the Gridiron. The story even drew national coverage, with advance stories at the NCAA, ESPN and Washington Post websites, among others …”
“Well before the last match was wrestled, positive feedback was pouring in on social media. Seemingly countless photos and upbeat assessments appeared on Facebook, Twitter and other online outlets. ‘Few things live up to the hype. Sometimes it’s impossible to do so. Grapple on the Gridiron was all it promised & then some. Nothing like it,’ wrote K.J. Pilcher, wrestling writer for the Cedar Rapids Gazette, on Twitter.”
Put on a demonstration!
Want to help would-be fans get excited about the oldest and greatest sport? Consider conducting a class.
No, not some boring old classroom lecture that puts the audience to sleep … but a up-close, hands-on demonstration that will wow participants and give them a new appreciation for the intricacies of the sport, thus making them more knowledgeable — and appreciative — fans.
Each year for the past 15 seasons, the Cincinnati Bengals has hosted a “Football 101” event exclusively for women. “Learn about football from Bengals coaches,” the website promises. “Learn skills, strategy, and visit the locker room and weight room.”
The intended goal may be to help women new to pro football be able to more than hold their own with husbands and boyfriends in analyzing plays and strategies while at the game or gathered around the TV … as well as in Monday morning discussions at the water cooler at work. However, the emphasis is on fun … and fundraising. “Football 101” is an entire evening with a focus on gourmet food and customized cocktails. Proceeds from the event go to local charities.
Wrestling programs can host a similar event, providing fans with an opportunity to meet the coaches and athletes, see the wrestling room and other facilities, and gain new insights into strategy. It certainly doesn’t have to be “for women only” (though I can imagine why the Bengals do it that way, with the thought of making it a fun “girls’ night out” event). It could be the kind of event that appeals to the newbie/would-be wrestling fan… as well as lifelong fans who remember the days before singlets, headgear and Resilite mats.
Go ahead, change things up! Perhaps one of the ideas presented in this article has planted some seeds to help you grow your wrestling program … and the sport overall.