On April 6, the Pan American Wrestling Championships were contested. Among the most notable results, the U.S.'s top 60-kilo wrestler and Olympic bronze medalist Coleman Scott lost to a Cuban opponent in the semifinals. This was a great match, featuring two of the world's best wrestlers, but I was unable to watch it. Nobody outside those in attendance in Panama was able to see it. The event received no video coverage, either via television or Internet stream.
The Pan Ams, at least in theory, crown wrestling champions for an entire hemisphere. FILA should treat this tournament as one of its most important events. This is a pivotal time in the history of wrestling where the sport's international sanctioning needs to provide the access to marquee events that modern fans demand. FILA needs to provide two things at the very least: first a way to watch the event, possibly in the form of a video stream hosted on YouTube or its homepage, and second, a means to get to know the key competitors at these events.
On the FILA website, I can look up the wrestler who beat Coleman Scott and find some vital information about him. His name is Alejandro Valdes Tobier. He is 25 and has twice placed seventh at the World Championships. This resume ought to impress, but it is merely a resume. I am left with no ability to get to know this wrestler in any meaningful way. In my mind, and in the minds of most Americans, Coleman was defeated by a fairly anonymous Cuban opponent. FILA, sadly, has done nothing to change this.
Compare this to another combat sports event held the day before the freestyle Pan Ams. In Sweden, the Ultimate Fighting Championships held what was perhaps its least consequential event in recent memory. Even so, the event came with incredible accessibility for interested fans. The non-televised fights could be found on video streams on number of popular websites. If I wanted to learn more about the fighters who were competing, all I had to do was view their rather extensive and easy-to-find profiles on the UFC homepage. The UFC now provides rankings to give a casual fan a better idea of the relative accomplishment of each fighter, something sorely lacking on the FILA site. If I really want to become invested in the event, I could have visited the UFC's Facebook or YouTube pages, which featured interviews of the fighters. The UFC understands that in order to build the popularity of a combat sport, first the events must be available for viewing by a wide audience, and second, that the combat athletes must be featured in a way that fans can get to know them on a personal level.
These are lesson that FILA could stand to learn.
While the wrestling community crows about the incredible attendance at the NCAA Division I wrestling tournament, we fail to address the elephant in the room: that the NCAA Division I wrestling tournament is the only annual American wrestling event which enjoys such huge crowds (though the Olympic Team Trials had nice attendance last time around). We don't see fans come out in terribly strong force for extremely important events such as college's National Duals and the freestyle and Greco World Team Trials. This weekend a very deep field will compete in the U.S. Open. This is our national championship in freestyle and Greco and features significantly higher talent levels than any college tournament, yet I fear that the crowds will be sparse.
I don't know how to solve this problem, it confounds me. What I do know is that to remain healthy, particularly at the international level, our sport needs to draw substantive gates at more than one event a year.
Remembering John Trudgeon
This week head Virginia Military Institute wrestling coach John Trudgeon announced his retirement. While there is no doubt that VMI's wrestling team has not enjoyed meaningful success for a number of years, it would be unfair to neglect to mention what Trudgeon's significant accomplishments.
In the 1990s one could argue that Trudgeon built a winning program at a school which offers the most natural obstacles to building a successful Division I wrestling program (natural would be opposed to schools which could be good but for the fact that they receive no institutional support). In an era where many state schools offer resort-style amenities, VMI offers its students a chance to sleep four to a room on a cot called a "hay." Where many colleges enjoy bustling and energetic off campus life, VMI sits in tiny and sleepy (and beautiful) Lexington, Va. In an era where the redshirt is so important to athletic success, fifth-year VMI seniors live in what appears to be a dungeon underneath their barracks. While other schools build success by attracting recruits from all over the nation, VMI offers little out-of-state appeal in state with good but not elite wrestling. Finally, while many big universities boast student bodies numbered in the tens of thousands, VMI claims only a little more than a thousand students.
John Trudgeon (VMI Sports Information)In spite of these impediments, Trudgeon ran a program that was tough by any standard, regularly featuring nationally ranked wrestlers, even after the turn of the century. In the 90s VMI could claim status as a bona fide mid- major college wrestling power, earning three conference championships and even leading two wrestlers to All-American status. He achieved this largely with the in-state talent remaining after Virginia's occasional blue chipper understandably fled to the greener pastures of the Big Ten or Big 12.
I hope that Coach Trudgeon is remembered for his amazing, almost impossible achievements of ten to fifteen years ago, and not for the leaner times he experienced near the tail end of his tenure.