Unfortunately for college wrestlers, their Big Event is largely overshadowed by an even Bigger Event: The NCAA Basketball Tournament.
Both events take place in March. But only one of the tournaments has become known as March Madness … and it isn't wrestling. Despite the macho bravado of t-shirts and posters with sayings such as "Boys play basketball. Men wrestle" and "It takes balls to wrestle," in a match-up between college basketball and wrestling, the roundballers win big … at least in terms of general public attention and media coverage.
Think about it: When was the last time somebody at work asked if you wanted to get into the office pool for NCAA wrestling? When have you seen an entire TV show devoted to the presentation of brackets for the NCAA Wrestling Championships? When did you see major car makers and snack-food companies use the college wrestling championships as a promotional gimmick to sell more Chevys and salsa?
Even those of us who consider ourselves rabid wrestling fans may be programmed into thinking March is the exclusive property of the college basketball championships. Here's a test: A friend comes up to you, and says, "Gee, who do you think is gonna win the Big Dance?" If in a heartbeat you start talking about Steve Mocco and Cole Konrad (or any other potential major individual or team match-up at the 2006 NCAAs in Oklahoma City), you've escaped the brainwashing. If, however, you say "Duke" or "UConn" you just proved my point.
In terms of media attention and public awareness, in a contest between college basketball and college wrestling, it's no contest. It's a slam-dunk. A major decision. A pin before the match even starts.
Basketball vs. Wrestling: Why It Matters
Some wrestling fans may be saying, "Contest? What contest? Who cares about basketball? We've got our NCAAs in March, and that's all that really matters."
The NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships are among the top five in total event attendance of all college sports that hold a championship event.And, these wrestling supporters do have a point. After all, the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships are among the top five in total event attendance of all college sports that hold a championship event, with nearly 100,000 fans during the six sessions of recent NCAAs. Most years, the host arena is sold out -- or nearly so. (How many other college sports can bring together 19,000 fans in one place?) TV ratings for the finals are respectable, especially for what is often labeled a "minor" sport.
However, for fans and participants who truly love amateur wrestling -- and want to see collegiate wrestling not only survive, but thrive -- the sport's Big Event must move out of the way for March Madness. The NCAA Wrestling Championships should be rescheduled for another time -- ideally, after the basketball championships have concluded, which is usually late March or early April.
Overcoming Media Ignore-ance
To quote the late comedian Rodney Dangerfield, the NCAA Wrestling Championships get no respect … at least among most sportswriters, sportscasters and sports editors.
Think back to last March. How much coverage of the NCAA Wrestling Championships did you see on ESPN SportsCenter? I don't have the tapes, but I'm willing to bet that there MIGHT have been a very brief "Oklahoma State won the team title" story that lasted all of a few seconds … and maybe a brief highlight clip of a particular spectacular move.
You can apply the same test to your local TV sports report … and your local newspaper.
Unless you live in a wrestling hotbed, you probably would have no evidence the college wrestling championships had even occurred.
Now, let's look at USA Today. Wrestling writer and historian Mike Chapman has. In his column for W.I.N. wrestling magazine, more than once Chapman has called out the national newspaper for its lack of coverage of amateur wrestling, especially the NCAAs. According to Chapman -- author of more than a dozen books on the sport -- in a typical year, USA Today has summed up the three-day NCAA championships in a couple paragraphs. Imagine if they gave that kind of miserly coverage to March Madness.
Perhaps the biggest offender is Sports Illustrated. In the half-century of its existence, SI has featured an amateur wrestler on its cover once. And that was Dan Hodge, the legendary three-time NCAA champ for the Oklahoma Sooners, back in its April 1, 1957 issue. (I'm not counting former amateur wrestlers such as Tom Brady or Tony Siragusa who may have been on the cover for other sports.)
Think back to March 2002 -- when Cael Sanderson won his fourth NCAA title, and ended his collegiate career without losing a single match out of 159. Arguably the biggest sports story of the week, right? Nope. That week, Cael didn't make the cover of Sports Illustrated; instead, the cover story was that of the young girl killed in the stands by a flying hockey puck at an NHL game in Columbus. The publishers heard from wrestling fans, and, in subsequent issues, threw out a couple bones, listing Sanderson's achievement among the ten greatest in amateur sports … and showing what a Cael cover would have looked like.
Once upon a time, Sports Illustrated did a better job covering college wrestling. In the past, there were multi-page profiles on guys like Dan Hodge, Dan Gable and Chris Taylor. Even as recently as six years ago, Brock Lesnar got an entire page -- with color photo -- before the championships (and long before his career in the WWE). Most years, the NCAAs usually got a two- or three-page wrap-up. Not any more. Last year, wrestling coverage in Sports Illustrated was pretty much limited to a huge photo of action from the NCAAs that was the talk of amateur wrestling forums, not because it captured spectacular action, but because it seemed to have been chosen for its "groan" or "yuck" factor (at least for non-fans).
Now, compare this treatment to how college basketball is covered by the local and national media. Basketball wins, running away.
Would rescheduling the NCAA Wrestling Championships to AFTER the college basketball tournament change all this? Maybe not. But the media would no longer have the excuse of "Sorry, we have limited resources. We can't cover both college wrestling and basketball at the same time."
Greater Coverage = More Positive Public Perception
Greater media coverage of the NCAA Wrestling Championships would go a long way to boosting amateur wrestling's image in the minds of the general public.
Mention the word "wrestling" to most folks, and they immediately think of the WWE, Vince McMahon and his cast of characters. Even some great amateur wrestlers such as Olympic medalists Jamill Kelly and Brandon Slay have mentioned in interviews that, at the time they were introduced to the sport, they were expecting to be able to jump off the top rope or use a folding chair on an opponent.
On a more serious note, there is still a perception among some outside the sport that wrestling is dangerous, even deadly. They cite the tragic deaths of three college wrestlers attempting to make weight in 1998 … or some incredibly rare but highly-publicized freak fatal accidents during wrestling matches.
Again, with greater media coverage of the sport during one of its biggest events, perhaps incorrect perceptions will change … and the general public will see the real value in the sport of real wrestling.
Eliminating Competition with High School Wrestlers
College wrestlers aren't just going up against basketball players for their share of the sports media spotlight. Collegians are also doing battle with younger wrestlers still in high school.
In most states, the high school wrestling season pretty much lines up with the college season, with the ultimate events -- the individual state tournaments -- usually taking place in late February up through mid-March … when major conference tournaments and the NCAAs are scheduled. Having this overlap creates at least two potential problems that could be easily solved by moving the NCAAs back to April:
• Local media tends to focus on local sports. Unless there's a "hometown hero" competing at the NCAAs, local TV and newspapers will concentrate their limited wrestling coverage on high school events such as the state tournament. With a later NCAA tournament, the media could more easily cover the major high school AND college mat events.
• High school wrestlers, their families and friends are justifiably focused on their own matches and careers… not what's going on in college. However, with an April NCAAs, preps and their supporters would be able to watch the college tournament and learn from observing.
April's Additional Benefits for Wrestlers and Fans
By rescheduling the NCAA Wrestling Championships to mid-April, the entire collegiate wrestling season could be shifted back one month. A later start date would result in these benefits for participants and those who support them:
• One "continuous" season. Right now, most college programs have "two" seasons, divided by Christmas. The "first season" being mostly tournaments and non-conference match-ups, with the post-Christmas portion of the season being mostly conference duals. Starting the season after Christmas would be easier on the competitors, and help sustain fan interest through the entire season.
• Fewer hassles making weight during the holidays. Two of the biggest eating events of the year -- Thanksgiving and Christmas -- fall in the early part of the college wrestling as its configured today. By shifting the season back, wrestlers and their families will be able to enjoy the holidays a bit more.
• Making it easier for football players to wrestle. Traditionally, in high school, a number of athletes who played football also wrestled. However, in college, this happens less frequently, because football season extends into wrestling season. With a later season start for wrestling, this would be less of an issue. Opening the wrestling room door to more gridiron stars could also boost fan interest in wrestling, especially if "name" football players take to the mats.
• Weather becomes less of a factor. In mid-March in middle America – where the NCAAs are usually held – Mother Nature can throw just about anything at participants and fans. At the 2004 NCAAs, St. Louis was blessed with warm, almost summer-like temperatures… while, three years earlier, Iowa City was buried in snow. By April, most of the US has put away the snow shovels and said hello to spring … which means easier traveling during the tournament.
A Powerful Opponent to Change: Tradition
Wrestling is often referred to as "the oldest and greatest sport." And some college wrestling fans get wrapped up in the sport's great traditions. One of the lasting legacies: In the seventy-five years of the NCAA Wrestling Championships, the event has always been held in the month of March … starting back with the very first NCAAs in 1928.
Many wrestlers, coaches and fans are so accustomed to "March Matness" -- and a season that starts around Halloween and ends near St. Patrick's Day -- that it would take some effort to overcome three-quarters of a century of history. However, understanding the potential benefits of a later season, it's worth a try.
J RobinsonJ Robinson seems to think so. In a May 2002 WrestlingReport.com interview, the long-time head coach of the University of Minnesota was asked why the NCAAs are advertised as being sold-out, yet there are always empty seats in the arena, and whether this was because of competing with March Madness. Robinson replied, "Yes, we should try it in April -- for two years -- to see if it works. If it doesn't work, move it back. This could be worked out with the bidding arenas. The season would start one month later."
The issue came up again at the start of the 2003 NCAAs in Kansas City. In the opening paragraph of his report for The Oklahoman, sportswriter Bob Colon wrote: "Moving the college wrestling season continues to be a hot topic, and most of the talk centers on starting the season in January and finishing with the NCAA tournament in April. The theory is to get more media to cover the Division I National Tournament giving the sport more exposure. The NCAA polled the media some six years ago to get ideas, but nothing has been done and the beginning of the NCAA basketball tournaments claims much of the attention this weekend. 'We have been talking about this for 15 years,' Minnesota coach J Robinson said during a news conference Wednesday at Kemper Arena."
Now is the time to stop the Madness. Collegiate wrestling should stop trying to grapple the media spotlight and public attention away from the basketball tournament -- a contest that wrestling has been losing for years -- and move the NCAA Wrestling Championships to April. A later season would be a winner for the wrestlers, coaches, families and fans … and, ultimately, for the sport itself.