Tim Johnson and Adam Amin were on the call for ESPN during the finals of the NCAA Division I Wrestling ChampionshipsThe internal metrics and social media feedback seem to support that otherwise subjective claim. According to ESPN, viewership of the championships jumped an incredible 39 percent from 2013 to 2014 and the feedback from fans at home varied from signing online letters of thanks to ESPN to what were solemn head nods of acknowledgement.
For a moment it seemed like the wrestling community felt something like contentment.
The veneer of universal gratitude was cracked on March 28 when Flowrestling's PR guy Nick Velliquette wrote an article that ran counter to the popular belief that ESPN had done a commendable job covering the NCAA Championships. The article was titled, "ESPN: The Worldwide Leader in Sports? Not in Wrestling ..."
Writing contrarian articles is essential in journalism, and when done well can create vital discussion about commonly held beliefs. However, when poorly done the contrarian article often works to highlight the shortcomings of the author and, when applicable, supporting organization. When the author shoots aimlessly from uncertain ground the result can often be a self-inflicted wound.
From his perch at Flo, Velliquette took aim at the NCAA's production value with vacuous, unsubstantiated claims that the media giant lacked "excitement" and that during the course of their 30-plus hours of programming there were -- shock! -- some mistakes. Too dry, too bland, too un-Flo.
The article was panned in social media as being poorly written, nitpicky and just flat wrongheaded. But what the article -- and discussion surrounding the article -- really exposed was the growing frustration with the "bro culture" and growing disconnect between Flowrestling and their audience. The assault on ESPN came across more like the petulant tirade of the beauty pageant's first runner-up than it did an informative look at improving the coverage of our sport.
What Velliquette's article wanted to achieve was to earn a few extra clicks for Flo and to possibly move the media company into the "Hot Take!" business. Flo wants to be known as "wrestling" and the success of ESPN showed the fallibility of that claim, ostensibly prompting the site's response.
Velliquette and Flo have overestimated their role as the video production leader or thought leader in the sport of wrestling. Their entry into the national conversation suffered a mighty thud this week and seemed to betray an institutionalized Icarus complex, suffering from a fatal hubris that led them to address the wrestling community in a wanton and disrespectful manner.
Five years ago Flo's anti-authoritarian, anti-intellectualism landed with wrestling fans because they were rebelling against an often-static media landscape. Fans of the sport were willing to forgive the headbands, chewing tobacco and breathless screaming because the employees hustled to create content. They loved the sport and let it show.
But now that original wrestling-focused altruism has been replaced by feckless website management and an altogether disdain for spellcheck. Where at first there was a small army of volunteers providing shaky handycam footage of coaches talking hi-crotch crackdown defense, five years later there is a double premium service that provides mediocre quality videos (in comparison to ESPN) filled in part with content ripped from other sites and YouTube.
Today the Flo-to-customer relationship has matured from their original "never charge for content" missive to a fully monetized for-profit model. The altruism has died, and to a large extent that's totally fine. But as the business has grown the intellectual and professional attitudes of the company have failed to develop. There are constant complaints of billing difficulties, constant encroachment on media licensing and a general sense of entitlement that matches the 20-something bro-aesthetic.
Velliquette's article signaled that type of untethered institutional arrogance -- willing to compare themselves to an international broadcast channel without providing any content in the same cosmic zip code. Hubris at work, but since they are profitable and aligned with the interests of USA Wrestling, NWCA and the NCAA, the idea of becoming a bigger force in the marketplace is their idea to pursue. Just the same it's the right of other media to respond to Velliquette's claim and challenge them on their professionalism and quality of product.
What Velliquette and Flo will learn if they choose to continue with Hot Takes is that launching a wide-angled tirade against professional journalists from a position of power requires more than bro-speak and half-truths to convince the masses. Criticism requires a reputation, facts and hard work.
Wrestling has real journalists. I read Andy Hamilton, K.J. Pilcher and Jason Bryant every chance I get. They are some of the thought leaders and when they concentrate on assignment they let the facts guide their interpretation. Hamilton moved the discussion around stalling this year by researching his article on the dearth of scoring in the NCAA. I hopped on and have been pushing for change. Hamilton planted the idea in my head, and I'm happy to add to it as I can. That's what good journalism does. It informs by outlining problems with facts and then offers clear-headed solutions. It's not about throwing drunk haymakers to impress your bros.
The Flo article didn't move forward any new idea about ESPN. It only worked to expose the company's own set of NCAA coverage inaccuracies. The only substantive online discussion became their lack of professionalism and quality increasingly expensive service. As pointed out by Flo's own readers the ESPN coverage was more accurate, watchable and professional.
ESPN3 had a feature called "Off the Mat" during the finalsThat's not a surprise. ESPN pays close to $40 million for the rights to broadcast several NCAA championships, including wrestling, and with that investment they provide an array of viewing options for the wrestling community on multiple free platforms. Flo provided poor quality footage shot by amateur cameraman, narrated by over-caffeinated announcers as interested in their own "Oh's" as they were the action on the mat. When it came time to lay down critiques, Velliquette not only fired blanks, but he did so against a company who'd outperformed his own.
The Flo crew works very, very hard. They are passionate bunch, and I don't doubt that to a person Nick, Christian, Joe, Mark, Willie, and Ryan are in this for the right reasons. I know that a healthy secondary market of video services will help wrestling grow, but the half-cocked M.O. and brashness has now tipped past inane and into offensive.
Flo simply can't compete with ESPN. The Worldwide Leader had dozens of cameras at the event, manned by grizzled sports vets who were supported by an array of super talented and professional employees with hundreds of years of sports production experience. Though Velliquette states that this year's NCAA's was done with "a crew that doesn't cover a single event" all year, ESPN does in fact cover other wrestling events. Earlier this year I was part of the broadcast team that covered the ACC Wrestling Championships in Blacksburg, Va., and saw first-hand how a professional broadcast is managed. That crew, myself included, worked on location in Oklahoma City.
The ESPN3 crew on-site was led by a sports producer with 30-plus years of big truck experience. He had only worked a dozen or so wrestling events, but to compensate for his lack of precise understanding he often asked for input from the experts. That's the opposite of hubris. That's modesty -- to be good enough in the mechanics of your employ to not have to overcompensate with emotion or fudge facts.
T.R. Foley and Shawn KenneyMy job as color commentator was simple, but ONLY because I had Shawn Kenney, a broadcast veteran with a huge future, leading the play-by-play. One of the most frustrating aspects of Velliquette's Hot Take was his ignorance of the skill and work put in by professional play-by-play announcers. Though I don't know much about Adam Amin, I do know that Kenney is the single most well-prepared professional broadcast journalist I've ever met, and I'm not exaggerating.
When I first met Kenney at the 2013 ACC Wrestling Championships he had several stacks of 5x7's and color-coded folders filled with back stories to help us fill the 10-plus hours of content. Kenney is from Iowa and knows wrestling, but to get involved in the ACC stories he'd watched previous matches (likely on Flo) and knew scores, coaches, athletes and storylines by memory. His work was near-brilliant.
And still, despite all that prep time he also found the confidence to NOT speak. He let the wrestling breathe and when the time was right he told fans about a wrestler's past, or their plans for the future. When the action got complicated he let me explain the technique. I'm not polished, but with his leadership -- and a voice that could soothe a Mother Grizzly suffering from postpartum depression -- I sounded intelligent. His hard work at those tournaments and efficacy in connecting with listeners landed him at the NCAA tournament. Work ethic and skill is rewarded by a professional organization and Kenney deserved better than to be belittled en masse by Velliquette.
If Flo wants to scream into the microphone while calling the 2014 Wyoming Middle School Wrestling Championships for the sake of proud grandmothers and 14-year-olds who found their parents' credit card, then that is their right. But taking unfounded shin kicks at the competition only opens them up for the type of criticism that starts as murmurs, but ends in shouts. I believe they can look at their own product and find a way to improve, but until then it's best to let the professionals take the lead.
Lol @ @trfoley's take on the ESPN article. Foley, ESPN's TV broadcast was bout as informative as your Grabbag or whatever it's called ????— Nickolas Velliquette (@NickVelliquette) April 3, 2014
To your questions ...
Q: Assuming that David Taylor got better between his junior and senior seasons, do you think that a senior David Taylor beats a senior Kyle Dake?
-- Philip M.
Foley: Tough to justify a David Taylor victory simply because he had one more year on the mats. Both he and Kyle Dake have been wrestling since they were knee-high to a pissing pot. Sure, another month matters, but it's just too ambitious to say that Taylor improved enough.
The duo's collegiate matches were as close as a wrestling match can get and I think I'd be devaluing Dake's performances in 2012-13 and the Magic Man's insane 2013-14 campaign if I bet on one side or the other.
But hey, we'll have the U.S. Open and U.S. World Team Trials where we might see these two get back at each other.
Q: How much weight does the typical Division I wrestler cut? How much weight does the typical MMA fighter cut?
-- B. H.
Foley: The main differences between the weight cutting habits of a Division I wrestler and an MMA fighter are time before competition and flexibility of the governing body overseeing the final weight.
In Division I, wrestling competitors weigh in two hours before a tournament and one hour before a dual meet. Most MMA organizations have night-before weigh-ins and often that means 30-plus hours of recovery. That time difference allows for much more recovery of the athlete and that translates to HUGE differences in weight cut.
There is no hard-and-fast rule when it comes to MMA fighters, but on average they are cutting up to 15 percent of their body weight in the week leading up to a fight. For a guy who fights at 185 pounds that means they will train at 215 pounds and then use a two-step weight-loss program, the second part of which is the accelerated sauna-based water cut for which you're probably familiar.
Wrestlers tend to cut significantly less weight. There is no recovering from a single-day crash cut of 15 pounds in time to wrestle with any level of fitness. Still, wrestlers at the Division I level tend to cut 5-10 percent of their body weight in the days leading up to a weigh-in.
When I was in school our training programs were in no way as year-round or as sophisticated as today's programs. When I wrestled 157 pounds I'd start the season at about 190 pounds of pudgy belly fat but with conditioning work could whittle that down to about 180 pounds by Oct. 1. The real practices started and we stopped boozing, which helped me get down to about 170 pounds by Nov. 1. To make hydration we'd make a single crash diet (like the MMA guys) and pass with ease. (Spoiler: Every wrestler cheats the hydration test, and mostly because it's a totally asinine way to determine how much a kid is cutting.) The first couple of weight cuts came from a combination of food and water restriction and often felt like they might be my death. Throughout the season I'd never get higher than about 164 pounds and that was because I was suffering from a terrible caloric restriction.
Things changed a bit my senior season. I grew a little more and because the NCAA had rear-ended me on my eligibility I was eating and drinking more heavily than normal. I was at the Cornell wrestling camp as an instructor, weighed in at 200 pounds, and immediately called my head wrestling coach to let him know that if I came back it would be at 165 pounds. To that point in my life it was the best decision I'd ever made.
At 165 pounds I was able to eat healthier, and was fortunate to have a better nutrition program. The water cut was no more than 5-7 pounds a tournament, which is what I think most wrestlers are now pulling per tournament.
Q: David Taylor was "only" a two-time NCAA champ and had three losses, but is he possibly the most dominant NCAA wrestler of all time with 125 out 136 victories earning bonus points? Has anyone else even come close to that metric?
-- Go H.
David Taylor (Photo/Rob Preston)Foley: I'm not able to access the entire database, but none come to mind, although I'm told Yojiro Uetake Obata from Oklahoma State was basically unchallenged in the course of going undefeated and winning his three NCAA titles. His matches would often finish with 3-5 point gaps, but according to Lee Roy Smith, who runs the National Wrestling Hall of Fame in Stillwater, they were never matches.
Taylor was special because he was always trying to score. As we sit back and bemoan the riding time game in wrestling, we have to acknowledge that Taylor never rested on winning by a single point. He was always looking for a major decision, technical fall or fall. He's the type of wrestler we all want to be, and compared to Kyle Dake's fuzzy black and white outcome-focused version of wrestling, Taylor is an IMAX 3D Dolby Digital surround sound. He looks to entertain and enjoy.
That aggressiveness is what has endeared him to fans. He's "only" a two-time champion, but in a time and space where doing less has been rewarded he was an outlier. He was a wrestler looking to dominate.
Time to unionize!
Borislav Novachkov knocks off an Olympic champion
Women's World Cup HL -- They can wrestle!
Power of sport
Q: This question may sound absurd, but allow me to back it up. Do you think the Olympics removing wrestling turned out to be a good thing for the sport? First it forced wrestling to change some rules to make it more exciting (at least in the international disciplines). Second, it caused an increase in support from everyone. So is this increase in popularity related to the removal from the Olympics?
-- Tyler M.
Foley: There is no question that in terms of popularity, improvement of the governance and improvement of product the elimination of wrestling from the Olympics was a HUGE gift.
I wrote this a few months ago, but when I was in Krasnoyarsk for the Ivan Yarygin tournament, Buvaisar Saitiev was telling people that their gym in Krasnoyarsk had DOUBLED in enrollment in the 209 days of the Save Olympic Wrestling movement. Moms and dads of these little Russian bears (and American cowboys) were forced to consider the actual value of sport, and specifically the value of wrestling. For most the evaluation ended with an acknowledgement that it builds strong men and women.
Wrestling spent upwards of $10 million on the Save Olympic Wrestling campaign, but what the upheaval did to eliminate corruption within FILA and improve the rules -- which we now see are MUCH more exciting that collegiate -- ended up being priceless.
That doesn't mean that we should go through it again. Once was enough to learn our lesson.
Q: At this point, less than a whole week after the 2014 NCAAs finished up, who are your NCAA finalists in each weight class and your top five team finishers in 2015?
-- Nick M.
Foley: This all depends on the rule changes in the offseason. If riding time, stalling and out of bounds are amended then this will need to be updated. But assuming that a more aggressive style of the sport will be called ...
125: Jesse Delgado (Illinois) vs. Thomas Gilman (Iowa)
133: A.J. Schopp (Edinboro) vs. Cory Clark (Iowa)
141: Logan Stieber (Ohio State) vs. Devin Carter (Virginia Tech)
149: Jason Tsirtsis (Northwestern) vs. Hunter Stieber (Ohio State)
157: James Green (Nebraska) vs. Dylan Ness (Minnesota)
165: Alex Dieringer (Oklahoma State) vs. Nick Sulzer (Virginia)
174: Taylor Massa (Michigan) vs. Bob Kokesh (Nebraska)
184: Gabe Dean (Cornell) vs. Max Thomusseit (Pittsburgh)
197: J'den Cox (Missouri) vs. Kyle Snyder (Ohio State)
285: Nick Gwiazdowski (North Carolina State) vs. Mike McMullan (Northwestern)
Top five teams: 1. Iowa 2. Penn State 3. Ohio State 4. Minnesota 5. Oklahoma State
Q: My friends and I have been talking about who the best guys are that never won a title. Some names that come up are Tyrone Lewis, Sam Hazewinkel, Nick Simmons, and Montell Marion.
-- Sean M.
Foley: All those names sound delightful. I would add Daniel Cormier.
COMMENT(S) OF THE WEEK
By Jared H.
Now that it is the end of the college wrestling season, what are your thoughts on the flash takedown? There were many instances of it not being called, as well as it being called wrong (in regards to the video the NCAA issued prior to conference tournaments). My issue with it is that it gets called a takedown and immediately whatever 'control' there was is lost in a nanosecond and an escape is awarded, then another flash takedown is scored. OKC saw this happen quite often. On a side note, two defensive falls the first day in OKC then never seen again. Consistency and the balls to call stalling are lacking. I own a rule book. I understand the objectiveness of the stall call. But just inform the coaches prior to the match that you will in fact call it as it is in the book.
By Dan B.
Regarding Ohio State AD Gene Smith receiving $18,000 for Logan Stieber winning an NCAA title ... Is this an opportunity for USA Wrestling to take advantage of considering the national attention the story has received? It really wasn't about Logan Stieber, more of an AD's personal gain off of an individual that he had no effect upon. But our sport is still in the spotlight. Currently, USA Wrestling compensates athletes who succeed internationally and this may sound really odd considering how opposed everyone is to Smith's contract, but what if USA Wrestling gave every AD who had a national champion $18,000? It would "only" be $180,000 a year (yes, it is always easy to spend other people's money so the logistics might not be as doable) or less if you capped it for multiple champs. Hire a PR firm to spin the money as a fight against Title IX's current enforcement and an effort to save the sport. Would that be an incentive for AD's of lower-level programs to keep wrestling when budget cuts come around? Make the payments public knowledge so ADs may feel pressure to give the money to the school, but give it to them nonetheless. How many programs have been cut even though they produced individual champions? Perhaps a personal incentive would have altered their thinking. I have to believe Trev Alberts might not have cut UNO's wrestling program if he had such an incentive given that program's success at the Division II level. Would Boston U's AD thought a little longer? I realize the answer may be no and it could have no effect, but it could also turn a bad story's focus back onto wrestling.