This week saw the kickoff of one of the world's most-watched sporting events: The FIFA World Cup. Essentially a representative World War, the world's largest and most important soccer event has become a multi-billion dollar spectacular that in 2014 has reached a stratosphere of coverage and promotion in the United States many sporting experts would have told you ten years ago was impossible.
Now, in what will feel like an overnight success, soccer is the third most-watched sport in the States and is trending hotter than every sport outside of American football in terms of television contracts and endorsements.
So if soccer can succeed in the United States and the World Cup is the largest and most profitable sporting event in the world, what lessons should wrestling learn? What elements of soccer make it the world's most popular game, and can wrestling imitate those values to create a product that the entire world will want to watch?
The first acknowledgement is to understand that wrestling will never overtake soccer as the world's game. That's OK, because there is plenty of money for the runner-up and we aren't in direct competition for sporting dollars.
The next is to know that any plan for making wrestling more marketable worldwide won't be freestyle or Greco-Roman, but a grass or sand takedown tournament with five or seven team members to each side. Simple and tension-filled action.
Unlike most sports, wrestling is already being practiced in every country around the world, and since the sport is organic to the human experience there is little explanation. Yes, some rules will need to be clarified, but with a 32-foot circle pushout rules and a single takedown format it will be easy for viewers to buy-in to the spectacle. No confusion, no singlets, no referee interference and no judges.
Wrestling, like soccer, enjoys an advantage over sports like American football and baseball because it's found everywhere and has a very low cost of operation. If a worldwide governing body like FILA (soon to be United World Wrestling) can orchestrate the regional tournaments over the ten years then there is a real chance for massive advertising dollars at a world level, which means more money to support the Olympic styles and more influence in the Olympic discussion.
Soccer works because you can't take your eyes off the field. Wrestling, with rules done well, can have that same effect. For marketers and advertisers, that type of live sporting event is gold because it's impressionable 18-35 year-old men who watch sports and are creating their lifelong brand loyalties. Television money filters into every crack of sports, from $2 billion teams like the NBA's LA Clippers and developing domestic leagues like the MLS, live sporting events are becoming the most valuable items in entertainment. Wrestling can earn a slice of that ever-expanding money cake.
With time, energy and creativity wrestling can build a larger worldwide audience, create a marketable event, and become one of the largest and most profitable sports in the world.
To your questions ...
Q: In your latest mailbag edition, someone supported the pushout rule in high school and college wrestling. I am a high school coach and wouldn't want the rule. Too often, high school mats are much smaller than college mats. I have kids who will come from the bottom position and are trying to hit a standup, and are driven out of bounds by the top wrestler because we are on smaller mats from time to time. To me, collegiate and high school wrestling is about controlling your opponent, and pushing someone out of bounds isn't controlling someone.
-- Mike C.
Foley: There are valid arguments against the pushout rule and you stated the most obvious: freestyle and Greco-Roman wrestling are primarily standup styles while American folkstyle is both stand-up and ground. As you noted, the transition between the two can cause some difficulties when you have an out-of-bounds rule that can be easily manipulated.
The idea behind a pushout point would be to keep wrestlers in the action and prevent stalling. The failure of the current American folkstyle rules is that they have become needlessly complicated and nuanced. The history of the rules reflects the NCAA's larger mindset, which is to answer a bad rule with two more. That's a needlessly complicated mindset, which over time adversely affects a sport whose motto for improvement continues to be "simple."
A pushout heaped on a pile of poorly conceived rules and matches determined by razor-thin riding time margins won't improve wrestling's commercial and competitive viability. Folkstyle needs an overhaul from the mat to the feet -- a reassessment of what values we want to show the world about America. We can accomplish the change as a community, but it will require some difficult change -- something which, fortunately for our community, is part of the American folkstyle psyche.
Q: I watched Ed Ruth's matches against Keith Gavin, then went back and watched him against Robert Hamlin and Phil Keddy. I was about to draft a question saying essentially "HOLY CRAP, did we just find the answer at 86 kilos that we haven't had since Cael???" and then I watched his match against Clayton Foster and I decided to slow down a bit. Foster and Gavin both have a more European style and I could see that giving Ruth trouble at Worlds. Ed's potential is so ridiculous and I could see him anywhere from winning the thing, to losing in the first round. I literally have no clue. What do you think? What's your prediction for Ruth?
-- Brandon J.
Foley: Ed Ruth would end up with a World silver medal or suffer a quick technical fall defeat. Given his lack of international competition there is almost no way to know.
Ed Ruth with Nittany Lion Wrestling Club coaches Cael Sanderson and Casey Cunningham at the World Team Trials (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)The truth behind Ruth's rise to the starting position is only that the younger generation made it past Keith Gavin -- a tough-nosed wrestler often underestimated and rarely appreciated for the stability he provided the USA lineup. With Ruth cracking his code it will likely make room for Ruth and Foster to engage in a protracted yearly battle for the starting spot.
Though I don't agree Gavin has a European style, I can see that Foster is creative and wily in a way that harkens to some of the better Russian lower weights. Though Ruth had trouble with Foster, the sample size just isn't large enough to draw any broader conclusion about his ability to adapt. Hell, I'm not even sure Ruth or his coaches have a one-hundred percent understanding of his abilities on the international level, which means they also don't have his style finalized.
The elements of his style that are most enjoyable are his quick entry into single legs, powerful driving finishes and typically calm behavior. The worrisome components are his frequent failures on the edge of the mat and an inability to limit scoring opportunities when most necessary. When watching Ruth wrestle I often get the urge to scream "No!" as he locks up something goofy on his feet. Equally discomforting is that I often find myself thinking that Ruth can score at any moment and that it is just a matter of him making the choice. In my opinion, he's good enough on his feet to plow through most of the international competition.
Russia's Abdulrashid Sadulaev is the only wrestler in the bracket who can absorb all of Ruth's physical threats. The No. 1-ranked wrestler in the world, Sadualev is only 18 years old, a two-time Cadet World champion and only has one loss at the senior level, a semifinal match at the 2012 Ali Aliyev. He's not "kind of" talented, he's giggle-worthy with an impressive combination of strength, flexibility and technique that inspires cheers and raised eyebrows from fans around the world.
I've had the chance to watch Sadulaev wrestle at three tournaments and each time he's taken the mat I've stopped whatever I was doing and just enjoyed his performance. I'm not overstating it when I say that he could be a once-in-a-generation talent.
Ruth should focus his career goals on being Sadulaev's competition -- the guy who takes the Russian the extra mile and finds a few wins. If Ruth can steal wins and tournaments against the Russian he will have reached a level that would make him, Cael and the USA very happy.
Cross-trainer wrestling shoes? I'm totally in.
Link: Best goal of the World Cup?
Q: Is the NCAA wrestling tournament going to an individual and a dual meet championship? If so, is this a good thing or a bad thing for the student-athlete? Why? Or why not?
-- Greg Y.
Foley: Dual meets are happening, but in what format is still being discussed.
I like that you inquired about the student-athletes. Too much of the disagreement and discussion has been about team points and how it affects smaller programs. Though I agree those are serious issues, I haven't read or seen any breakdown of how the format change would affect the wrestlers.
My instinct is that there will be a similar number of competition dates and with more emphasis on dual meets we will see the average number of matches per wrestler drop by as much as 5-8. In a five-month season that drop in matches should help preserve these guys for the end of the season.
What concerns me is that immediacy of the preparation for a week-to-week advancement team tournament. Plenty of sports endure that format, but it would be a psychological shift for some wrestlers who are used to a set schedule of events.
Will the new dates coincide with exams? Papers? Other things? Probably. We'll have to get more data, but in the meantime the NCAA and the thought leaders in the discussion should consider how the change will affect the wrestlers. They might have, but I haven't seen any literature.
Q: The UFC card this past weekend was pretty boring. Are we experiencing MMA overload? Exhaustion? Could this happen in wrestling if it got big?
-- Steve T.
Foley: Product overload would be a great problem for wrestling!
The UFC has more than 50 events in 2014 and if you're a fan, especially on Twitter, the constant chatter around the sport can be too much to endure week-to-week. I'm pulling back from my interest in the sport, but not because of the exhaustion as much as the product's inability to impress me.
Wrestlers are the greatest athletes in the world. Our need to combine strength, flexibility and mental toughness is unequaled in any sport or spectacle -- to control another human without strikes is the most fundamental and therefore difficult thing to accomplish. Basketball players? Congrats on putting the ball through the hoop as nobody is allowed to touch you? Football players? I'm no longer impressed with four-second spurts of action.
Wrestling is also beautiful in comparison to the UFC and MMA at large because it requires fidelity and commitment to training. There are no shortcuts. Fighters can make their way into the UFC with padded records and advance through trash talk. As we well know there is no combination of words that will get you to the finals of a wrestling tournament. You want to be the champion then you will need to wrestle past everyone in your bracket. MMA has become a showcase for low-class, no-talent clowns with too many tattoos to thrash each other on social media in an effort to earn, or promote, their fights.
Wrestling could always use more promotion and the lowest common denominator stuff is there for the mimic, but it will never happen because what we watch on a wrestling mat is sport. What you watch in a match is entertainment -- mere spectacle.
As a side note, it's important to note that the world can no longer deny that American wrestlers are among the toughest humans on the planet. Wrestlers from the States currently hold six of the eight UFC titles and with Chad Mendes fighting for the belt in a few weeks, it may very well become seven of eight.