Oklahoma State wrestlers prepare to compete at the Grapple on the Gridiron (Photo/Mark Lundy, Lutte-Lens.com)
From cheeseburgers to clothing to shampoo, any brand executive will tell you that to get more people to try your product, you have to get that product in front of more new people.
The same goes for college wrestling.
If college wresting wants to thrive and grow instead of stagnate and die it needs to increase its fan base. That's a fact. To do that the sport needs to get fresh eyeballs. The current model is woefully inadequate for that.
Right now fans have dual matches streamed live online and sometimes on the Big Ten Network. Fans have the big tournaments streamed live online. If they're lucky the finals will air on a network, such as the Big Ten does with the Midlands. And fans have the NCAA Championships streamed and aired on an ESPN channel. That might get someone who is channel surfing to check it out, but it's not going to bring new folks to the sport in the numbers needed.
The one event that brought 42-thousand plus fans, many of them not the college wrestling-faithful, was the Grapple on the Gridiron in Iowa City in November of 2015. Iowa and Oklahoma State held a dual meet in Kinnick Stadium that brought in a record number of fans. It was done in conjunction with the Iowa versus Minnesota football game that night. The teams treated tailgaters, who were there anyway and might not ever watch college wrestling, to an exciting match in a unique environment.
So to build on that model and take the concept to the next level, let's have a college wrestling dual as part of college bowl game festivities in a warm weather city or even a domed stadium.
Tom Brands coaching at the Grapple on the Gridiron (Photo/Mark Lundy, Lutte-Lens.com)
Iowa head wrestling coach Tom Brands is the architect of the Grapple on the Gridiron. He likes the idea of college wrestling at bowl games, but with a few caveats.
Brands said we need to put an exciting product on the mat and "right now our product is not good enough to do that."
He suggests we need rules that reward a scoring mentality and that won't happen until those rules are driven by coaches and referees. Right now there is not one voting referee on the rules committee, they are all ad hoc, non-voting members, according to Brands.
His other must-have ingredient for success is a motivated and local event administration. "One that is connected to the community, that is well-placed and well-organized. Not one made up of volunteers who are half in," said Brands.
Then there's the cost. Brands didn't put an exact number on the Grapple, but said it was in the tens of thousands, but they had a sponsor who offset much of the cost.
Putting the state of the rules aside (I disagree with Brands a little here and think certain teams will put on an exciting event even with the current rules, but that might just be my wrestling fan-colored glasses), would a bowl committee even be interested in the idea?
A source intimately involved with bowl activity and preparation, who didn't want to be named because he was not speaking in an official capacity, said yes. But he said it would have to be the right Bowl Committee.
According to the source, "There's too much going on in larger bowls. They don't need another sport. But for some of the smaller bowls it could be an additional part of the entertainment so fans get more bang for their buck."
He also mentioned cost as a potential drawback, but agreed that "underwriting happens all the time" and that it could be seen as a sponsorship opportunity. With 40 bowl games to choose from this is something to make a particular bowl game unique.
Here's an example of how it might work. This year the Zaxby's Heart of Dallas Bowl featured Army and North Texas. Army won 38-31 in overtime. It was held in the Cotton Bowl at Fair Park in Dallas. It was played on Dec. 27, aired on ESPN and drew a crowd of just over 39,000 people. Game time was at noon ET. On the afternoon before the game the No. 1 and No. 2-ranked dual teams in the nation could battle it out in the stadium. According to InterMat's latest dual team rankings that would be Oklahoma State and Iowa. Ironically, a rematch of the Grapple. Logistically it would take a crack grounds crew to reset the field, but my source says they can turn around a stadium in six or seven hours.
Think about it, between the Dallas locals, the Army fans and the North Texas fans that might be thousands of new eyeballs for the sport and that's thousands more than college wrestling is getting now.