ESPN's Quint Kessenich interviews Oklahoma State coach John Smith (Photo/Tony Rotundo, WrestlersAreWarriors.com)
Opportunity is stepping onto the college wrestling mat. And whether the wrestling community can score here could be the difference in going forward or going backward when it comes to growth of the sport.
ESPN's coverage of the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships has grown from short highlight clips to a 90-minute, tape-delayed broadcast to every-mat-of-every-session coverage in just 22 years. The jump to covering every session either on broadcast television or live streaming happened just 14 years ago. Now wrestling is poised to make another leap -- three days of programming on the network's main channel, ESPN.
That's great news for the sport, but don't kid yourself. It didn't come about because wrestling is suddenly the sport of choice for casual fans.
John Vassallo, ESPN's senior coordinating producer, admits the timing worked well with the channel's schedule. "It's really more of a function of our programming window availability than anything." Translation: other networks have basketball contracts locked up and ESPN had a hole to fill.
But ESPN's wrestling coverage can still be considered a success story. Last year's TV coverage reached 8 million people. Jim Gibbons, ESPN commentator and former collegiate wrestler and coach, said of the coverage, "It's made all parties happy." That means ESPN is able to sell the product to advertisers.
And there's a thirst for the digital product. The live streaming portion of the coverage is highly successful. In 2016 the digital consumption on Saturday night was up 41 percent from just the year before.
So here's the challenge for all segments of the wrestling community. Take the gift of expanded coverage and make it something a sports fan who's flipping through the channels will stop to watch.
It can be done. Even Vassallo, who by his own admission is a "lacrosse guy", acknowledges that to know wrestling is to love wrestling. "It's my favorite time of the year and I would have never guessed that when I was assigned to the sport ten years ago," he said.
But everyone has to do their part.
Here's what ESPN said it's doing. They use graphics that explain the basics. Things such as what is a takedown or what is a reversal. They also mic the officials in the semifinals and finals so viewers can hear the instructions to the wrestlers. But Vassallo realizes it's a delicate balance between educating the casual fan and satisfying the avid fan. He describes it as, "a sport we're still trying to figure out how best to cover."
Gibbons, a 1981 NCAA champion wrestler and 1987 NCAA champion coach, noted that ESPN dedicates the resources to telling the back story of the athletes. "To walk away as NCAA champion is not about the tournament and the titles. It's about the pursuit of that and the emotions involved."
The wrestlers and coaches know what they need to do and they come ready every year -- no worries there.
The referees play a big role. Are they going push the pace, force the action? If so, that means call stalling early and often. Wrestlers and coaches get the message when refs do that. If they fear the stall call many will wrestle differently, more aggressively and in general, that leads to more exciting matches.
Fans need to pack the place. The attendance record for the championships is 113,000 and change, set in 2015 at the same venue being used this year, Scottrade Center in St. Louis. That's close to its capacity for 6 sessions, but not quite. Let's break that record.
One Iowa fan said recently, "The atmosphere is incredible (at NCAAs). You don't get that on TV."
Well, if the crowd is even more loud and the atmosphere even more incredible that can translate to a more exciting broadcast, not to mention it's more fun for the folks who are there.
And for those who can't attend, there's power in watching in real time. Television networks still sell ads based on ratings and those ratings are directly tied to people tuning in.
And finally there's the NCAA. It has a job to do too. As Anthony Holman, NCAA Associate Director of Championships and Alliances said, "We want to continue to explore how to better tell the stories of the student athletes, how to tell the excitement of wrestling and how to simplify it for the casual fan."
Opportunity is ready to wrestle. Let's make sure the mat it's standing on is a welcome mat.