Making ESPN's expanded coverage a pivotal moment

ESPN's Quint Kessenich interviews Oklahoma State coach John Smith (Photo/Tony Rotundo,

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.


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ThistenII (1) about 2 years ago
Great article! I love the tone and the challenge issued to “all segments of the wrestling community” to seize this moment and work together to help grow the sport of wrestling. I’m a big fan of the sport, though I would not consider myself currently part of the wrestling community. However, as a huge sports fan in general, I see some parallels here with how soccer was covered and treated in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s in this county. My first exposure to the World Cup was in 1990 when it was held in Italy. The U.S. team, made up of basically college kids, qualified to compete against the world’s best professional players. The Cup that summer was televised on TNT, but I remember only a handful of games were aired, and they repeatedly cut away for commercials during live action. The televised coverage was, in fact, quite horrible from top to bottom. However, that all changed in 1994 when we hosted the men’s World Cup, and in 1996 when the women won Olympic Gold in Atlanta, and when ESPN took over. That’s when things took off for the sport in this country, and, to use one of my Grandfather’s favorite expressions, things have been “going great guns” ever since.

But, while soccer was able to harness and parlay the interest and energy from the men in 1994 and the women in 1996 into the creation of a hugely successful domestic men’s professional league (just had over 55,000 at their inaugural game here in Atlanta), and into a wildly successful women’s national team program (and hopefully a successful women’s league in the near future), and growth and success at all ages at the youth level, what is the end game for wrestling? Is it just to get more young kids wrestling? And, where do we go from here? How do we sustain this energy and to where do we channel this increased interest? Next college season? An occasional international tournament? Olympics every four years (assuming wrestling is still around and not cut and replaced with Dodgeball sometime in the future). We definitely can get more kids wrestling by seizing this “opportunity” but is that all we can (or should) do? In addition, ultimately there’s no domestic professional league like soccer, or basketball, football, baseball, or even lacrosse so will any of this energy or interest (hopefully generated from this year’s NCAAs) even last? If wrestling is “poised to make another leap”, I fail to see where it’s landing.
rmiro (1) about 2 years ago
First off , soccer has never been ravaged like wrestling has in this country by Title IX application. I agree that there needs to be a landing point but our sport has , really , not been given the chance that others have until recent years. It's the worlds oldest and toughest sport. You don't see the theatre that you do in Soccer and Basketball with the flopping. Quite frankly , when I see that, I'm embarrassed for the athletes. We have to continue to better ourselves and improve upon those opportunities but I would hate to see the theatre that those other sports demonstrate on a regular basis. The wrestlers, for the most part, are humble and clean characters. They demonstrate through their training, sacrifice, and effort the important aspects of the sport. There are no other athletes who compare. The selling has to come from administration and promoters. We need the opportunity to showcase special events like the National Duals Finals or even a great High School Dual meet on occasion. Hopefully this will be something in the future. Advertising pays the freight and that is lucky for March Madness because the seats are not full at all and its much worse for the women. There is plenty of opportunity for ESPN to plug some of this stuff in instead of showing repeats , over and over, of certain events. Who knows, but it could be just the opening that is needed. However, I believe that the wrestling culture needs to support by watching . I sure will be as I have to miss the NCAA's in person due to an injury. We can't just look the other way when the Subject of Title IX gets brought up either. It's a good law that has done tremendous damage to wrestling and other sports in the way it's been applied.
ThistenII (1) about 2 years ago
Thank you for your response, rmiro. Great points all around. I agree with what you've written (particularly about the flopping which irks me to no end). I have a follow-up question regarding Title IX that I'm hoping you can help me with. In light of Title IX and how it works today, is it possible to promote and support (or allocate resources to) both men's and women's wrestling programs at the college level? I keep reading about the phenomenal growth of women's wrestling ( I, of course, want to support wrestling in its entirety, but because of the fact that wrestling has been ravaged and because it's not as high-profile or lucrative as other college sports, by supporting growth at the college level on the women's side, will it be to the detriment of the men's programs? Or vice-versa? Great points about the athletes. I would love for ESPN to put the spotlight on the athletes and emphasize their "training, sacrifice, and effort". There's a lot that they could do there. Thanks.
ThistenII (1) about 2 years ago
rmiro, I also wanted to mention that I hope you recover from your injury soon; I hope it's not serious.
ResiliteMarine (1) about 2 years ago

Can we get the NCAA AND NWCA working together?
Who should lead the charge?
Which Network (s) should be targeted?