Now all that might change as the NCAA considers sites to host March Matness in 2019 and beyond.
The organization governing collegiate athletics is looking at a very different type of venue -- domed stadiums -- and a host city that once would have been considered "off-limits" for college sports: Las Vegas.
A new home in domes?
Could future editions of the NCAA wrestling championships be held in dome stadiums originally designed for NFL football?
In its March 13 issue published prior to the 2017 NCAAs in St. Louis, WIN -- Wrestling Insider Newsmagazine -- wrote of one possibility in its NCAA Notebook feature: hold the college wrestling championships in a domed facility.
As the magazine pointed out, on April 18 the NCAA is slated to announce the host sites for the NCAAs in 2019-2022. (Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena -- home to the NBA's Cavaliers -- has already been named the site for the 2018 NCAAs.)
Which facilities might be in the running to host March Matness in the next few years? WIN interviewed Anthony Holman, the NCAA Associate Director in charge of wrestling championships ... and, while he didn't reveal that list, he did disclose that NCAA is taking a look at domed stadiums.
"It certainly is intriguing to look at that idea," Holman told WIN. "(Holding the Nationals in a dome) would allow you to do three things."
"One, it will provide us more space to spread out mats and get score tables away from mats. It provides a more appealing and attractive setting; it will allow more space for athletes to warm up; it will allow more space for media; things that we have been challenged with."
"Second, we have been fortunate to have a really rabid fan base that routinely attends our Championships," Holman continued. "It's not uncommon to see fans who have been to 20 or 30 consecutive NCAA championships. Typically we have about 92,000 fans who are repeat attendees, which is a wonderful thing. But with a small number of tickets available, it's hard to introduce the sport to a new fan base."
"Thirdly, we have not been able to accommodate our institutional ticket requests. Being at a large venue would allow that."
In recent years, the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships have been held in large-city arenas with a seating capacity of approximately 19,000. For example, at the 2017 NCAAs held at Scottrade Center in St. Louis, 19,657 fans witnessed the finals in person -- just shy of an all-time finals record set at the 2015 NCAAs at the same venue.
March Matness has not always been held in arenas of that size. In fact, it's only been since 2002 that the NCAAs have taken place in big-city arenas with approximately 19,000 seats.
Since the first NCAA wrestling championships were held at the Armory on the Iowa State campus in Ames in 1928, in the first decades, the Nationals took place in a college gym or fieldhouse with a seating capacity of 2,000 or so.
That first NCAA event had 40 participating wrestlers from a dozen schools. In subsequent years, the number of participating schools and athletes grew. For example, the 1970 NCAAs, a record 394 wrestlers took to the mats. According to published reports at the time, 8,800 fans filled McGaw Hall (now Welsh-Ryan Arena) at Northwestern University outside Chicago to witness the epic title match in which Washington's Larry Owings upset Iowa State's Dan Gable.
For the next decade or so, the NCAAs were usually held in arenas seating approximately 13,000-15,000 fans. These venues were almost always on the campus of the host school. The last NCAAs to be held on campus: the 2001 NCAAs at Carver-Hawkeye Arena at the University of Iowa. The 2002 Nationals took place in Albany, N.Y. Other major cities which have welcomed the NCAAs include St. Louis, Des Moines, Kansas City, Oklahoma City, Philadelphia, and, just last year, New York City ... all at facilities with approximately 19,000 seats. (Cleveland's Quicken Loans Arena has an advertised seating capacity of 20,562.)
Domed facilities primarily designed for football provide seating capacities of three to four times that of a traditional arena like those which have hosted NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships for the past fifteen years. For example, the Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis has approximately 62,400 seats for Colts games ... while the Dome at America's Center in downtown St. Louis can accommodate 70,000 fans. Houston's NRG Stadium -- which hosted Super Bowl LI earlier this year -- has a seating capacity of 71,500.
In addition to more seats, these dome football facilities would offer much greater floor space -- the size of a football field -- to accommodate more wrestling mats ... or, if the present maximum number of mats (eight) is maintained, much more room to accommodate scoring tables and the ever-growing number of media representatives. (Those who attended the National Duals when held at the UNI Dome at Northern Iowa a decade ago can testify to the ability for a football field to hold lots of wrestling mats. That said, the home to the UNI Panthers football team has a seating capacity of "only" 16,324.)
Of course, if the NCAA were to start holding its Division I Wrestling Championships in a domed football stadium, they may choose not to use the entire seating capacity ... as some seats would provide less-than-ideal views of the action on the mat.
At least one legendary figure in college wrestling seems to be asking, "Why worry about providing more seats ... when there's a problem filling those you have now?"
In his latest blog, Wade Schalles, two-time NCAA mat champ (and 1972 NCAA Outstanding Wrestler) at Clarion University of Pennsylvania, raised concerns about attendance at the 2017 NCAAs held a couple weeks ago in St. Louis.
"It's probably not a good sign when the NCAA was selling tickets the day before the championships started and the NWCA [National Wrestling Coaches Association] still had a bunch of lower bowl tickets they needed to dump," Schalles wrote, serving up some photos which showed a number of empty seats at Scottrade Center during various sessions of the event.
"I mention this as a reminder to everyone that our spectator numbers are melting faster than the arctic icepack. So I wonder if and when we need to panic? Or have we already passed that juncture and prefer denial or indifference to the energy that's necessary for change? Either way please don't point to the incredible number of spectators that Penn State is attracting as evidence that all is well with our sport. Any team that's America's best will pack their arena just as Iowa, Oklahoma State, Iowa State and Oklahoma did decades before; but sadly no longer."
Schalles then addressed the "aging" of attendees.
"What isn't so noticeable is the average age of those in attendance," Schalles continued. "Now I don't have any evidence to support this but it certainly appeared from walking around the arena that the average age of our fan base is heading north faster than the number of millennials are back-filling our losses."
Concern about the aging of attendees at the Nationals is legitimate. In fact, it was the subject of a May 2015 InterMat feature titled "The Graying of the NCAAs" which shared stats compiled by the NCAA in surveying attendees of the 2014 NCAAs in Oklahoma City. According to that survey, the average age of attendees is 42 ... with more than a third of fans are age 50 or greater.
Could the NCAAs find a home in Las Vegas?
Betting on Las Vegas?
Within the past year, there's been talk that the NCAA is looking at allowing its championship sporting events -- including wrestling -- to be held in Las Vegas, contrary to long-standing policy of the NCAA which does not allow championship events to be placed in states where sports gambling is legal, including Nevada.
That said, CBSSports.com reported a year ago that NCAA president Mark Emmert had said in December 2015 that there would be a "robust conversation" about taking a look at making it possible for NCAA championships to be held in Vegas.
That same website reported that, in a 2016 meeting, the NCAA's competition oversight committee had demonstrated "strong support" for opening the possibility of NCAA championships in Nevada, one of the four states previously off-limits for hosting NCAA events such as the collegiate wrestling championships because of laws allowing gambling on sports.
A number of regional collegiate conferences have been holding their championships in various sports in Las Vegas in recent years, including the Mountain West Conference. Addressing the concerns about having college sports championships in Las Vegas, Mountain West commissioner Craig Thompson said, "The stigma -- if you will -- is not as pronounced as it once was."
As CBS Sports.com's Dennis Dodd wrote, "There hasn't been a hint of scandal" in any of the college conference championships held in Nevada's largest city.
Las Vegas certainly has many of the amenities the NCAA considers when choosing a location for a Division I Wrestling Championships event -- ease of accessibility (such as great numbers of flights), scores of hotels, restaurants and entertainment options -- along with a new 19,000-seat arena. And, with the NFL Oakland Raiders announcing a move to Vegas in two years, Nevada is looking to build a new domed stadium that could be used for sporting events beyond pro football.
Will the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships find a home under a dome? Or in Las Vegas? The answer may be uncovered on April 18.
What criteria does the NCAA use in selecting a host facility? Take a look at this InterMat feature.