A look inside U.S. Bank Stadium in downtown Minneapolis, site of the 2020 NCAAs (Photo/Trex Commercial Products)
Who will be the winners at the 2020 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships? Months before the first wrestler steps onto the mat, the individuals who will come out on top are thousands of additional fans who will be able to see the Nationals in person for the first time, thanks to the fact the next NCAAs will be held at an indoor football stadium for the first time.
U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis -- home to the NFL Minnesota Vikings -- will be the venue for the 2020 NCAAs from March 19 through March 21. This totally enclosed venue -- which resembles a huge, glassy Viking ship -- has a seating capacity of 66,860 for football, and 72,711 for the 2019 NCAA Division I men's basketball Final Four. These seating capacities are more than three times that of typical basketball/hockey arenas that have hosted NCAA Division I championships for the past few decades. And that means significantly more amateur wrestling fans will have the opportunity to witness in THE major event of the college wrestling season in person.
Indoor football stadium already looks like a winner
Back in December, a number of newspapers and wrestling websites reported that the NCAA was already celebrating impressive sales figures for the 2020 NCAA Division I mat championships. (Tickets for the event first went on sale during the 2019 NCAAs.)
Here's what Jim Carlson of PennLive.com had to say about the situation last month:
"NCAA officials already have learned -- at more than three months out -- that if they hold the sport's most colossal function in a professional football stadium, people will come. How many remains to be seen, but it's more than a safe assumption to think that the six-session record of 113,743 set in Cleveland in 2018 will fall during the Friday morning quarterfinal round, and the single-session mark of 19,776 will tumble before the opening pigtail bouts."
To put those numbers in perspective ... college wrestling programs have already sold approximately 18,000 tickets to the general public for the 2020 NCAAs. Given the size of recent NCAA wrestling venues -- with 18,000-19,000 seats -- that usually means only about 1,000-1,500 tickets have been available to individual buyers not affiliated with a college.
So ... how many tickets does the NCAA expect to sell for the 2020 Division I Nationals?
Anthony Holman, NCAA Managing Director of Championships and Alliance, said a total figure of tickets sold could number 43,000 to 44,000 -- approximately two-and-a-half times what has been sold in recent years.
"To get to that 43/44,000 number, they're taking the 18,000 -- roughly -- that we sold to the general public, and then the 20-plus thousand that are being held for institution allotments and then another 2,300 or so that are part of suites (144 of them) that are also already sold out," Holman said.
"That number is accurate with the assumption and understanding that the institutions who have historically requested 300 times the number of tickets we've had available, is the assumption that they take all of the tickets that are made available to them. Yeah, we'll be at that 43 number for sure."
"We were coming off of six consecutive years of sellouts and venues that were between 15,000 to 18,000, and the demand for tickets continued to grow," according to Holman. "We were historically cutting the number of tickets that were requested by our institutions by 40 and 50%. So, we thought that capacity was certainly something that was important to provide an opportunity to give folks an opportunity to celebrate this wonderful championship."
More seats = more opportunities to attract new fans
The NCAA's decision to use an indoor football stadium for its 2020 Division I wrestling championships opens the door to not only welcoming more fans, but also draw new fans who have never had the opportunity to witness the event in person.
"Our demographic certainly skews to older men. And we typically have somewhere in the neighborhood of 85 to 90% repeat attendees, and in recent years has been as much as 93%," according to the NCAA's Holman. "It's been a focused and concentrated effort in places where we've gone to New York, for example, where we had 22% first-time attendees there. We're hoping to see that number increase even greater in Minnesota, and that's intentional."
"We certainly love and appreciate our avid fans, but we want to introduce the sport and this tremendous championship to the next generation of fans as well and being in Minnesota will give us that opportunity to do that."
Bigger venue = more space for participants, too
There's yet another benefit to having the 2020 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships in an indoor football stadium that even the most experienced fan (or wrestling media member) may not have ever considered.
"While the arenas that we've been in have been really nice, we're always tight for floor space and competition space, as well as back-of-the-house space for student athletes to gather, to lounge in between competitions so those were just a couple of the key factors that went into the idea and thought process around moving to the stadium," according to Holman.
"We want to provide the best experience we can for our student-athletes. That's where we start and finish. Part of doing that is, and they tell us in their surveys, is being able to participate in front of large numbers of fans and folks that enjoy the sport is important," Holman said.
The path to the supersized 2020 NCAAs: 80-plus years in the making
In the nearly 90-year history of NCAA wrestling championships, the size -- and seating capacities -- of host venues has grown over the years.
Up until about 20-25 years ago, the national college mat championships took place in facilities that averaged 4,000-8,000 seats. The very first NCAAs -- in 1928 -- were held at the Iowa State Armory on the Iowa State campus, a 7,500-seat facility that hosted indoor Cyclone sports such as basketball and wrestling until Hilton Coliseum opened in the early 1970s.
Nearly three decades later, the 1957 NCAAs (where Iowa's Simon Roberts became the first African-American to win a national mat title) were held at Fitzgerald Fieldhouse at the University of Pittsburgh with 4,100 seats ... while, the following year, the University of Wyoming hosted the 1958 NCAAs at their 9,500-seat War Memorial Fieldhouse. A dozen years later, the 1970 NCAAs were at Northwestern's McGaw Hall (now Welsh-Ryan Arena), where nearly 8,000 fans saw University of Washington's Larry Owings hand Dan Gable his first loss ever in his combined high school and collegiate mat career.
Note that all the facilities mentioned above were located on the campus of the host school.
A couple decades ago, the NCAAs started to move away from on-campus venues, opting to switch to larger arenas with 15,000-19,000 seats in major cities. (The last on-campus NCAAs were held at iconic Carver-Hawkeye Arena in 2001.)
The decision to hold the 2020 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships at an indoor football stadium continues the long-running tradition of "bigger and better" venues.
What does the future hold?
What's next after the last match is wrestled at the 2020 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships in March?
You might be surprised to learn that the next two Nationals will NOT be held at U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis -- nor at another supersized indoor football stadium -- but at more traditional-sized basketball/hockey arenas with 15,000-19,000 seats, thanks to a bid process conducted by the NCAA a few years ago which selected sites for the mat championships for 2019-2022.
As announced in April 2017, the NCAA championships will return to St. Louis in 2021 (held at a familiar venue you may remember as Scottrade Center, now with a new name, Enterprise Center) ... then, the following year, to the new Little Caesars Arena in downtown Detroit in 2022.
What's next? No venues have chosen beyond 2022. However, the bidding process is already underway to determine host sites in 2023 through 2026 ... with the selections to be announced later this year.
If the 2020 NCAAs prove to be the success that many anticipate, does that mean more football stadiums will host the NCAAs in the future?
Back in December, the NCAA's Anthony Holman said, "I think, again, no promises, but I wouldn't be surprised if there are other opportunities around stadiums going forward should this be successful. I anticipate that we certainly will receive some bids from other stadiums. Folks will be tracking on the success of this for sure."
"We want more people," said Holman. "We want a celebration of wrestling. We want as many people to take part in that celebration as possible."
This story also appears in the Jan. 17 issue of The Guillotine. The Guillotine has been covering wrestling in Minnesota since 1971. Its mission is to report and promote wrestling at all levels -- from youth and high school wrestling to college and international level wrestling. Subscribe to The Guillotine.