By Coyte Cooper – ELSM Staff Writer
Every year there are well over 16,000 fans that attend the annual NCAA Wrestling Championships in March. Whether it is in Albany or St. Louis, loyal fans flock to the stadium to make sure they are able to witness the culminating event for college wrestling. As a result, attendance records seem to have been set on a regular basis during the past 10 years. Based on this, it would seem that college wrestling is in great shape from a sustainability standpoint. After all, the championship is one of the few events that actually turn a profit for the NCAA. However, the reality is that the overall success of the individual championship has not translated to program sustainability at the local, grassroots level. In fact, you could argue that program elimination has become slightly more common as the individual championship has grown in popularity. From a sustainability standpoint, this would seem to indicate that the current model in the sport is not the most efficient one for saving programs on a broad scale.
Program Elimination is Problematic…For Everyone
For most NCAA wrestling coaches, this makes complete sense because there are few programs that seem to be completely safe when it comes to program elimination. Based on this statement, there are 98% of the coaches out there who are willing to do whatever it takes to save their program. This is why so many coaching staffs across the country are making heavy investments in marketing on a regular basis. For the others in the minority 2%, consider the implications if program elimination continues to proceed at the same rate during the next 10 years. Worse yet, spend a moment pondering what would happen if the economic recession escalated this rate drastically in the next five years. While program elimination may not be a direct threat to you, it will become problematic when you do not have enough programs to compete for a legitimate NCAA Championship. In other words, if it is not your problem at the moment, it is certainly capable of becoming exactly that in the future if you do not embrace strategic changes moving forward. With these two points in mind, there is no program that is above the obstacles currently facing college wrestling.
Response to Key Challenges
In most instances, the Athletic Director and senior administrative staff are the individuals who are most involved when it comes to making program elimination decisions. Based on previous research, it is safe to say that consumer interest (e.g., attendance, alumni support) is a primary factor when it comes to ensuring program sustainability. This is a major reason why previous entries have focused heavily on investing in marketing initiatives to build your brand with key target markets. While there are a variety of key program area considerations (e.g., academics, community service, conduct), a central core element will always be the ability to create a sound athletic product on the mat. More importantly, this involves the creation of a solid environment at home dual meet competitions.
Dependence on Dual Meet Success
There is little doubt that “star” (or top ranked) individual wrestlers will always be a key part of the college wrestling product. After all, most sports are heavily driven by the presence and performance of star athletes during competition. However, at the college level, you can certainly make a valid argument that individual performance will never take precedent over the success of the program/team as a whole. This is largely driven by the fact that alumni, students, and key stakeholders are attracted to the teams that are affiliated with their institution. While star athletes are certainly conducive to fan affinity, they will almost never draw the way that team success (or cohesiveness) does at the university level. You could even argue that an entertaining environment is superior when targeting college-aged students who are influenced by the atmosphere at the event. Thus, as a coach, it is your job to create a dual meet product that encourages individuals to feel like a part of your team. This process cannot start until you place a heavy emphasis on the team element during dual meet competition. The good news is that there are coaches across the United States that have made this commitment to growth at the local level. This past year’s “Battle of the Beltway” dual between American and Maryland is a great example of an event that has been leveraged to encourage support from key stakeholders.
Solution: Change the Current Culture
In college wrestling, there is a culture that exists where you compete with the goal of breaking your opponent. As a former Division I Big 10 wrestler, I am aware that this means putting the kind of pressure on your opponent that forces them to quit. This is exactly the opposite type of mentality that it will take for the sport to succeed from a consumer standpoint in the future. While you should always strive to succeed in competition, it is going to take a collaborative effort between coaches to build interest in dual meet competitions moving forward. It is also going to take cooperation to get a format in place that increases the importance of dual meets in the future. When these things occur, college wrestling will be in a better place for growth at all levels.
“What is right is not always popular and what is popular is not always right” (Albert Einstein)