February 24, 2012
Coyte Cooper – Assistant Professor in Sport Administration at UNC & CEO of ELSM
Wrestling is a sport that has impacted my life in so many ways. As I approach each day, I always feel confident about realizing success because the sport has taught me about vision and how to set goals to guide daily decisions. And when things get a little challenging, it is no problem at all because I was raised in a sport where adversity is inevitable. The bottom line is that wrestling has made me the person that I am today and that is why I am so passionate about giving back to the sport. I know that there are hundreds of thousands of former wrestlers out there that feel the same way. So, if each of us can give back to wrestling what it has given to us, I feel confident that our sport will thrive in the future.
This year’s trip to the 2013 National Duals really got me thinking about what it would take for wrestling to reach its full potential. Part of this was influenced by observing the event with a marketing mindset and part of it was from conversations with individuals about the future of the sport. As I reflect on these conversations, I found myself both frustrated and inspired because I am confident that we have everything we need right in front of us to help the sport grow. This is inspiring because you know that it is possible for people to see how great wrestling is with the right investment from coaches and supporters. It is frustrating because it will take a drastic change in culture/mindset that some folks might not be ready to make. However, there is no question that the time to make a move is the present.
The Call for Change in College Wrestling
When the topic of growing the sport comes up, there are a wide range of issues that are presented. As I have learned about these over the past 10+ years, I have become convinced that all of the challenges facing the sport relate back to marketing. Wouldn’t you agree? I mean think about it. Marketing is positioning a product to make it appealing to key groups of individuals. From a sustainability standpoint, this means that coaches need to make decisions that will make their program valuable to administrators, athletic department employees, and other university stakeholders. And when they overachieve at creating this value, the chances of being eliminated go down considerably. However, creating value is a complicated and situational endeavor that takes a major investment from coaches. It would be naive to mention this without acknowledging that this is something that coaching staffs must make a top priority – and this means investing their time to make this happen. Interestingly, this is one the most important sustainability initiatives and it rarely gets any attention.
From a consumer standpoint, marketing involves making decisions about the college wrestling product (rules, scheduling, championship format) to make it appealing to a large audience of current and potential consumers. Different variations of this are by far the most popular topic of conversation when it comes to growing the sport in the future. And rightfully so because the product being delivered to consumers directly impacts how much support that the sport will have moving forward. However, there is an area that almost always gets neglected that will be detrimental to the sport if it is not acknowledged in marketing efforts. The biggest mistake that is often made by coaches, leaders, and fans in the sport is that they are making decisions based on what they think is best for wrestling. I need to stop right here because this is exactly the type of approach that will keep wrestling from expanding its fan base. Simply put, if you don’t want to be considering niche, you have to develop an approach where you intentionally position your product for both current and potential consumers. Rather than draw this out, I am going to present five changes that wrestling should consider to make the sport more “fan friendly” to current and potential target markets. As you read this, it is important that you constantly remind yourself that these changes are for specific groups of individuals. If this fact is neglected, the sport of wrestling will fail to extend its fan base.
5 Initial Steps to Improve the Marketability of the Sport
1. Get Coaches to Invest in Marketing: This will always be the most important step to growing the sport of wrestling. For the sport to realize the most attention at the regional and national level, there must be a grassroots approach to build support one fan at a time at the local level. And while rules and scheduling (see steps #2 – #4) are critical for growing the sport, these decisions will not work if coaches are not committed to building interest in their product in the surrounding community. This is the foundational base for all marketing success that will come in the future. When coaches consistently invest in marketing across the country, wrestling will take the first step towards realizing full potential. However, when this happens, it is important that the sport has rules that are conducive to an exciting atmosphere for a wide range of consumers.
2. Strive for Simplification of Rules: It is difficult for a sport to be exciting to a mainstream audience if the rules are too complicated. In fact, if someone is not able to understand what is going on, there is very little chance that they will become repeat consumers (unless the supplementary entertainment is great – see step #5). When attending dual meets with my interns this year, they would ask questions about what was going on and I realized that it was difficult for me to explain it to them. This is something that has to be a major concern for individuals who want the sport to move beyond niche status. Heck, while I love wrestling, I am not even sure what is going on when a match goes deep into overtime tie-breaker periods or a dual meet ends via tiebreaker criteria (see 2013 Iowa v. Minnesota regular season dual meet).
3. Create Rules to Engage New Consumers: As coaches go out to attract new consumers, it is important to have a product that can engage the audience. As I reflected on my discussions with my interns about the rules, I started to think about what makes popular sports unique when it comes to rules. You know what I realized? That all mainstream sports have key core elements that make their games both simple and exciting. Take basketball for example. Regardless of whether or not you know all the rules, you can certainly comprehend what it means when a ball goes in a hoop. And because that happens on a regular basis, it is far easier for fans to remain engaged throughout an entire game. And while the concept of a pin in wrestling is somewhat simple, it does not happen near enough to keep a crowd locked in during a dual meet or match. While you cannot (and should not) change core elements of the sport, it seems as if there might be simple adjustments that could help engage new groups of consumers. One example I have heard mentioned from top coaches is a push out rule because it is a simple (and understandable) element that could help to keep non-traditional consumers interested. For existing fans, this means adjusting rules to ensure that there is consistent action during matches. In a research project on the core wrestling product, loyal fans explained that stalling (and the lack of action) was the biggest issue with the current wrestling product. Coaches need to consistently evolve the rules so it creates more action for all consumers.
4. Consider a Seasonal Schedule for Maximum Marketing Appeal: The ultimate goal is to create a product that is so strong that you can schedule key events whenever you want and attendance will be high. However, this is not a luxury that wrestling currently has at any level. Because of this, it is important to consider an event schedule that will allow for maximum attendance at local dual meets and major national events. In essence, this means you schedule key events based on what is most appealing to your key target markets rather than what is most convenient. The solution to this that has been floated around from coaches is a shift in the season to avoid high school post-season tournaments and the first round of March Madness. Both are considerations worthy of discussion. However, there is a lot more to this specific step and that makes it better for another entry.
5. Strive to Enhance Supplementary Entertainment Value: Another key area where wrestling can differentiate their product is through product extensions. This is a fancy way of saying that wrestling can make itself unique to current and potential consumers by providing creative entertainment at events. The reality is that it is not only about the core sport product anymore. Consumers are demanding and you must find ways to keep them engaged and entertained if you are going to consistently get fans to your events. Folks have different entertainment options and it is your job to make sure that your events are competitive. The bottom line is that this must be a priority for coaching staffs if the sport is going to succeed. And it is important to note that this is a concept that is difficult to grasp when winning is the sole focus for a program. When gaining support collectively becomes a top priority for wrestling stakeholders (coaches, leaders, and supporters), the sport will evolve and become more efficient from a marketing standpoint.
There are certainly different opinions on the steps that need to be taken to grow the sport moving forward. While certain individuals may not agree with these steps, there are two that are absolutely non-negotiable if wrestling is going to reach full potential. It is imperative that coaches invest in marketing and they consistently strive to create an entertaining environment at their events. Regardless of your background or personal opinions, I am confident that you will agree with this assessment. And some of you will be in a position to help with growth at the local level and I encourage you to take an active role in this endeavor. In terms of steps #2 – #4, the most important thing is that coaches, leaders, and stakeholders surrounding the sport embrace a growth mentality where they are willing to consider changes that will grow our sport. If you are like me and wrestling has changed your life, this will be an easy step to take. It is time to give back to a sport that has given so much to us.
“If you want extraordinary results, then you must be ready to make an extraordinary investment”