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Can college wrestling learn from last year’s Olympic wrestling crisis?

Can college wrestling learn from mistakes made by FILA, international federations regarding Olympic wrestling?
Can college wrestling learn from mistakes made by FILA, international federations regarding Olympic wrestling?

For college wrestling, it's the best of times, it's the worst of times.

On a positive note, we’re wrapping up one of the most exciting seasons in recent memory. The talent pool is remarkably deep in just about every weight class. We’ve witnessed plenty of upsets, leading to never-ending changes in the rankings in a number of weight classes over the past few months. We’ve also seen new dual-meet attendance records set in 2013-14. And, a number of (mostly) smaller schools have announced plans to launch new wrestling programs, or reinstate dormant programs.

On the other hand, there’s been plenty of discussion on what’s wrong with college wrestling today. There have been discussions about lack of offensive scoring, stalling, and other issues with what’s go on (or not going on) on the wrestling mat… as well as arguments about the importance of dual meets, and whether the National Duals be given more significance in determining (or as a factor in determining) the national team titlewinner… or if the focus should be on traditional dual meets.

One could argue that the issues regarding action on the mat are “product” problems, while discussions about dual meets and putting more fans in the stands address “promotional” issues.

College Wrestling Examiner has written about both “product” and “promotion” issues. And, as a former advertising copywriter, I can tell you that the best ads and most creative promotions can only go so far to sell a not-so-great product. All the coolest social media campaigns, slick videos, wrestlers-as-hunks posters, candlelight dinners, beauty-and-beast meets, alumni-vs.-new guys matches, and other attention-getting promotions a college wrestling program can use may bring newbie fans to the arena once… but they probably won’t come back if they think wrestling is boring or too complicated.

I’ve thought about all this as we approach the 2014 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships – arguably the Super Bowl or World Series of college wrestling… and thanks to the recent writings of two former wrestlers who care passionately about their sport.

Just this week, the March 15 issue of Amateur Wrestling News landed in my mailbox. Former Ohio State wrestler Dave Camaione – who has been involved in the sport for more than a half-century – penned a powerful opinion piece titled “Make Wrestling Better” in which he catalogs more than a dozen changes he thinks will make the sport more compelling for athletes and fans. “If one of the important goals is to grow the fan base, enhance even greater numbers at the pre-collegiate level, and not only halt the demise of intercollegiate programs but increase their numbers, change must take place now,” writes Camaione.

Also arriving in the mail was T.R. Foley’s new book “Full Circle: The 209 Days That United the World and Saved an Olympic Sport.” The InterMat writer and former University of Virginia All-American has put told the story of the battle to reverse the Feb. 2013 International Olympic Committee decision to axe wrestling from the Summer Games, in compelling words and photos.

Camaione and Foley got me to thinking: The world wrestling community was confronted with a crisis, banded together and worked tirelessly over the course of seven months to make significant improvements to their sport on an international level… and not only got wrestling restored to the Olympics on a provisional basis, but came up with what appears to be a better product on the mat, something that’s more appealing to wrestlers, fans and the media.

One of the messages that one can’t help but draw from Foley’s book – and Jamie Moffatt’s “Saving Wrestling” released last fall – is that the international wrestling federations from around the world put aside their differences, found common ground, and made a product that was not only more appealing to the IOC, but also to the media and to fans.

In reading the works of Foley and Moffatt – and the ongoing arguing about officiating, wrestling tactics and how much emphasis should be placed on dual meets and National Duals – one might get the impression that it’s easier to get the wrestling federations of Iran, Russia and the U.S. to work together than, say, the college wrestling programs based in State College, Iowa City and Stillwater. Perhaps it’s time for coaches, athletic directors, the NCAA and media representatives to take a cue from their international counterparts, learn from last year’s successful effort to save Olympic wrestling, and set about making college wrestling a better product that’s easier to sell to would-be fans.

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