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No. 10 Story of 2013: College wrestling builds crowds with MMA, marketing ideas

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The notion of “If you build it, they will come” may work for baseball (as in the beloved movie Field of Dreams)… but not necessarily for amateur wrestling. Recent attendance-record-breaking dual meets such as Penn State vs. Pitt, and Iowa vs. Penn State that each brought in approximately 16,000 fans are the exception, rather the rule; all too often, high school and college wrestling events take place in nearly-empty gyms and arenas.

That said, some marketing-savvy individuals, wrestling programs and organizations have been using social media -- and coming up with clever promotional ideas, some borrowed from mixed martial arts events – to boost attendance, generate greater revenue, and garner more media coverage.

One oldie-but-goodie used at many schools is a "Beauty and Beast" event that combines a women's gymnastics even with a wrestling dual meet. Another tool that has been embraced by a number of college wrestling programs is the “[insert school color]-out” – Penn State’s White-Out, Iowa’s Black-Out, to name two examples -- where home team supporters are urged to fill the stands by wearing the school’s predominant team color. This impressive visual display of fan loyalty not only lends support to the home team’s wrestlers, but sure looks good on videos shown online and on local TV sportscasts.

Here are a couple other new college promotions that caught the eye of College Wrestling Examiner in 2013:

  • Missouri’s Black & Gold Alumni Match: The Tigers injected new excitement into the typical beginning-of-the-season wrestle-offs by adding thirteen matches featuring Mizzou mat alumni taking on the team’s current wrestlers. The “old guys” won seven of their matches… but the real winners were the school and college wrestling in general, judging from the positive publicity generated.
  • UTC’s Candlelight Dinner Match: In a variation of “dinner and a show,” University of Tennessee-Chattanooga hosted its first Candlelight Dinner Match dual meet vs. Gardner-Webb in mid-December. Fans who opted for this experience received valet parking, were seated at tables for eight located right at matside, and enjoyed a catered dinner from a popular local restaurant, served by Moc matmen not wrestling that night.

In addition, national organizations did their part to help create greater excitement for college wrestling events.

Elite Level Sports Marketing – an organization driven by Coyte Cooper, former Indiana University All-American who’s now a well-respected sports marketing guru – presented awards to colleges, coaches and wrestlers who they considered to be champs at using social media to build their brands. ELSM built excitement for its awards by inviting wrestling fans to cast votes… and by effectively promoting these honors via Facebook, Twitter and other media.

The National Wrestling Coaches Association also injected some creative new promotion ideas into its 2013 NWCA All-Star Classic, the annual event that traditionally pits the top two wrestlers in each weight class in a beginning-of-the-season exhibition. This year, incorporating an idea put forth by wrestling legend Wade Schalles, the NWCA introduced the idea of “out of weight” match-ups between top wrestlers of adjacent weight classes (2013 NCAA 133-pound champ Logan Stieber of Ohio State vs. 141 titlewinner Kendric Maple of Oklahoma in a 149-pound match… and, at 141, Iowa’s Tony Ramos vs. Virginia Tech’s Devin Carter, who had wrestled 133 the previous season). What’s more, in a nod to major mixed martial arts events with main event bouts, the NWCA asked fans to vote on which three matches they wanted to feature at the end of the All-Star Classic as “top-of-the-card” bouts.

Other wrestling events benefited from implementing tried-and-true promotion techniques from big-time MMA events… especially the idea of main-event matches. Grapple at the Garden 2 – an all-day amateur wrestling event at New York’s Madison Square Garden, featuring 16 top college teams in a dual-meet format – featured two headliner wrestling bouts, one featuring former college champs Frank Molinaro vs. his former Penn State teammate Bubba Jenkins. And, in a first-ever event, FloWrestling.org’s Who’s No. 1 showcase for top high school mat stars held at Lehigh University, Jenkins took on Oklahoma State champ Jordan Oliver. Both events featured plenty of advance publicity to play up these marquee match-ups, complete with pre-match videos, posters and interviews that were more UFC than traditional, staid NCAA.

Some fans raise concerns that these types of promotions may blur the lines between amateur wrestling and MMA. However, borrowing proven promotional techniques from successful MMA organizations such as Ultimate Fighting Championships helps ensure the growth of college wrestling… and that’s ultimately a winning idea.

Seeking practical promotional ideas? Want to build attendance for your wrestling event? Check out College Wrestling Examiner stories that share ideas from novelist and ex-Minnesota matman Joe Reasbeck... and MMA promotional techniques to make every dual meet important.

About the photo: This visual may look like it's promoting an MMA event... but it's not. It's a poster for the Who's No. 1 high school wrestling event. The main event participants -- Jordan Oliver and Bubba Jenkins -- appear shirtless, like MMA fighters... but only Jenkins is now competing in MMA.

College Wrestling Examiner’s Year in Review: For the fifth straight year, College Wrestling Examiner will be taking a look at the Top Ten stories of the year. Now through the end of this year, we’ll be posting our choices for the ten most significant stories in the world of collegiate wrestling in 2013. Want to be among the first to know? Click on the “subscribe” button on this page, and you’ll be notified right away when a new story is posted.

The season is here! Don't miss a thing! Keep up with the biggest on-the-mat developments, as well coach hirings, firings and retirings, new programs, the IOC and Olympic wrestling, and other stories you won't find elsewhere... by clicking the "subscribe" button at the top of the page to make sure you don't miss a single article from College Wrestling Examiner, winner of Amateur Wrestling News' Dellinger Award as wrestling writer of 2011. It's absolutely FREE!

Resources

College Wrestling 101: Links to College Wrestling Examiner articles answering basic questions about wrestling, including rules, scoring, uniforms, more

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