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Team scoring component could be NCAA's way of assuring mat championships' future

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A question among some college wrestling fans who are opposed to the NCAA’s proposal for changing the way team titles are determined at its Division I Wrestling Championships may be “What could they be thinking?”

This new concept of adding a new team component to the present method using points scored by individual wrestlers has stirred up plenty of discussion within the college wrestling community… and not all of it is positive. But an unstated aspect of the NCAA proposal could be with college wrestling’s future in mind, in ways most of us may not realize right now.

If implemented, the proposal would determine the team champion by a combination of points earned by individuals at the NCAA championships (what the NCAA refers to as the “individual component”) as well as team points earned during a new “team component” phase at the end of the regular dual-meet season in 2016, with the present-day individual scoring component accounting for 70% of the team score, and 30% from the new team component.

Some in the college wrestling community think this proposal as the best thing since foam-core wrestling mats… while others are concerned about long layoffs for wrestlers not participating in the Team Component tournament (among other potential negatives), or see it as abandoning a tradition of figuring the team titlewinner that seems to have worked pretty well since the first NCAA wrestling championships in 1928.

A real reason for revamping the college wrestling season

In its proposal posted online, the NCAA outlined what it sees as the benefits of naming a team champ using team and individual components. However, the college sports organization did not mention what well may be lurking in the back of its mind: anticipating the day when the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships may no longer be the crown jewel it is today.

For me to write this may be sacrilege… or crazy talk. But after taking a look at developments relating to the Super Bowl of college wrestling, as well as those affecting sporting events of all types, along with general market forces that impact all brands, it is possible that some day, perhaps not in our lifetimes, the NCAAs may not be the must-attend event that it has been for decades.

Let’s start with a look at the event itself. Right now, the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships are among the top five college sports championships in terms of total attendance. For the past decade, the three-day, six-session event has attracted 90,000-110,000 fans. Tickets are snapped up almost immediately; those who miss out engage in frantic searches for what few seats ma remain available. Fans plan their vacations to coincide with the mid-March mat classic.

So where’s the trouble for the NCAA mat championships?

There may be the very earliest hints of possible erosion. For the second straight year, attendance at the NCAAs has declined slightly. In 2013, the argument was that the Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines had a smaller seating capacity than many of the other venues that have hosted the NCAAs in recent years. However, there was another dip in overall and finals attendance this year at the larger Chesapeake Energy Arena in Oklahoma City. According to WIN (Wrestling Insider Newsmagazine), the 2013 NCAAs had a total attendance of 97,308 fans, with 16,653 for the finals… while the 2014 NCAAs saw 93,334 attendees overall, and 16,221 for Saturday night’s championship matches. (Interestingly, the NCAAs with the best-ever total attendance was the 2012 NCAAs at Scottrade Center in St. Louis, with 109,450 over three days.)

Beyond the numbers, consider who’s attending the event. In the stands and concourses of the host arena, you see mostly older guys with cauliflower ears and gray hair. It feels like a reunion of guys who are now at least a half-century old, and last stepped onto a mat in the 1960s or 1970s or early 1980s.

Lest you think I’m some young punk, take a look at my portrait. I’m no kid. I’m a card-carrying member of AARP who was born in the Eisenhower administration whose thinning hair is turning gray.

All that said, the NCAA may be anticipating the day when the guys who dutifully make the annual pilgrimage to the NCAAs no matter the host city may are no longer able – or willing – to make the trip.

Trends pointing away from in-person attendance at sporting events

“Willing” may be the key word here – not “able” – because of some trends in what’s available to fans of a number of professional and college sporting events including college wrestling. In a nutshell, thanks to technological advances such as HDTV and high-speed internet, fans can enjoy a “you are there” experience without setting foot inside a stadium or ballpark or arena.

For example, look at this year’s NCAAs. For the first time, fans just about anywhere could see every match on every mat for the entire tournament… live… on TV or other device. (Hard to believe a dozen years ago, we had to set our VCRs to record the NCAA finals shown at 2 a.m. a few days after the event.) For busy fans unable to take time off from work in March, this expanded access that lets them watch what’s going on from work is a true game-changer.

In the case of this year’s NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships, add in ESPN’s quality camerawork and more knowledgeable commentators – along with the revolutionary “Off the Mat” (check name) alternative coverage of the finals – to go with an at-home fan’s comfy chair and freedom to stroll to the kitchen for his favorite snack (without having to deal with crowded, pricey arena concessions), then factor in the expense and hassle of travel, and it’s easy to see why some fans might say, “I’ll catch the action at home.”

Think that’s crazy? In Cincinnati where this writer lives, two major sports institutions – the Cincinnati Bengals and University of Cincinnati basketball – are seeking upgrades to their homes to counteract declining attendance. The Bengals’ Paul Brown Stadium, opened a dozen years ago, will be getting in-stadium wi-fi and a new high-definition scoreboard to make the fan experience more, um, homelike… while UC is debating whether to install fewer but more comfortable seats, wider concourses and more concessions in its arena built in the 1980s. Both teams have struggled with attendance issues, and believe these upgrades can put more fans in the stands.

What can the NCAA do?

Like the Bengals and UC Bearcats, the NCAA has to make the fan experience at its Division I Wrestling Championships so positive, so memorable, it gets folks to abandon their wide-screen, high-def TVs in their living rooms and man caves to witness the action live in person.

What’s more, the NCAA has to make the experience more appealing – make that more compelling -- to the next generation of fans. They have already started doing this at the NCAA finals with showbiz elements such as dramatic lighting and columns of smoke that shoot off at the end of the matches.

Another way to attract younger fans to the NCAAs is to get them hooked on the sport on the local level, at college dual meets. This may well be part of the reason the NCAA and many other powerbrokers within college wrestling have been obsessed about “the importance of dual meets” – and part of the thinking behind the NCAA’s new “team component” events to be inserted between the end of the traditional dual-meet season, and conference and national championships. Even though none of this is mentioned in the NCAA proposal posted online.

The NCAA may see itself in the same position that a domestic luxury carmaker found itself a decade or so ago. According to the company’s own research, a significant number of its customers were of an age that their most recent purchase would most likely be their final new-car purchase from anyone. In other words, this carmaker saw its audience dying off… while younger drivers who could afford this company’s products were choosing European and Japanese luxury cars instead. To ensure its future, this brand immediately launched a revamp of its lineup to include smaller vehicles that featured more contemporary styling, were more technologically advanced, and more fun to drive. Today, that carmaker is thriving, having lowered the average age of its buyers… without completely alienating loyal older customers.

Perhaps the NCAA has seen the need to appeal to younger fans without pushing away the veteran fans who have been filling arenas in mid-March for decades… and sees its proposed “team component” as being a way to build a younger, college-based fan base that may eventually find its way to the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships for the ultimate college wrestling fan experience. Only time will tell.

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