For more than a century, the Division I NCAA wrestling tournament was an obscure athletic event celebrated by a small group of American wrestling fans. Today, with the growth of social media and MMA, the event draws a worldwide viewership and rakes in the dough.
Before 2006, there were only two ways a wrestling fan could watch the Division I NCAA Championships. They could attend in person, a four-day trip costing thousands of dollars in flights, tickets, and hotels; or they could set there VCR to record the 2 a.m. playback of the finals and hope ESPN didn’t bump coverage in favor of bowling
Today, the NCAA wrestling tournament is a three-day multi-platform media event with no blackouts. ESPN airs every match of the tournament, graduating their coverage from early rounds on ESPN3 to ESPNU to the full-calorie ESPN flagship for the finals. The production is impressive, boasting professional announcers, boom cameras, and even promotional commercials featuring novelist, screenwriter, and wrestler John Irving.
In addition to television deals and a three-day gate that would make Dana White’s eyes turn green, wrestling has benefited from the crossover appeal of MMA and the brands that support the sport. Clothing companies like Clinch Gear and Cage Fighter have influenced teams into making a sartorial switch from lycra bottoms to the more popular—and less revealing—fight shorts. Supplement companies, workout equipment, and even kitschy fan items—like oversized plastic cauliflower ears—have all made the back-and-forth trek between MMA and collegiate wrestling, adding vital ad revenue to the combat sports marketplace.
In spite of what happens ancillary, the NCAA tournament is still about wrestling, an athletic competition without comparison in college sports. Nowhere do competitors sacrifice more of their time and energy for less financial reward or recognition than those who toil in the college wrestling room. These bull-headed brawlers cut weight every week, attend class, and manage injuries without the bright lights of weekly attention and on-campus stardom. The media likes to hem and haw about the difficult lives of college football players, but those concussed masses of fat and protein are well-fed and looking at a future in the NFL. A wrestler’s entire journey is predicated on somehow attaining a 10-inch tall piece of wood, a token that helps identify them as being an All-American or National Champion. No athlete, amateur of profession, risks more for less.
Today amateur wrestling is a burgeoning cultural phenomenon. Over the last five years, the sport has produced stars inside and outside of the cage. Before he blanketed Bellator opponents, Ben Askren and his funky hairdo were pinning opponents on the mat and being noticed and replayed on programs across the Worldwide Leader. Two years ago, one-legged Anthony Robles won an NCAA Title and endeared himself to millions of fans. Johny Hendricks, Phil Davis, Gray Maynard, Cain Velasquez, Daniel Cormier, and Michael Chandler all earned their stripes at the NCAA wrestling tournament…and the list goes on and on. This year, it’s Penn State’s David Taylor (The Magic Man) and Cornell’s Kyle Dake (Kid Dynamite), the two biggest names in the sport. Dake is competing for a fourth title in four weight classes, while arch nemesis Taylor looks to win his second title and derail the Kid’s dreams. The duo is so active on Twitter and have generated such a buzz that companies have designed and are selling t-shirts and memorabilia featuring
Perhaps some of these stars will turn to MMA, but the sport’s appeal doesn’t belong in scouting their potential for combat in the cage—it’s for respecting their courage on the mat. Now, you the fan can watch it all online or on television and at a decent hour.
For three days in March, Wrestling is the main event, and for anyone in love with the sport, that recognition not only saved their sleep, it saved their sport.