“If you host it, they will come.”
That’s the philosophy of a number of college wrestling programs that assumes fans will show up at their wrestle-offs, dual meets and tournaments with minimal advertising, promotion and media coverage. That idea may work at some powerhouse programs with a long-established tradition of fans finding their way to the wrestling venue … but not all wrestling programs are blessed with that sort of legacy of fan support.That “no need to advertise” attitude appears to be changing, as more college mat programs are thinking beyond the box to find new ways to generate more excitement, more fan interest, and more coverage in local media, as well as from national wrestling publications and websites, and on social media.
As the college wrestling season is now getting underway, this long-time wrestling fan and advertising writer thought the time was right to share some basic ideas that have already worked for some mat programs … and might just work at your school.
1. Mat vs. Bat and all that
By all accounts, this past weekend’s Mat vs. Bat event at Oklahoma State — featuring a wrestling match between Cowgirl softball coach Kenny Gajewski and long-time Cowboy head wrestling coach and mat champ John Smith at a homecoming event inside the school’s Gallagher-Iba Arena — was a winner. It generated considerable interest and excitement within the confines of the storied arena … and well as throughout the amateur wrestling community.
For those expecting to see two-time Olympic gold medalist Smith take out his fellow coach (who admitted that his wrestling experience was limited to one week back in grade school) with a smooth low-single and quick pin in a by-the-book demonstration of amateur wrestling technique at its finest, well … let’s just say the Smith-Gajewski match was more WWE than Olympic caliber. But that over-the-top theatricality was part of the fun, and what generated high readership scores for coverage on InterMat, and repeated viewings of the video.
Mat vs. Bat succeeded because it was new and unexpected … and, most importantly, fun. The two “wrestlers” — aided and abetted by the women’s basketball coach, who served as a not-unbiased referee — played to the crowd which kept the energy level high. More than one respondent on Facebook commented on the level of excitement in the arena … and how much fun everyone seemed to be having.
It would be difficult for most schools to replicate the success of Mat vs. Bat by doing exactly what Oklahoma State did during Homecoming 2016. (Bless the wrestling coach and a fellow sports coach willing to try something similar at their school.) However, Mat vs. Bat might just be the catalyst college wrestling programs need to come up with ways to put on unique events that not only draw in fans to fill an arena … but also draw positive attention in both traditional and social media.
2. Take it outside …
Outdoor dual meets and practice sessions have long been a staple of sun-kissed colleges in places such as Arizona and California. Now the idea of putting out the mats in the great outdoors has spread north to locations where snow is a strong possibility even in the early days of the college wrestling season.
Last November’s “Grapple on the Gridiron” dual meet between the Iowa Hawkeyes and Oklahoma State Cowboys at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City not only broke dual-meet attendance records, but also generated tons of coverage before and after the event, oftentimes from publications and websites whose reporters would normally never be found anywhere near a wrestling mat.
This fall, more college wrestling programs are laying down their mats on parking lots, plazas and grassy areas around campus … all with an eye to grabbing attention from passers-by and the local media. Some schools are conducting practice sessions and demonstrations in places where students are on their way to class … or fans are making their way to the football stadium. Other wrestling programs are holding dual meets in attention-getting places outdoors like the school’s football field, including Cornell College of Iowa hosting Simpson in a meeting of Iowa-based NCAA Division III programs. Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, is taking this idea up a few notches, by hosting the “Big Ten Battle in the Bronx,” a wrestling and football doubleheader vs. University of Maryland at New York City’s famed Yankee Stadium in November 2017.
3 … or give wrestlers center stage …
Another emerging trend in new places to hold a wrestling dual meet: having it on stage in a school’s theater or performing arts hall. In the past couple years, InterMat has written about a number of schools that have rolled out the wrestling mat onto a stage. In some cases, it’s by necessity — at Stoughton High School in Wisconsin, for instance, the gym had already been booked for a charity basketball tournament, so the wrestling dual meet moved to the school’s performing arts hall. On the other hand, Virginia Tech and University of Missouri are two schools that purposefully scheduled dual meets in venues where normally “the play’s the thing” (or the orchestra or show choir.) These on-stage events generate media interest because they fit the definition of “man bites dog” news, which results in preview stories in advance of the dual … as well as follow-up after-the-event stories. That not only provides more publicity for the school’s wrestling program and its athletes, but also puts more butts in the seats, including, no doubt, a number of first-timers curious to see the oldest and greatest sport in a new venue.
4 … or take it on the road
Yet another way for a college wrestling program to expand its fan base and reach is to have a home dual away from home. Some collegiate programs have a long history of holding duals in the high school gyms that were once home to some of their wrestlers — for instance, honoring a senior by bringing the entire team to his/her hometown. Other schools might take their team to a community that may be a potentially hot recruiting site … or to a media market that doesn’t have a college wrestling program. These types of outreach efforts go a long way to not only help the traveling team with recruitment efforts but also extend and expand their fan base.
5. Consider schooling potential fans
Wrestling fans are among the most passionate — and knowledgeable — fans of any sport. Yet there may be situations where a bit of education could help to promote a particular wrestling program, and the sport in general.
For example, what if you’re launching a brand-new wrestling program at your school? You could do what Bellarmine University did a couple weeks ago with a “Wrestling 101” event held at the on-campus gym. This summer, the Louisville-based school acquired an existing wrestling program from another Kentucky college that closed due to financial difficulties … and needed a way to introduce the sport of wrestling to its students in a state where basketball is arguably king. With that in mind, Bellarmine invited students to see wrestlers demonstrate various holds and moves, with the coaching staff mic’d up to provide commentary and explanations. To add to the positive vibe, “Wrestling 101” ended with a meet-and-greet featuring the wrestlers and coaches. The event was free … and, to sweeten the deal, there were free hotdogs and popcorn, along with free team posters signed by the wrestlers for fans in the stands to take home.
Events like this not only help to educate fans about wrestling … but also go a long way to build goodwill and positive feelings for the new sport on campus.
Even successful, well-established programs could consider a relaxed “Wrestling 101” type program to extend the sport’s awareness and outreach … by welcoming would-be fans who are curious about the sport but have never watched a dual meet. (A potential new reason for considering this type of event: the growing interest in mixed martial arts, with more and more MMA stars coming into that sport with amateur wrestling backgrounds.)
Some NFL teams such as the Cincinnati Bengals conduct similar programs where players demonstrate plays while their coaches explain the strategy for what’s going on during a game … all in a relaxed atmosphere with plenty of free food … and a heaping helpings of a friendly, non-judgmental “there’s no such thing as a dumb question” attitude.
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