Olympic Wrestling Threatened – and It’s Partly Our Fault! (Part One)

By Joe Reasbeck, author of the NearFall book series

OK, now that I have your attention–let me say I’m as angry as you are. The IOC will get overturned–I refuse to believe otherwise and I know you feel the same. So, let’s get to the real purpose of this article–once we’ve saved the 2020 Olympics we need start talking about how to make sure there’s never an opening to do that again to our sport. The shift in mindset is imperative–we can’t play defense–we need to attack. The status quo will not do. Remember, the old saying, “as long as you’re green you’re growing and as soon as you’re ripe you start to rot.” Our tradition gives us a bedrock foundation to build on–but build we must.

Having traveled coast to coast with the NearFall book series, I’ve been in a unique position to see what’s working and what isn’t in our sport… along the way I’ve made notes. I was going to write a book titled “How to make wrestling the biggest sport in the world.” But since the announcement of the IOC–there’s no time to waste–we need this discussion now. There are no shortage of strong opinions in wrestling–these are mine and I’ll put them out there for debate. This will be a two part article, the first part focused on promotion and marketing and the second on specific rule changes. However, I’d like to request of you, the reader, to approach these ideas with one goal in mind–GROWING wrestling. By increasing our participation and audience base locally, nationally and globally…we make it impossible for any governing body, whether it is the IOC or the NCAA to drop wrestling. What we all have to realize is that not only are we in this together but we’re all part of the promotion of the world’s oldest and greatest sport…meaning we have to sell it. Wrestling is a product–a global entertainment product, and we can drive the coalescence of our global audience from the bottom up.

I wrestled for the University of Minnesota and I had a front row seat to the marketing and promotion efforts put forth by J Robinson and his staff. Maybe it was trial and error, but nonetheless, a formula has emerged that I believe we can replicate across wrestling. J took crowds from less than a couple hundred people to a several thousand person audience at every match. If it can be done at Minnesota it can be done everywhere. And if you ask J about it, I’m sure he’ll be happy to tell you. He was kind enough to let me know that some of his thoughts on the promotion of wrestling were passed to him from the longtime Alabama football coach Paul “Bear” Bryant.

And that’s a good lesson–we don’t have to reinvent the wheel here…really we just need to look at other sports and see that these entertainment elements are consistently and constantly used to create “pomp and circumstance” and atmosphere. In the 21st century audiences have a plethora of options–how do we get them to come out and see us on a Thursday night or Saturday afternoon? So here are elements that I believe we need to scale from the local to the International.

1. Play upbeat music and have fun! Get the media arts kids involved and the music department. The more kids who take ownership of the production of the wrestling event–the more who will be in attendance with the friends and family. Partner up with the instructors and make the music department feel wanted. Not only make the instructors feel good about the value they bring, but make sure the kids in the band and the DJ booth know how much you appreciate them. I’ve seen DJ’s play television theme songs, commercial jingles and even the Jeopardy game show music during blood time. I’ve seen a pep band in the stands yell “Who?” every time the announcer said the name of an opposing team’s wrestler…the announcer would repeat the name, the tuba would make a sad sound and the band and students would say dismissively, “oh”. Wrestling for Itasca at 125 Tim Johnson. WHO?? Johnson. Ohh. Your music and event promotion starts before the event–you have to warm up the audience, you can’t leave that to chance. If you go to a production of the Tonight Show in Burbank CA, they start the “fun” while you’re still waiting to get in, once you’re inside and before Jay Leno comes out, they first have another comedian come out and pump up the audience, then they get the band playing to raise the noise and energy level and then and only then does Jay come out. That’s done at EVERY live show in Hollywood and New York…they’ve perfected it, we need to copy it.

2. Make your venue look packed. If you’re already packed then great—if not, try to create the illusion that you are. Hang black curtains from the rafters, build divider walls, etc. If you’ve only got 200 people coming, you need to make it seem like you only have space for 150. It’s not about comfort; it’s about energy, promotion and perception. You need people standing in the doorway saying, “What’s going on here?” The other thing that can really help “hide” empty seats is to make sure the lights are down and the mat has a spot light. Meet with the theater arts department—get those kids involved in your efforts to create “drama.” If all else fails and you find yourself in a huge barn with little hope of creating intimacy—see if you can change the venue and find a more intimate setting. It’s about managing perception, if you walk into a huge gym and there are 200 people, it looks empty. If you walk into a hotel ballroom barely big enough to hold an elevated mat and the 200 people crowded around it–you look like a hit!

3. Get the dance-line, and cheerleaders involved. If you’re a state that doesn’t have cheerleaders—add them! Find the funding, make it happen. As I’ve done book signings throughout the US, I’ve been to high school state tournaments that have cheerleaders and states that don’t—and the energy level is not the same, even when the crowd size is. The cheerleaders add volume, energy, and excitement; they get more of their student body friends to want to make the trip to State. You really want these girls to feel included and respected, because they will be lifelong fans of the sport. And as mothers, they’ll be putting their kids into wrestling.

4. Expand the number of managers and mat-mates you have in your program and give them meaningful tasks. Again, it’s all about increasing the number of people taking ownership of our sport. Every person who is part of wrestling has friends and family who will come to the matches. I know many of you coaches are looking at that suggestion as an additional headache for you—but it’s not. Delegate more of your tasks to them; get them working on the promotion and production end of the equation. Incorporate their efforts with the Booster Club.

5. Do outreach to your alumni and build an on-going database and Booster Club. Go back through the records, track people down. Put your managers and mat-mates on the job. Get the computer club/department at school to help with database management. Let your alumni know about what a good group of wrestlers you’ve got up and coming and how they really need to come out and see the match against XYZ. “It’s going to be a great match!” If you don’t have a good group yet—then talk about one kid in particular. “We’re young and inexperienced, but these kids really work hard and we’ve got this one kid, he could be really special— you’ve got to come out and see this guy!” Anything you can use to promote to alumni and the community on why they should come out and see the match. Have an Alumni recognition night…anything you can think of. But keep updating the database, keep updating your alumni and keep inviting them to take part in what you have going on, because it’s “something special.”

6. Get the match on the Internet, local radio and all forms of social media. (Look at the Cornell wrestling page on Facebook for a good example.) Eventually, as bandwidth and data rates increase the Internet and mobile platforms will be as robust as television. Already you can create “channels” via YouTube and FloWrestling and that’s something we as a wrestling community should push the envelope on. In the meantime, you might find that the local television station or cable provider has some capacity they aren’t using. Believe me, right now, they are more open to a pitch than at any time in their history, they see the writing on the wall too. Live sports is the one thing that keeps them relevant—so pitch them on how you can deliver exciting matches with great production values, it’s worth a shot. Use all these platforms to give people a reason to care. I call it the “oprahfication” of promotion. Tell people what’s important–what’s a good human interest story? Dig into the lives of your athletes–why should the audience care about these wrestlers? Why will the 149# match be the featured match tonight that everybody MUST see? Again, get the kids involved in this process—get them to help put it together and do the legwork. Make sure that every person walking through the door has a program in their hands promoting the “oprahfication” human interest. Get your managers posting the matches and highlights (set to music) on Flowrestling, Facebook and YouTube…By the way, these programs at the door are a great way to collect some advertising revenue for your local wrestling club and high school program.

7. If you’re not getting good news coverage in the local area—you write the story and submit it. Better yet get a couple of your managers working with the English department and anybody interested in photography and journalism to craft the story for the local paper. Budgets these days are tight and often the local paper doesn’t want to pay to send someone out or they don’t put much effort into it. Make it really easy for them and submit the article and pictures so they aren’t required to do any work. You’ll get more press and better coverage. If they shorten what you submitted make sure the full article, pictures and video can be found on the team website. And if you are fortunate enough to have the media come out–make sure they are catered to and fawned over…and that includes new media and bloggers. The more attention and recognition you give your local media, the more likely it is that they will reciprocate. Be genuine, but make sure you make the effort–everyone likes to be appreciated–the press is no different. Ask your local television station what video format and quality do they need to be able to show highlights…if you get them the proper format they’re more likely to use it. Make it easy for them to say yes. And if you have a human interest story that you think might get some traction regionally or nationally–make sure you’re tweeting that out to the rest of us in the wrestling community.

8. Make sure you have a team website—a really good one. This is the window that you are showing the world–what do you want it to say about your program and about wrestling? Again, involve the student body and keep it current. Use it as a promotional platform and include regular updates…your updates are the start of the promotion of your next “event.” Make sure someone on your “staff” (meaning managers and mat-mates) is sending out positive tweets about the program via twitter–consistently. Make sure you have a Facebook Twitter and Google+ social media presence and keep reaching out to your base. Your social media efforts and your team website need to be directed toward one another like a perpetual loop. Promotion can be broken down in three phases, you have the pre-promotion where you’re trying to rally everyone to the event, then you have the event itself with all the pomp and then you have the post event, “Wasn’t that great!–Remember next week we have…” Your post event promotion is the start of the pre-promotion for your next event.

9. Do fan promotions like “sit with the coach” or if you have some local celebrities or a recent local hero make sure they’re sitting either front row at the match or with the team mat-side, next to the coach. And make sure they get some recognition from your announcers so that they can tip their hat and be appreciated by the crowd. And do fan outreach by hosting socials after matches with the alumni and families. Have snacks and beverages after home matches and get your wrestlers to make an appearance and mingle. Yes, they may have homework or other places they’d like to be…but stopping by for a few minutes to “meet and greet” isn’t going to kill anyone.

10. Have a cool poster that everyone in school wants to have….including all your upcoming middle school kids and grade school kids. I remember my freshman year, J Robinson created a poster that was plastered on the wall of every co-ed on campus…and as a consequence a lot of them showed up at the matches.

11. Have “kids night” and do some recognition and fun things with the next generation of wrestlers. Make them feel special for being involved with our great sport. Run a dual meet with kids prior to your high school or college match– the kids and their parents will stick around to see the main event.

12. If your school has a mascot, make sure they’re there for the matches and get them doing crowd interaction like –T-shirts tosses to the crowd and other prizes. Make sure the mascot is being goofy with the coaches, wrestlers, cheerleaders and the crowd. If you don’t have a mascot—make one up, be the only sport in your school to have one. Get the mascot to lead the fight song or school cheer. If you don’t have a fight song or cheer—get one! These days it might be rap or some modification of a pop song…but who cares as long as it’s relatively “clean” and it engages the crowd.

13. Get your wrestlers, cheerleaders, managers, etc. to do community service! You’ll be surprised how this good will translates into fans of your program. Clean a park, help the elderly, visit children’s hospitals. Not only will your community appreciate it, but your wrestlers will be better people for it.

14. Make a big deal about the entrance of your athletes into the arena–much like what you see in football and before NBA games…make it count. Build your tradition on how you come in to defend your house. And by the way, we need more inclusion in wrestling–we need kids on the team to believe they are part of that team even if they aren’t wrestling in the dual. Why not have your whole team run out of the tunnel after the starters have been introduced? Why only have the starters sitting in chairs mat-side? Get your entire team involved. Only eleven guys are on the field playing football, but there are 80 other guys that have been sold on the idea that they’re varsity and that they matter–getting to dress and stand on the sidelines means something. Football does this really well…and they have to because they need guys to practice against…we have the same issue. Grow your “sideline” and make them feel special…because they are. They’re wrestlers.

15. Make sure your wrestlers and your database of alumni and fans are aware of the history of our sport and keep them regularly updated on the big matches upcoming in the wrestling world. Is Iowa wrestling Minnesota? Is Oklahoma State wrestling Penn State? Will it be on the Big Ten Network? Will it be streamed online? We don’t have an ESPN that is constantly blaring out the promotion of the next big thing in sports….so we as coaches, booster clubs and fans have to step into that role. We need to make each other aware. We do have the beginnings of these needed promotional platforms in FloWrestling and Takedown Radio along with Intermat and WIN magazine. USA wrestling’s themat.com is also a good aggregation of information for our sport, so turn your athletes and alumni onto these resources and entertainment outlets dedicated to wrestling. The stronger these promotional platforms become the stronger our sport becomes.

16. Highlight Videos. The last couple of seasons, I’ve coached football in addition to wrestling. And as a coaching staff we often would scour YouTube looking for inspirational highlight videos that we could play for our team prior to football games. There are a few out there that feature multiple sports, but sadly wrestling wasn’t one of the sports featured. We need to change that—we need to put highlight videos together that put every other sport to shame. So that every coach, everywhere, in every sport, when they want to pump their athletes up or blow their minds, they’re pulling up one of our highlight videos. So, I challenge everyone in the wrestling community all over the globe, make highlight videos and inspirational videos and post them online…and send them to your database and to your friends in wrestling. Hopefully, some of them will go viral. The more content we have the better our entertainment case. My two oldest sons are seven and eight years old and they love watching a highlight video posted by a wrestling club in France. They’ve watched it at least two dozen times. As recent events have shown us we need to strengthen our global wrestling community…and more content helps to do that.

17. Accurate and Detailed Stats. You’ve probably heard we’re in the Information age, but truer still is that we’re in the data age. And data is a form of content and if used properly it can enhance the popularity of our sport. MAKE SURE you are getting accurate and detailed stats of all matches. Ideally, you are getting and storing video of every single match your athletes are involved in and combining that video data with your stats data. We need to get much, much, better at this as a community. Who had the most takedowns in Oklahoma high schools in 1995? Can I see some highlights of the matches? What about California in 2001? We need this data, the stats give our audience something more to argue about and the press something more to write about. Additionally, we need to document our fan base for advertisers and sponsors. So as you build your database of athletes, mat-mates, cheerleaders, coaches, parents, boosters and fans, you need as much detail as you can get…ideally we need contact information. You’ll want to build a report or profile for your program with metrics you can measure…again ask for help to make this happen, maybe DECA or your local business club can be engaged to help? If I ask you, “How’s your marketing effort coming along?” You should be able to give me a report like a CEO on CNBC. “Well, in the last year we’re averaging audiences of 1364, which is up 10% from the previous year. But what we’re most excited about is that new fans represent 70% of the increase. Which tells us our marketing efforts are having an impact and our retention of our existing fan base is solid.”

18. Get announcers to cover the match. And make sure your announcers have a little juice to them–they’re not only knowledgeable but truly excitable–they’re fans of the sport. We need more gushing enthusiasm in the coverage like they have in other sports…”the ball is going back, way back to the wall–IT’s OUTTA HERE!” “GOOOOOOOOAAALLLL!!!!!” “Breaks a tackle, spins, he’s at the 50, 40,…no one’s gonna catch him 20,10, 5, TOUCHDOWN!” “DO YOU BELIEVE IN MIRACLES!”

I went to a professional football game recently at Lambeau field in Green Bay. Now if there were ever a franchise that you’d think could rest on the laurels of it’s history and just show up and play the game–that would be the franchise. But it was just the opposite, not only was the tailgating a sight to behold but the Packers had hired a drumline band that was thundering away for a good couple hours before the game started. They had vendors of all kinds, they had a play area for kids to throw footballs and tackle dummies, it was like a carnival of food, beverage, spectacle…and that was even before you stepped into the stadium! For too long we’ve assumed the purity of our sport and our legacy was enough and that our only job was to put good wrestlers on the mat and coach them up….it isn’t. It’s up to all of us to take ownership of the promotion of our sport. Modeling successful strategies should come naturally to us as wrestlers, we had to do that learn and implement technique for success on the mat. Now. we need the same effort applied to marketing and promotion.

T-shirt diplomacy. Make sure the custodians and maintenance people who take care of your team and facilities are sporting the latest and greatest merchandise from your program. You’re going to need a favor one day and the custodian is going to have the keys to whether or not your wish comes true. Make sure the athletic director, marketing department, trainers and support staff have your merchandise. If you’re a high school program make sure the administration and office staff has your best clothing swag. And do what MTV does, look for specific “influencers” within the student population. And I’m not just talking about popularity…there are lots of subset social groups within a high school population, look for the influencer in each group and recruit them to some aspect of your wrestling program or promotion thereof. If you can’t get them directly, then get them indirectly…which is to say make sure they are wearing your merchandise and are a fan in the stands. Look for other high profile people in the community and make sure they have some cool “swag” from your team. (right now, ask yourself—does the local sports radio program have your gear?) Remember every T-shirt, sweatshirt and cap is like a little moving billboard for your program, so don’t take it lightly. Tacit supporters today could become major boosters tomorrow. Your merchandise effort is also another opportunity to involve kids that might not normally be intrigued with wrestling…are there students that are interested in fashion? Chances are they have a better handle on what’s cool than what you do as a wrestling coach…co-opt their interest and get them working on churning out good stuff for your program. Make sure your youth programs are decked out to the maximum…we want those kids to identify themselves and be identified as wrestlers first and foremost. (even if they play other sports)

There’s more of course—but you get the gist, and you’ll come up with ideas of your own. Just remember, not every promotion and marketing effort will work, a few will flop and that’s to be expected. Not everything J tried at Minnesota worked either. But you can’t stop, just keep putting out new efforts and new promotions. The main idea is to market your team and market our sport. If up to this point you’ve resisted technology find a way to embrace it. We need to make wrestling the most tech and new media savvy of all sports globally. Do the above and I guarantee you’ll have more people at home meets—a lot more!

Imagine if we could get every wrestling club around the world and every high school and college coach in the US to implement this formula. How much could we grow our fan base?

Let’s make it impossible for the IOC or any athletic organization in the world to cut wrestling.


Joe Reasbeck is the author of NearFall.

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