College Wrestling's Rise in Popularity on Display as Penn State Holds Meet with 16,000 Fans

Photo credit to Tim Owen, Blue and White Illustrated, follow @Tim_OwenBWI

This past Sunday, nearly 16,000 fans showed up to watch Penn State wrestle Pitt. This marks largest crowd in the history of college wrestling dual meets, and is possibly part of a trend of improving college wrestling attendance.

Slowly, but surely, it appears that the sport of amateur wrestling might be getting its act together. Olympic-style wrestling won its way back into the Olympics in September, and for the first time fans have access to video streams to important international tournaments and international rankings, while the rules of the sport actually promote an entertaining and decipherable product.

In the wake of Olympic wrestling's semi rebirth, not one, but two professional "amateur" wrestling promotions have popped up (Legacy and Agon), taking Metamoris's lead and staging MMA style shows. Hopefully the individual format of these cards allows for these promotions to succeed where previous attempts at professional "amateur" wrestling leagues have failed.

College wrestling also appears to be enjoying an increased visibility among the sporting public. Never has the sport received so much live broadcast coverage either via the internet or by television. Last March's Division I NCAA Wrestling Championships attracted such good viewership on ESPN's various affiliated channels that the sports network has announced it will broadcast every match on every mat for the first time at the 2014 championships.

The most encouraging development of all might be occurring in the area of fan attendance at regular season college dual meets. College wrestling has proven its ability to muster thousands of fans once a year during its championship tournament, but consistently drawing spectators to events before the post season has proven tricky.

This year, the sport has already seen a decent turn out at the NWCA All-Star Classic in November, an important event which has suffered from poor attendance in the recent past. A couple weeks ago, Oklahoma and Okahoma State's "Bedlam" dual drew a capacity crowd of several thousand in Norman to watch one of the wildest and most entertaining dual meets in recent memory. Just last week both Edinboro and Boston University (fighting to preserve the existence of its program) packed their gymnasiums full to greet Iowa and Penn State, respectively.

All this constitutes a positive development for the sport, but none of it compares to what transpired at the Penn State vs. Pitt dual meet this past Sunday, as a record 15,996 fans packed Penn State's Bryce Jordan Center (for those who are curious, I heard tickets were $5 a piece). Penn State won without too much drama, but the size of the crowd provides that real story.

These attendance numbers become even more surprising in light of the event itself. While Penn State currently looks to win its fourth national championship in a row, Pitt, its opponent, is merely a very good, but not great team, on the outer fringes of the nation's top 25 teams. Pitt's lineup features a bunch of boot-leather tough western Pennsylvania kids, but only four of its wrestlers enjoy national rankings, and none should be viewed as legitimate national title contenders (one would be normally, but he wrestles at the same weight as Ed Ruth). Meanwhile, Penn State wrestled without the services of three of its ten starters, all highly ranked in the nation, including its most decorated wrestler, Ed Ruth. The absence of these three wrestlers was known long in advance, and everyone still showed up. (#1 ranked Ed Ruth vs #6 Max Thomusseit looked to be the marquee match of the dual, but neither guy actually wrestled)

Furthermore, college wrestling is structured so that a non-conference early-season dual meet has almost no future impact on post-season championship picture. I suppose that if two standout wrestlers faced each other, the outcome might have slight implications in the seedings at the NCAA tournament, but the results of this meet had little chance to have much in the way of long term effects.

So, despite a depleted talent pool, and an almost utter lack of significance, Penn State was able to attract 16,000 fans to a college wrestling match on a snowy Sunday in December in State College, Pennsylvania. This demonstrates the power of savvy marketing. (I'll add that I have no idea what sort of marketing took place, I'm just assuming it was savvy because of the 16,000 people at a wrestling meet)

Carver Hawkeye Arena, home of University of Iowa Wrestling, held the previous attendance record of 15,955. Iowa's program long has served as the gold standard in wrestling attendance as droves of pissed off, frozen Iowans fill the place regularly throughout the winter to scream insanely for their favorite band of black-clad ass kickers.

Generally speaking, when it has come to attendance numbers at college wrestling duals, you see amazing crowds at Iowa, respectable crowds at a handful of other powerhouse programs, and roughly six people at each event most other places.

The problem with most other places might work itself out by virtue of the hyper competitive head-coaching job market. Even programs once considered completely irrelevant now find themselves helmed by capable, charismatic maniacs capable of eking out a decent athletic product from limited resources, and thus eventually garnering decent fan support. Another problem college wrestling has suffered from is that there has always only been one program that commands the fan support of Iowa. Perhaps Penn State's head coach, Cael Sanderson, has shown he can change this by exciting his sizable fan base in wrestling-crazy Pennsylvania.

This apparent upswing in college wrestling spectator attendance could not come at a better time. Yesterday, the NCAA announced that college wrestling will receive its biggest showcase ever, as the NCAA championship comes to New York's Madison Square Garden in March of 2016.

Hopefully, Penn State's amazing attendance this past weekend serves as a harbinger for things to come for college wrestling, and not as a momentary anomaly.

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