Second tier sports, especially those Olympic sports in non-Olympic years, always have to find ways to fight through the clutter for relevancy to the causal sport fan. Also in that clutter comes the cultivation of the grassroots that keeps the sport vibrant and relevant to a loyal core no matter what year it is. However an even bigger challenges for traditional sports is the assault of the latest and greatest hybrids, which play to a faster and usually younger demo. Cycling gives way to BMX, volleyball to beach volleyball, rugby 15's to rugby 7's…even in many ways the X Games to the Olympics. The traditional sports, unless they can adjust, can easily become less relevant, cede market share and sponsor dollars and eventually be eclipsed. One sport facing its battle is wrestling. Although the sport seems to be enjoying somewhat of slow renaissance, the ebb away from the sport to the newer and more edgier sport of Mixed Martial Arts has been apparent for some time. MMA, which has wrestling as one of its disciplines, is faster, more telegenic, and appeals to a wider audience by its hybrid of at least five disciplines, not to mention the mega-attention it gets on the professional side with the UFC. So wrestling, which is amateur in nature, has lost a growing number of young people to the glitz and glamour, and potential dollar figures of MMA. This loss erodes the competitive base that wrestling has in building Olympians, and in turn damages the brand because less top talent means less international success and ultimately less Olympic success, which funds the grassroots programs and sponsor interest. So what to d. First, USA Wrestling has made a number of strides to acknowledge the success of MMA, and has not discouraged elite wrestlers from moving on to MMA AFTER their Olympic dream is realized. That avoids confrontation and builds a link for the future between the two. Second, this past week USA Wrestling made a bold financial move, pooling monies as incentives for elite wrestlers to continue to work toward the 2012 Olympics. The cash pool, which will mean $250,000 for a gold medalist, was announced this past week to show wrestlers that the sport is both solvent and supportive and acknowledges the need for athlete financial incentive. It also is a move that could help generate sponsor interest both long and short term, by showing brands that USA Wrestling is serious in its athlete commitment to build the sport and reward its elite members who stay with the sport. The only downside is in a cash layout in the future. The upside generated buzz for a sport lagging behind its hipper cousin, rewarded the elite in terms of compensation that is clear, showed a forward-thinking approach to other National Governing Bodies, and sent a clear message to those at the grassroots that the sport is serious in growing its champions. Smart move for the brand, and great buzz generation at a time when most summer Olympic sports are still regrouping for 2012.
Some other good reads…the Boston Herald had an interesting feature on Justine Segal, the first women's professional coach of a men's baseball team…with the baseball draft upon us, the Bergen Record had a nice insiders look at the lives of baseball scouts…the Sporting News had a good profile of University of Minnesota football coach Tim Brewster…and the Washington Post's Tom Boswell has a look at who is to blame for all the Nationals ills.