Away from the bright lights of football and basketball, other collegiate sports do very well in their own niche communities, drawing fans, media attention and sponsors. Baseball in places like Hawaii and Miami, lacrosse in and around the ACC, soccer in key outposts, softball in Oklahoma, volleyball in Washington, all have their passionate followers and have the ability to fill arenas when schools are doing well. So is the case with wrestling. Now back on the Olympic programme, collegiate wrestling has always been a draw in places like Iowa and Penn State, Cornell and Oklahoma, and the expansion of the Big 10 and its storied wrestling tradition to places like Maryland and Rutgers has stirred new interest and bigger crowds there as well.
However as one goes out west, the support of wrestling can be a bit cooler than the weather. Such is the case at Arizona State, which has had some great Pac 12 and NCAA wrestlers in its time, but has had trouble drawing consistent coverage and fan interest in many years. Now with an energetic coach, and some smart best practices, wrestling is becoming hotter with the Sun Devils.
This weekend, as the NFL Cardinals travelled to the Carolina Panthers for their first round playoff game, Arizona State, led by former USA Wrestling mentor Zeke Jones, will host the University of West Virginia in a meet on Sunday. The school took advantage of the growing friendly partnership between MMA, which has wrestling as one of its key disciplines, to host an MMA promotion around its wrestling match, bringing back former wrestling stars who have gone on to the UFC or Bellator or any other number of promotions, to give a little added star power to the matchup at Wells Fargo Arena.
More than 20 wrestlers with current or former ties to mixed martial arts scheduled to attend. Those include Dan Severn, Cain Velasquez, Aaron Simpson, Ryan Bader, Eric Larkin, Townsend Saunders, Thom Ortiz, Bubba Jenkins and Henry Cejudo and Anthony Robles the ASU three-time All-America and NCAA champion. Cejudo and Saunders are Olympic wrestling medalists. Ortiz is a former ASU wrestling coach. Jenkins and Larkin also won NCAA titles for ASU.
It is a smart, and probably sponsorable, way to tie the hip and cool demo that is engaged with MMA to ASU wrestling both now and for the future. The promotion gives casual fans a chance to interact with some very marketable and telegenic stars, and become more in tune with what Jones is trying to build with the Sun Devils. It also pulls these stars closer to Arizona State and can help be a door-opener for business for the MMA athletes when their careers eventually end.
There is little downside for anyone involved, and it creates a nice talking point in and around the area on a day when people might not be giving college wrestling a second thought to attend. A smart promo that goes beyond the mat, and one that can probably be replicated in other MMA hot spots like Northern California, the Pacific Northwest, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania for collegiate programs looking to grow their footprint.