A little over two years ago, wrestling as a sport was in trouble. Removed from the Olympics and struggling for relevance, what was one of the world’s oldest sports was on its way to infamy. Fast forward to today, and it looks like the sport is continuing to get up off the mat, with its best opportunities ahead.
This past weekend as March Madness played across a variety of channels, the NCAA Championships played out before a sellout crowd front and center on ESPN, a great opportunity to showcase the speed and style of America’s next champions before what was a surprisingly solid TV number. The interest was also buoyed by a little bounce from the popular film “Foxcatcher,” an increased partnership with the always engaged MMA community and some of its crossover stars, the expansion of the Big 10, still arguably the best overall wrestling conference, into the DC area and the New York area, an increased focus on women competing and of course, the Olympic reinclusion for 2016. All of which spells for brighter days ahead for the sport and tis governing body in the States, USA Wrestling.
How will that new energy and opportunity be maximized in the coming months? A few things to watch outside of the norm leading into Rio which can help propel wrestling.
The World Is Here: As a lead in to Rio, the FIBA World Wrestling Championships will be held in the United States from September 7 to 12 in Las Vegas, Nevada. The timing of bringing the worlds to the US could not be better for the sport, as incumbents like Jordan Burroughs mix with new rising faces like Kyle Dake, and the US audience can gain exposure to some of the best and brightest from a mosaic of nations around the world as well, with all the requisite pomp and circumstance. The event as t plays out can really buoy the sport before the winter starts.
And the NCAA’s Come To New York: New York’s not for profit group “Beat The Streets” has set the standard for raising money to develop any inner-city sport; the millions raised has gone to literally kick start wrestling programs in highs schools and below where there were no programs before, and has been the impetus for many young people from various backgrounds embracing wrestling not just for competition, bit for life skills, Every year BTS hosts a mega-event in unique locales in the New York area like Times Square and Grand Central Station, and the exposure generates an amazing amount of buzz and good will for the sport, not to mention dollars. Next winter the stakes on the collegiate side will be even higher, as the NCAA wrestling championships come to New York for the first time in years. The last few years Madison Square Garden has hosted a large scale collegiate wrestling event called “Grapple In The Garden,” which has served as a nice test for the NCAA’s. However bringing the NCAA’s and the regional coverage the event gets to New York just prior to the Olympics should again be a big boost for the sport at a key time of year.
Then there is TV: Last week perhaps the best news for the sport came about in the form of an agreement between USA Wrestling and NBC Universal that will get the sport its best platform perhaps ever. USA Wrestling, NBC Sports Group and Universal Sports Network have reached an agreement on a historic partnership to present unprecedented coverage of Olympic-style wrestling events held in the United States during the 2015 season. NBCSN and Universal Sports Network will combine to present nine USA Wrestling telecasts from five events, including five live telecasts, and more than 12 hours of total coverage, the most live content in a single season in USA Wrestling history.
In addition, NBC Sports Live Extra – NBC Sports Group’s live streaming product for desktops, mobile devices, and tablets – will provide streaming coverage alongside all of NBCSN’s USA Wrestling telecasts. UniversalSports.com will stream all of Universal Sports’ broadcast coverage.
Then there are the ancillary little bumps for wrestling in general; the 30th anniversary of Wrestlemania, Brock Lesnar’s announcement to leave the MMA to go back to WWE, the growing push Spike is making with Bellator MMA, the UFC’s continued move towards mainstream which includes legalization coming about perhaps soon in New York, all of which help rise the cultural buzz of all things wrestling.
Now of course a lot of the next step will be on performance to go along with great storytelling, and performance will lead to more sponsors which will lead to more mainstream exposure and on we go. However from where they were to where they are could make wrestling another property to watch as the summer plays out and more importantly, the Olympics and Rio rise on the horizon. Off the matt and back in the sports business game.