When a few coaches fired keyboard-tapped arguments back and forth a couple weeks ago, college wrestling’s great dual debate reignited on Twitter.
But while program leaders and fans continue to contend the merits of a proposal that would add a dual tournament scoring system to the current NCAA team championship format, the larger problem remains overlooked.
College wrestling is becoming tedious. Scoring is down. Inactivity is up.
It’s a dangerous combination for a sport that dodged the Olympic death sentence it received 365 days ago. Yet college wrestling seemingly isn’t learning from the missteps that jeopardized the sport at its highest level.
Aside from its general arrogance, total disregard for public relations and cockamamie rules, the biggest sin committed by FILA — wrestling’s international governing body — was turning a blind eye to the product on the mat. When international wrestling became hard to watch and harder to understand, spectator growth became virtually impossible.
“I’m not so sure some of that Olympic wrestling hasn’t had an effect on how people wrestle at all levels,” legendary former Iowa coach Dan Gable said. “And that’s one of the reasons why we were getting kicked out of the Olympics — a lack of action, a lack of scoring.”
Sure, it’s been the wildest regular season in recent memory with a series head-shaking upsets and there have been a few wildly entertaining duals, too. But how many potential fans clicked to the next channel after an action-less period and never bothered coming back to see the drama that unfolded in Minnesota’s win Sunday against Penn State?
The fact of the matter is this: When Oklahoma State scores two takedowns in an entire dual meet and a couple weeks later Iowa follows it up with five, there’s a problem. And it’s not a problem isolated to the two most storied programs in the sport.
Check out the scores each weekend, and you’ll see it’s a Division I issue. The first three bouts of last week’s dual between Pittsburgh and Virginia Tech produced a grand total of 12 points. A week earlier, Michigan and Ohio State wrestlers tangled for 29 straight minutes without a takedown or near-fall in three consecutive tiebreaker decisions.
“I’ve seen 0-0 matches in the first period — and quite often — from the No. 1 guy in America at pretty much every weight except 165 and 184,” Iowa coach Tom Brands said a couple weeks ago. “That’s not exciting wrestling. It’s boring.”
As Brands mentioned, Penn State is an outlier with David Taylor and Ed Ruth and boosting the entertainment value for college wrestling’s most exciting lineup. There are individuals on other teams, too, who make it well worth the time it takes to set the DVR and fast forward until they take the mat.
But unless you’re in tune with the sport’s top entertainers, you can doze off in a sea of scoreless periods. It’s becoming more and more of a tactical sport with three-point stances, wrestling on a knee and backing to the edge, all strategies designed to slow an opponent in the neutral position.
What’s happening in many cases is neither wrestler takes a chance because scoring is scarce and mistakes are harder to overcome. It’s a system that rewards defense rather than risk.
“That’s not what our sport is looking for,” Gable said. “Our sport is looking for growth; our sport is looking for entertainment; our sport is looking to get into the top core sports in the Olympic Games. And we’re not going to do it by standing around and looking at each other.”
Wrestling has essentially evolved into a game of who can camouflage stalling the best while the riding-time clock ticks.
“It’s hard to watch top(-position) wrestling right now, in my eyes,” Northern Iowa coach Doug Schwab said. “There’s not a whole lot of emphasis right now being put on turning.”
Look, I love wrestling, and I’ll watch any dual I can find in the TV listings. But I nearly fell asleep recently watching a match when one guy rode another for more than six minutes without remotely coming close to a turn.
It’s a complex issue and a vicious cycle. Referees don’t want to interject themselves into the outcome of matches, so stalling calls have generally gone by the wayside. Wrestlers want to take the fast path to victory, and coaches are teaching them methods to succeed in the current environment.
So action grinds to a halt, spectators watch a deteriorating product on the mat and potential fans look for something on another channel.
If people who are passionate about wrestling aren’t thrilled with what they see, then what do casual viewers think?
Meanwhile, the duals debate rages on after two years of bickering and forming allegiances on each side. It’s like arguing over which shade of carpet to install as rain pours through the roof.
“Our product is not where it needs to be,” Gable said, “to make advancements, to be able to get sponsorship, to be able to get viewers, to be able to get people to walk in and say, ‘What is this? This is great.’”
It once was, though, and it still is at times. But until the product is more entertaining on every college mat in the country, changing the national championship format won’t solve wrestling’s biggest issue.
But, hey, at least the carpet might look nice when the roof caves in.
Andy Hamilton is a three-time national wrestling writer of the year. Help him get to 6,000 Twitter followers, @Andy_Hamilton.