If marketed, wrestling can explode

Updated: July 1, 2013

By Bryan Van Kley

 Editor’s Note: The follow column first appeared in WIN, Volume 19, Issue 10 and printed July 1, 2013.


Wrestling may be in the most “marketable” position it has been in the last 40 years. I know in ways this is a preposterous statement concerning the recent IOC scare about the possibility of dropping wrestling from the Olympic Games after 2016. But take a step back and look where the sport is at.

Why does it matter how “marketable” wrestling is? Because it affects nearly everything……from wrestling’s fight to stay a part of the Olympic Games to how much television time it gets on the college level. As a sport, wrestling must continue to look at what our product looks like to the masses, and that includes those of who already are directly connected to the sport as well as the numerous people who have more of a casual interest in what’s going on.

From the business sense, you could not script a more sellable product than Jordan Burroughs and Kyle Dake. You’ll see this issue is filled with coverage on their epic World Team Trials match-up and the hype leading up to it, and where the rivalry goes from here moving forward.

Their personalities are fantastic for wrestling. They’re both extremely likeable, approachable and supremely confident that their goals are nothing less than the “best-wrestler-on-the-planet” distinction.

Coming off two straight World/Olympic titles, Burroughs already has that distinction. Dake was interviewed on Flowrestling leading up to the Trials about his thoughts on wrestling the “best wrestler on the planet”. He candidly said he was going to beat the face of U.S. wrestling in Burroughs, and that he was the best wrestler in the world despite not having made a U.S. World Team yet.

Burroughs didn’t appreciate his comments and felt “disrespected.” In the words of CF Athletic CEO Mike DiSabato who has endorsement contracts with both of them, “It’s wrestling’s version of Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, an Ivy League Rocky Balboa vs. the Apollo Creed. You’d have to be an idiot to not be able to promote that. The Renaissance of wrestling is in our hands.”

In addition to Dake and Burroughs’ two magnetic personalities, FILA’s recent rule changes are the best thing to happen to wrestling in years. To put it bluntly, the old rules were terrible. They were barely tolerable for hard-core wrestling fans, much less the wrestling community at large or non-wrestling fans.

I think back to my conversations at the past three Olympic Games under the old rules trying to explain the sport to non-wrestling media who came to cover the U.S. team. It was laughable how complex and quite simply strange the previous rules were with the ball pull and clinches.

The new rules are excellent for the U.S. and our style of wrestling where both technique and conditioning are rewarded. You’ll see our U.S. teams do dramatically better on the international level I would predict because of it.

So how can I say we’re in quite possibly the best position we’ve be in as a sport since the 1970s? It’s because of momentum.

Despite an extremely poor last chapter of wrestling internationally under the old rules and some vast leadership failures, wrestling may have an opportunity to rewrite its future. As many have said, it could be the best thing which ever happened to wrestling.

And at the college level, the future is also bright.

Despite Dake having graduated and that compelling storyline in the rearview mirror, there’s momentum there as well.

Sell-out crowds continue to pack the NCAA Championships every year. Both ESPN and the NCAA are as engaged and excited about wrestling as they’ve ever been, looking to our sport as to what wrestling’s “next chapter” will look like. (Read the Q&A with Dan Gable on page 8 and WIN Editor Mike Finn’s column on page 58 to see some potential mistakes which can be made.)

In addition to a lot of momentum around college wrestling in March, take a look around the nation at the amount of money being put into the sport’s top-tier programs. Granted, it’s a sign of the time in college sports, but at least we’re in the game.

Years ago the sport was talking about Division I coaches barely making what would be considered a “professional level” salary. Now there’s wrestling’s version of an arms race. Top programs are slugging it out to set themselves apart from the others with drastic improvements to wrestling training facilities and Regional Training Centers for freestylers to train on the Senior level.

The sport needs to continue to innovate and change to be successful long term. And, wrestling must continue to take a serious look in the mirror and see ourselves and our product in an objective manner. And then, most importantly, to have the courage and leadership to change when needed.