The National Duals Are Broken -- Can They Be Fixed?

Taking a look at the National Duals.

The final three rounds of the 2013 NWCA National Duals were held last weekend and while some in the sport are pushing for this to be turned into a showpiece event for the sport, it was hardly a runaway success last weekend. In fact, it was far closer to being a debacle than a major event. So what happened? What went wrong? And can it be fixed? Should it be fixed?

I. ATTENDANCE

This was the scene last Friday night for the quarterfinals of the 2013 NWCA National Duals:

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And this was the scene Saturday afternoon, for the semifinals of the 2013 NWCA National Duals:

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I didn't attend the Saturday night session (I'd had my fill of Iowa getting kicked in the teeth that day, thanks), but it wasn't any better -- per Andy Hamilton, the NWCA National Duals finals were attended by 2344 fans. I'm terrible at estimating crowd sizes, but there certainly didn't seem to be more than that at the Friday or early Saturday sessions, which means that there probably wasn't a combined attendance of 7500 fans at the 2013 NWCA National Duals. That... is pitiful.

The final rounds of the NWCA National Duals were held in Stillwater (home of Oklahoma State) last year -- and attendance wasn't great there, either. Before the National Duals went through its recent makeover and began testing out different host cities, it was a one-day event and an absolutely bonanza of amateur wrestling featuring teams from Division I, II, and III; it was also held in Cedar Falls. Attendance was much better there, but that probably has a little something to do with being just up the road from Iowa City, home to the biggest fanbase in the sport.

So is that the answer -- to send it back to Iowa? Well, attendance would go up -- I have no doubt that if it was held in Iowa City, or Cedar Falls, or Ames, or Des Moines that it would do more business than 7500 fans over three sessions. But one of the goals of the reimagined National Duals is to use it to grow the sport; the sport hardly needs growing in Iowa. On the other hand, it does no one any favors to wrestle in front of mostly empty venues, either.

What about sending it out east? Penn State's rise to power has seen a corresponding uptick in their attendance, so a National Duals held in their backyard could probably draw a good-sized crowd as well (assuming that Penn State actually opted to attend the Duals). Of course, sending it out east probably means that you're reliant on east coast fans showing up in substantial numbers because relatively few midwesterners are likely to make the journey out east for the event.

Then again, maybe that's an inherent problem with the event -- does it simply represent one event too many for wrestling fans? Thousands of wrestling fans make the pilgrimage to the NCAA Tournament each year and many fans make the trip to their respective conference tournaments (especially in the Big Ten) -- do those fans have the time and money to make a third trip in the span of a month? This is a smaller scale version of one of the concerns raised about the new NCAA football playoff -- can fans travel to a conference championship game, a semifinal game, and a championship game? College football is obviously far more popular than wrestling and has much larger fanbases to draw upon, but still -- both of these sports are increasingly asking a lot of their fans at the end of the season.

II. TIMING

The timing of the event also seems problematic in its current formation. Last weekend's National Duals in Minneapolis was the definition of "wrong place, wrong time." There were high school state qualifying tournaments going in Minnesota last weekend, which leeched many potential fans away from the Duals. There were also Golden Gopher hockey games next door at Mariucci Arena, reducing the number of casual fans who might otherwise have considered attending (in Minnesota, of course, hockey is king) and, given the accompanying parking hassles, making it a nuisance to attend the Duals. Maybe Minneapolis can be a good host for the Duals -- but not when the Gopher hockey program is in town and (especially) when there is direct competition from major high school wrestling events.

But maybe this late February period is just a bad time, period. Even leaving aside pro sports, there's competition from men's and women's college basketball, college hockey, and several states have state tournaments in boy's basketball, girls' basketball, and wrestling at the high school level. It's a crowded sports calendar, frankly. Andy Hamilton spoke to some coaches who had some ideas about moving the Duals to a different date on the calendar:

Oregon State coach Jim Zalesky said he recently pitched a plan to Moyer that would flip-flop the National Duals with the conference tournaments on the schedule. He said such a scenario would pull the duals away from the high school tournaments and draw bigger crowds.

Ryan has a different idea. He points to the December turnout for the Grapple at the Garden in New York City and wonders if the National Duals wouldn’t be better off during that time on the calendar.

I'm not sure flip-flopping National Duals with conference tournaments (most of which take place next weekend) would really do much to alter the situation. The sports calendar is still very crowded then. There is a certain appealing logic to the schedule that would create, though: non-conference dual meets, conference dual meets, conference tournament, national dual tournament, national tournament. That order makes some sense.

Ryan's idea is intriguing, though. While December is in some ways even busier -- in addition to all the other sports already mentioned, you also have to contend with the tail end of college football and the NFL -- at least most other sports are just getting started at that point in the season. Before the current model was implemented, the Duals were held in early January and occupied a space somewhat to themselves on the sports calendar. (They were also a one-day affair, which no doubt also made things easier from a travel standpoint.) On the other hand, if the idea of the National Duals is for it be a culminating event -- a tournament to crown the best dual meet team in the country -- then it's awfully silly to have it so early in the season. How would you know which teams were the best? And would you even be seeing teams at anything close to their best ability? Teams train with an eye on being at their best in March, not December or January, after all.

Perhaps this also speaks to the larger issue with college wrestling on the sports calendar: it's overshadowed by too much other stuff. Wrestling might be categorized by the NCAA as a winter sport, but it basically straddles the fall and winter calendars, beginning in November and concluding in March. Essentially, it mirrors the schedule of college basketball, give or take a few weeks. I don't think that's a good thing for the sport, though. I've long hated the fact that the NCAA Wrestling Tournament is the same time as the opening weekend of the NCAA Basketball Tournament. Two of the best sporting events of the year and they happen at the exact same time? It's kind of fun if you like to just wallow in do-or-die college sports for a few days, but it doesn't really give either sport a chance to breathe or have its moment in the sun. Or, more precisely, it doesn't allow college wrestling to have its moment in the sun; I don't think March Madness is really hurting too much from the current arrangement. And, as noted above, college wrestling is trying to compete for attention with multiple college sports (including more popular niche sports, like hockey) and high school sports. (Pro sports are also a bit of a problem, but given the academic calendar, you're always going to be running up against the NHL or NBA or NFL.)

So why not shift the wrestling calendar? Have the season start in December or January and end in, say, April or early May. It would be a big shift away from the traditional calendar, but it would also get college wrestling's showcase events away from college basketball (men's and women's) and hockey. February and March are already loaded months with college sports -- but April and May aren't. There's some baseball, a little softball, a bit of lacrosse... but a) the overlap between "colleges good at wrestling" and "colleges good at baseball or lacrosse" is not exactly substantial and b) those sports are in the early days of their respective seasons; to the extent that there is a lot of interest in them, it tends not to ramp up until late May or June.

To be sure, the NCAA Wrestling Tournament is still doing well in its current, super-busy location on the calendar. It routinely sells out whatever venue it's at (and this year, for instance, it sold out Wells Fargo Arena in Des Moines in mere minutes) and it seemingly gets solid TV ratings for ESPN. But is there any reason to think that either of these things would change if it was held, say, a month later in mid-to-late April? Would fewer fans travel to St. Louis or Philadelphia or Des Moines if it was April 17-20 rather than March 17-20? Would fewer fans tune in on ESPN to watch it if it was in April versus March? I struggle to think of reasons why things would be worse in April.

I'm still not entirely convinced that the college wrestling fanbase is big enough to support National Duals as a major event, but the only way we'll know for sure is if it gets a chance to sink or swim on its own merits, at a time and place where it's not being swallowed up by a half-dozen other events or sports.

III. COMPETITION

But there's a larger question, too: is the National Duals really a good idea? Can it ever really achieve its goal of being a major event? When some of the changes to the National Duals were floated last year, I was tentatively in favor of most of them -- why not try to create another major event for the sport? If you're going to have all these dual meets during the season, shouldn't they mean something? The idea of making the "real" national champion (or at least the NCAA-recognized one, so yeah: the real national champion) be the team that won the National Duals rather than the NCAA Tournament gave me a little pause... but, intellectually, I could see some merit in it. The idea of awarding a team national championship in a sport like wrestling is inherently kind of screwy and arbitrary, so neither approach (individual tournament vs. dual meet tournament) really seemed better than the other -- it's just that one approach has the weight of history (and tradition) behind it.

But after watching the Duals last weekend, I have more hesitance about their viability as a major event. The woeful attendance has a lot do with that -- it's hard to see anything as "major" when fewer than 2500 people are watching it. The quality of the wrestlers at the Duals was outstanding -- eight of the top ten teams in the nation were there and there were dozens of ranked wrestlers among those eight teams, including the #1-ranked wrestlers at seven weights. I think there's a good chance that I was able to see the eventual national champs at eight different weights (McD or Waters at 125; Steiber or Ramos at 133; Stieber at 141; Oliver at 149; St. John at 157; Dake at 165; Storley or Perry or Evans at 174; Nelson or Bradley or Gelogaev at 285), which is kind of remarkable. Yet despite the presence of all those excellent wrestlers, there seemed to be very little enthusiasm for the event. The issues with the attendance have been discussed above (and weather also may have played a part: it was snowy, particularly between Iowa and the Twin Cities, which may have reduced the number of Iowans who attended). Would the presence of a "true" national title goose attendance? Maybe. But by how much? And would they come at the expense of fans attending the NCAA Tournament?

But what about the wrestlers themselves? I don't want to play armchair psychologist and put great stock into body language or anything like that, but logic suggests this is not an event where guys are striving to be at their absolute best. Wrestlers want to win conference titles and (even moreso) national championships -- not national duals championships. Again, it's a hard thing to quantify in any reasonable fashion and I don't think guys are purposefully sandbagging this event. And they should still be in pretty good form, given that the conference and NCAA Tournaments are just around the corner and you're not going to from 0-60 in the span of a week. But there was still something... lacking from a lot of the matches. Maybe it was nothing more than the fairly humdrum atmosphere created by 2000 fans; if there had been 10,000 fans in attendance and The Barn was rocking, it would have been a more energetic atmosphere and the wrestling would have reflected that.

So I don't know. The National Duals seems like a good idea -- on paper. The reality is far less clear, though. This is still an event that needs quite a bit of tweaking and fine-tuning to reach its potential (if that's even possible). I'm sure there will be several discussions about what to do with it after the season -- where those discussions lead will be interesting.

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