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What's the college wrestling landscape look like these days?

National Duals are upon us, so I decided to get two Friends of the Pants, bscaff from Black Shoe Diaries, and Dan Vest from Land-Grant Holy Land, together and pick their brains on the Duals -- and college wrestling in general.  bscaff's Penn State team isn't in the Duals, but he still has plenty of interesting opinions to offer.  This is a long one, so let's just dive right in, OK?

1) This has been a strong year for dual meet attendance; Iowa's seen huge crowds on the road at Minnesota and Penn State and they should bring in some very healthy crowds for National Duals this weekend, while Minnesota, Penn State, Ohio State, and Rutgers have also had pretty good crowds for several dual meets this year. Do you think this is a one-year blip or the beginning of a trend in terms of dual meet attendance?

bscaff: Add in Virginia Tech and Mizzou to the healthy crowds list, and mark me down in the 'beginning of a trend' column. From my view, wrestling bottomed out with the IOC's announcement that the sport was getting booted from the Olympics. Since then, we've seen an almost unbroken string of positive changes. Wrestling has rejoined the Olympics. Freestyle rule changes made freestyle incredibly entertaining (again). Awesome new events - Grapple at the Garden, freestyle in Times Square - have popped up and seen success. Fresno State's President has promised to bring wrestling back. Grand Canyon will be beginning D1 competition soon. Zeke Jones returned to Arizona State and landed the nation's #1 recruiting class for 2014. Flo has started a professional league. The NWCA/NCAA introduced two anti-stalling rules this year, and are open to adding more to facilitate excitement.

That's a ton of positive change, and I didn't even talk about women's teams. Women have their own league, and Intermat ranks them. A few more years, and the NCAA will officially sanction the sport. Did I mention that wrestling is the fastest growing sport at the D3 level? Wrestling is the fastest growing sport at the D3 level, particularly in the southeast.

Encouraging news, all over - not just in Iowa and Pennsylvania. Kind of an enjoyable change, isn't it?

Dan: I don't necessarily have solid data to back up my statement, but it certainly feels like the sport is starting to pick up steam. Speaking from a purely Buckeye perspective, it has been especially noticeable here in Columbus where this has been the most-hyped Ohio State season in decades. The contrast between the smattering of fans who came to watch the national duals finals in Columbus last year and the crowds of 6,500-plus who packed St. John arena this year for duals against Iowa, Missouri, Penn State, and Minnesota has been striking. A lot of that probably has to do with this year's team, one of the more talented Ohio State has fielded, and an intriguing home-slate of dual meets. Still, it has to start somewhere. Will the growth in interest be sustainable? Maybe. I think a lot of it has to do with how much the team wins. Even Penn State wasn't packing the house every night before it started ripping off national championships. With guys like Kyle Snyder and the Jordan brothers set to be around for a long while, the chance for growth will be there. The team just needs to win enough (and be entertaining enough doing it) to seize the momentum.

Speaking to the sport as a whole, I think there absolutely has been a surge in popularity. Even Rutgers packed the house a few times this season. With the advent of streaming services like BTNplus and Flowrestling, the increase in national wrestling broadcasts on ESPN and BTN, and the simplicity with which the internet has allowed those interested to keep up with the sport, there has never been a better (or easier) time to follow the sport.

Ross: I'm cautiously optimistic.  A lot of the big crowds this year seemed to be a result of the Iowa Wrestling Roadshow -- Iowa went to Columbus, Piscataway, State College, Stillwater, and Minneapolis -- and drew great crowds everywhere.  That was awesome, to be sure.  But what happens next year when Iowa presumably won't be barnstorming around the country to wrestle all of the top teams in their own gyms?  Iowa's home attendance should improve if they get a marquee opponent or two, but they already draw well -- it's not like adding Penn State to the home slate is going to significantly improve the attendance numbers in Iowa City.  But what happens at a place like Rutgers -- they had some fun crowds and packed houses this year, but the Big Ten also stacked the deck for them by sending Iowa, Penn State, and Minnesota to the RAC.  How jazzed are Rutgers fans going to be to go see the Knights take on Wisconsin, Illinois, and Northwestern?

I agree with bscaff that there seems to be a lot of positive momentum for wrestling after the IOC brought wrestling back to the Olympics -- mostly on the freestyle scene, but also at the collegiate level, too.  I think we could get a little more positive momentum at our level by making some rule changes (and, yes, making things a bit more like freestyle... although I'll save that argument for another day), but overall interest in college wrestling seems to be trending up in a lot of ways, which is definitely a good thing.  And I agree with Dan that the increased availability of wrestling on TV (via ESPN, BTN, and The Pac-12 Network) and online (via BTN2Go, BTN Plus, Trackwrestling, Flowrestling, and more) is awesome for the sport.  I was able to watch almost every single Iowa dual or tournament this year.  Every round and match of the National Duals this weekend is going to be available for free (or "free," since you still have to be a cable subscriber) via BTN and BTN2Go.  These are huge steps forward.  I do think the attendance numbers this year were more of a perfect storm of events and things will dip somewhat next year (although I hope I'm wrong)... but in the big picture, there are a lot of positive signs for wrestling. 

2) Do you like the current format of National Duals? If not, how would you tweak it?

bscaff: The NWCA is boxed in. There isn't a ton they can do differently given the current restraints, to wit: 1) a max of 16 "event" dates per the NCAA; 2) mandatory 9 conference duals for the Big Ten; 3) long-standing, successful holiday season individual tournaments (Midlands and Scuffle) that no one wants dumped; and, 4) Nationals happening in March, which concludes the season. That doesn't leave much room to make changes. They get two weekends, max, and it has to be in February.

And there's a reason for the current situation. "National Duals" started as "Virginia Duals" in the mid 1980s. It involved 8 or so teams for one January weekend in the Hampton Roads / Newport News area, wrestling alongside high school teams. In fact, that was the sole intent of "Virginia Duals" organizers - draw big name wrestling universities to the area to expose them to Virginia high school wrestlers, and thus, create some scholarship opportunities. When that was the sole objective, the format worked well, and no one complained.

Dan: I'm satisfied with the National Duals. It's a cool event, even if many of the intriguing matches are rematches. I like that I can be in front of the TV for a maximum of about four hours this weekend and still see the semi-final and final matches (thanks BTN!). It's not a weekend-long commitment like the NCAA tournament. Anyone who read our back-and-forths last season knows that I'm a big proponent of the dual meet format. Entertainment value-wise, with the possible exception of the NCAA championships, I prefer duals to tournaments by a wide margin. The reasons are myriad: every wrestler has to contribute, every match and every bonus point matters, and you get a truer gauge of which team has the best 10 guys.

That's not to say this National Duals are perfect, though. Its flaws? They're two-fold, and I'm not sure if the NWCA can do anything about them. First, the teams aren't competing for anything but bragging rights. Second, not all of the top 16 teams in the country are in the field, so you can't crown a real "national dual meet champion." I'd expand more, but I think we'll get to that next.

Ross: I think the current incarnation of National Duals is OK -- dual meets are fun and getting together a handful of the best dual meet teams and throwing them in one location for a weekend and letting them scrap it out makes for a fun weekend of wrestling.  While the Big Ten is (obviously and deservedly) the 800-lb. gorilla of the sport, having such a heavy Big Ten presence here definitely results in some homogeneity and a few too many rematches.  I'd like to see a more truly national presence, just to get a bit more variety.  Of course, you also need teams that can actually keep things competitive -- it's not much fun to watch one team drill another team 30-3 in a dual meet -- and the lack of strong dual meet teams outside the Big Ten makes that a challenge.  Hopefully that will change in the future; Zeke Jones seems to already be turning Arizona State around; if the remaining Big XII teams can get their shit together and we can get another few strong teams out east, this could finally be more than just a Big Ten & Friends event.

But I also think this event needs to shit or get off the pot, as it were.  And by that I mean that the powerbrokers -- behind this event and the NCAA Tournament -- need to decide what they want.  Do they want this event to play a role -- potentially a massive role -- in determining which team is declared the national champion at the end of the season?  If so, they need to enforce participation from the top teams and make the prize truly worthwhile -- either an outright national championship or a significant number of points that would go towards the team title race.  One idea I've seen recently that intrigued me was treating the National Duals as an additional "weight class" at the NCAA Tournament, with points awarded for 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc. based on the points that are awarded for finishing 1st, 2nd, 3rd, etc. at an individual weight.  So a first-place finish at the Duals would be worth roughly 20 points, a second-place finish would be worth roughly 15-17 points, and so on.  That approach would make the Duals matter, but it wouldn't completely sweep aside the significance of the traditional NCAA Tournament, either.

But I also think the Duals could go the opposite direction and embrace their role as a big showcase event for the sport.  I think it's true that wrestling needs more big events, more things that can be marketed and promoted and used to draw in new fans.  We don't need another individual tournament -- we've already got the NCAA Tournament, the Big Ten Tournament, the Southern Scuffle, and Midlands.  The tournament side of things is well and truly covered.  But one thing college wrestling struggles to do is generate excitement and interest early in the season -- the NWCA All-Star Classic is a nice start, but why not amp up that idea and make National Duals the kick-off event for the entire season?  Hold it on one of the first two weekends of November, invite as many of the big teams as possible, and let them go at it.

One of the factors working against National Duals at the moment is its location on the calendar -- for understandable reasons, not everyone wants to go through a grueling series of dual meets, risking injury and damage to seeds at the NCAA Tournament (as well as conference tournaments) just a few weeks before the tournaments that really matter.  If you move the Duals to the beginning of the season, you address several of those issues.  Injuries will still be a risk... but injuries will always be a risk.  Guys get injured in practice.  But by wrestling it early in the season, you should effectively mitigate concerns about doing damage to seeds or wearing guys out too close to the big tournaments.  There will be ample time for guys who lose to rebuild their resumes and get their bodies in peak condition for the big tournaments.

Doing it in November would also open up the possibility of doing something splashy and attention-grabbing like holding the event (or part of the event) outdoors.  Wrestling has succeeded in unconventional locations lately -- take a look at the "Beat the Streets" freestyle events in Times Square -- so why not try putting it outside on a college campus?  The timing of the wrestling calendar -- November through mid-March -- makes it difficult to think outside the box in terms of wrestling locations.  This is especially true for the current slot for National Duals -- unless you take it to San Diego, good luck finding a place that can host National Duals outside in late February.  But in early November?  You have a few more options there.  Just imagine Iowa City hosting the new-look National Duals, with the quarterfinals and semifinals taking place at Carver-Hawkeye Arena... while the finals are held in Kinnick Stadium.  Sure, weather might still be a negative factor -- I recall sitting in the stands of some miserable early November football games -- but there's no guarantee that it will be a huge limiting factor.  It's worth the risk, in my opinion.  They need to do something with National Duals if they want to really grow it into a big deal.

3) OK, we have to spend a little time on the big issue... should National Duals factor into the team national championship race at all? If so, how would you do it? There have been several different proposals on the table in the past.

bscaff: What is the NWCA trying to accomplish with National Duals? The Virginia Duals organizers wanted to get college wrestling school exposure for their local high school kids. Their design fit their objective. National Duals - with 8 teams in Iowa City for this weekend only - is using the same design, more or less, to accomplish...what, exactly? Get on TV? Proclaim a team champion? Create a second marketable (read: $$) event? Imitate shootyhoops because ESPN said so? Tell me the objective, and I'll figure out a way to get behind it.

I've completely changed my tune on this, by the way. I opposed National Duals because, above everything else, I didn't want the NWCA screwing up the national individual tournament, which, at the time, appeared to be the one good thing our sport actually had. 'Everything else is broken, and these clowns want to break the one thing that works,' was my thinking.

What changed my mind was UTC coach Heath Eslinger's appearance on Jason Bryant's ShortTime Pod last summer. Coach Eslinger was asked to respond to criticism - my precise thinking, actually - that the national individual tournament drew 15,000+ fans, and why would you risk breaking something that worked. His response blew me away. "So what?," he replied. "High schools in Texas get more than that for a regular season football game. We're measuring ourselves against the wrong standard."

He made a ton of other salient points, most of which I'd summarize into two basic premises: 1) Duals (vs. tournaments) are the far superior format for attracting and retaining both new and casual fans, as well as TV producers (who have $$); and 2) Fans and communities stick with teams over individuals. If you want lasting growth, build team identities, not individual ones.

In other words, count me on board for using a National Duals tournament as the sole basis for a "team" championship. But, to reach that point, we need a major overhaul to the wrestling calendar - which is 90% geared for the individual tournament - and we have to redefine the NCAA's allowable "events". Otherwise, we're stuck with a max of two weekends in February featuring 16 teams.

(EDIT: I'm told via wrestling writer and analyst @WrestingSHP that National Duals is actually exempt as a date of competition. -- Ross)

Dan: I can't fully explain how much it warms me inside to see bscaff come over to the dark side on this issue. I mentioned it as an option last season, but I'm even more convinced that it could work now. I would like to see the National Duals become the manner in which we crown our team national champion. We can always award an "NCAA Tournament Championship" to whichever team does best at the tournament (much like we have a Big Ten Champ and a Big Ten Tournament Champ in Basketball), but using an individual tournament to determine a team champion doesn't feel like the best way to go. If the National Duals decided the championship, a team wouldn't win because someone earned a few extra points battling back in the consolation rounds, it would win because it stood across the mat from its opponent, looked it in the eye, and defeated it.

Ross: I touched on this point above and this post is already sprawling out to epic length, so I'll keep my own response brief: I think there are ways to effectively incorporate the National Duals into the national championship race.  That could mean taking over the team championship race entirely (a radical change) or it could mean using the Duals as a factor in the team championship race, perhaps using the model I outlined above (which would be a much more modest change).  I definitely think there's something to be said for determining the team national champion in a format that more effectively features an actual team.

For one thing, it would be a hell of a lot easier for fans to follow -- if they just need to look at one bracket and follow their team and see how their team does in its matchups... well, that's a lot easier than following ten brackets and following not just their own wrestlers, but also the wrestlers of their main opponents and figuring out who to root for (and against) in matches that don't involve even one of their own guys.  It's still crazy to me that one of the most pivotal matches in Iowa's 2009 national championship was the match between Jake Herbert (Northwestern) and Mike Pucillo (Ohio State) at 184 lbs.  Obviously, Iowa's own wrestlers did a lot to put themselves in a position to win that title (that was the year where several Iowa wrestlers wrecked shop in the consolation bracket Saturday morning), but ultimately Iowa's national title fate hinged not on whether one of their own wrestlers won or lost -- but on whether or not a Northwestern wrestler won his match.  Situations like that don't happen all that often... but they're not exactly uncommon, either. The counter-argument to that mindset is that the current approach makes every match (or at least a huge majority of matches) "matter" and that the dizzying array of results you have to keep track of that comes out of that approach is one of the system's best features, not one of its flaws.

I dunno.  Let's just put it this way: I'm very intrigued by some of the ideas that have been set forth regarding what to do with National Duals -- and duals in general -- and I think it's absolutely worth discussing those changes and maybe even giving some of them a test drive to see how they work.  Doing things the way they've always been done because that's the way things have always been done is rarely a good thing -- even less so in a sport that isn't exactly in the most robust health.  Things may be getting better for college wrestling, but things could still be a lot better for the sport, too.

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This post ballooned to 5000+ words, so I decided to split into two pieces.  Check back in an hour for part two, which is more focused on the actual National Duals event this weekend and the teams and wrestlers who will be competing.