The 2016 National Wrestling Coaches Association (NWCA) Convention began yesterday in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. As usual with this event, there are many discussions about how to grow the sport at all levels. Trackwrestling’s Andy Hamilton reports that one of the hot topics in recent years, changing the NCAA season and adding a dual championship component, is being discussed yet again.
For fans of the sport, this is not a new topic as just about every possible iteration of the idea has been dissected since it was first thrust into the national consciousness in 2012. This time around, the proposal centers around moving the season, with competition to start around Christmas and the NCAA tournament to be held in mid-April. In addition to shifting the calendar, this proposal would establish a dual meet season that would, ostensibly, build towards a dual team championship.
There are few details at this time as this is just an idea for discussion. There are certainly positive aspects to moving the NCAA tournament away from the NCAA basketball tournament, though there are risks as well. One of the reasons wrestling receives the coverage that it does is ESPN’s need to fill broadcast hours on a weekend when it doesn’t have rights to NCAA basketball. Moving to April would give wrestling a chance to grow its audience to those who won’t part with watching March Madness, but it will also bring baseball, and emerging sports like lacrosse, into the picture as competitors for air time. There are no insurmountable obstacles there, but it isn’t without downside.
That said, there are other positives to shifting the season. Making the sport’s competition schedule run over a single semester would help student-athletes as they would only have to manage weight and travel for competition during the second semester instead of through parts of both. It would free up Thanksgiving. It would move more of the season away from the high school season giving college wrestling an opportunity to convert more of those fans, coaches and athletes into spectators.
Unfortunately, for these ideas, the devil is in the details and without them, there is too much unknown to say whether this is a good or bad idea. A well constructed season that starts around Christmas with a few of weeks of individual tournaments, powers through January and February with dual meets that build story lines towards a final dual championship in March and then the conference tournaments and NCAA individual tournament could work. It could give the sport more exposure, better fan support and an avenue to grow the fan base. These are all things we should aspire to.
Until we have details, though, this is a scary proposition. I am a supporter of a hybrid championship model where the top place winners in the dual championship earn points towards the NCAA individual tournament which would still crown the NCAA champion. This proposal does not discuss whether the dual championship would be the NCAA championship crowning event, a part of a hybrid model or a stand alone event. The details for this sort of shift are critical and our sport does not have a great track record of making good decisions surrounding the dual championship.
The fact that these sorts of ideas are being discussed is a good thing. This is the right time and place to talk about it. It is no secret that our sport needs to grow its fan base. One of the points raised in the presentation, which you can read here, is that the average age at the NCAA tournament continues to rise. Standing firm with what we have is a terrible idea. We must find ways to be better. We must do so smartly, though. While we will never find an idea that receives 100% support, there are bad ideas out there that will do more harm than good. Whether this is one or not largely depends on the finer details. Get those right and I’m on board. Get them wrong and it could be a disaster.