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NWCA National Wrestling Duals: How to make them matter

Could a reformed team tournament provide the sport of college wrestling with another marquee event?

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For those of you who missed it, earlier this week Ohio State's head coach Tom Ryan and former 2x national champ Tommy Rowlands engaged in a Twitter "war" with Penn State wrestling's Cael Sanderson over proposed changes to the NCAA wrestling tournament and the NWCA National Duals. Ryan's plan is to make the National Duals more meaningful by awarding NCAA tournament points to teams based on how they finish at the National Duals. Sanderson disagrees, vehemently, and at times disrespectfully.

So who's right? Well, that's up for debate. So, to help flesh out the argument I'm going to take up the banner for Coach Ryan and his pitch for positive change. I'm sure that Coach Ryan feels much safer with the power of my keyboard firmly behind him. Arguing Sanderson's point-of-view will be BScaff of Penn State blog Black Shoe Diaries.

The last year or so has taught the sport of wrestling a lot. In what was a low point in the history of the sport, it was unceremoniously dumped from the Olympic Games. Fortunately, the wrestling community came together and the sport was eventually reinstated, but not before significant changes were made. The Olympic wrestling community knew that to keep the sport viable and growing, the status quo had to go. Ryan feels the same way. The NCAA tournament is a fantastic event, but is it ever really going to be more than it is now? Maybe, but I doubt it. By making the National Duals a more significant event, you have the opportunity to give the sport a second high-profile end-of-season competition. More marquee events means more tickets sold, more television coverage, and thus more viewers and more money.

Right now the National Duals aren't where they could be. That point absolutely has to be conceded. While 16,000 fans came out to see the event in Cedar Falls, IA, attendance at last year's final in Minnesota was a disappointment. However, the attendance level probably has more to do with the event's stakes and the teams that declined to participate than it does the structure of the event. Why should wrestling fans sell-out for a national tournament with no real national implications? Why should programs like Penn State travel to an event like this when they don't really have anything to gain? Adding a reward for competing, and winning, at the National Duals would not only force the top teams to participate, but it would give fans a reason to care more. If you follow the logic, more elite teams participating and greater interest from fans would then likely translate to more viewers, more tickets sold, and a larger platform for the sport.

Then there's the idea that a dual-meet tournament is much more TV (and online-streaming) friendly than an individual tournament. You're not forced to follow Twitter to find match announcements and then scramble to find the right "mat feed" on ESPN3 each time one of your team's wrestlers is up. For 90-120 minutes your entire team is on one mat competing. Also, dual meets don't require an all-day commitment. You tune in when your team is up and then tune out until they're on again.  Make your product easier to watch and more people will watch it.

Former Nebraska wrestler Tucker Lane does a good job of laying out another interesting side to the argument: the importance of the team concept in growing the sport. There are certain schools (like Penn State and Iowa), where interest in the team is always high. But I can tell you first-hand that for schools like Ohio State, it's often more about the individual wrestler. For instance, when Logan Stieber lost, it was the most-read wrestling-related story in LGHL history. When Nick Tavanello scored an overtime takedown to help the Buckeyes defeat Illinois, interest wasn't nearly as high. So what happens when Logan graduates?

As Lane wrote:

The crux of the matter lies in the fact that the individual nature of the sport tends to cannibalize any team interests.

To sustainably grow the sport we need to build interest in programs, not individuals. That's where a national dual meet championship could be a huge help. Tournaments can't hold a candle to dual meets when it comes to exciting team competition. In a tournament, you can often pretty easily predict the top few teams before the first whistle. Dual meets are much more unpredictable. A team like Minnesota can lose to Michigan and then a short time later go into Carver-Hawkeye Arena and upset Iowa. That was an incredible dual meet with upsets up and down the line. Imagine if we got to see it one more time, only with national title implications. Would you watch? I sure would. If Ohio State got the chance to avenge its loss to Wisconsin, this time with DiJulius in the lineup, you bet I'm interested. And I wouldn't be any less interested in the NCAA Championships a week or two later.

While the single most important aspect of Ryan's argument is increasing the sport's profile, that's not the only reason that his idea is a good one. I've always found the idea of using an individual tournament to determine a team championship to be a little bit odd. To me, the best way to determine which team is better is to line each  team up across the mat from each other and wrestle ten matches. The better team? The one with the most points when the dust settles. If you're going to crown a team champion, shouldn't the entire team be involved?

A crazier man than I might even suggest that awarding NCAA Tournament points based on National Duals placement doesn't go far enough. In fact, it's been argued before. That person might suggest that the National Duals should be used to determine the team National Champion while the NCAA Tournament crowns the individual champs. Sure, you can award an "NCAA Tournament Championship" to whichever team does best at the tournament, a la the B1G basketball tournament, but that wouldn't be the national champion. The national champion would be the team that stared directly into the eye of the runner-up and defeated it. Isn't that what wrestling is all about? One-on-one competition that continues until one person (or team) bests the other?

Traditionalists will scream that status quo "is the way it's always been done,"  but the way it's always been done isn't necessarily the best way to do it. You're not going to increase the sport's profile by continuing to do what's always been done. Are there other ways that we can drum up more interest? Sure. BScaff does a great job explaining some of them in his post. But why stop there? Right now the National Duals are an entertaining end-of-season diversion, but the event has the potential to be so much more. Let's tap into that potential.

To read BScaff's take on the issue, which is world's apart from mine, head over to BSD.