Friday, March 28, 2014

College wrestling a hit on ESPN

Could college wrestling be making a comeback?

A combination of Division I schools dropping the sport, Iowa and Oklahoma State hogging championships, the emergence of other sports such as soccer, lacrosse and hockey, and date conflicts with football and basketball created pessimism about college wrestling's future.

But like its participants, college wrestling has shown resiliency and received this jolt of encouraging news on March 27: the NCAA Division I championships reached a record television audience.

According to an ESPN news release, the four telecasts on ESPNU and two telecasts on ESPN last week reached 8.6 million people. ESPN also attracted 12.8 million on its digital platforms. The finals and semifinals were shown live on ESPN in primetime slots.

Wrestling fans are devoted, so the numbers don't take into account repeat customers, which were likely numerous. On the flip side, wrestling's presence on ESPN likely attracted new fans.

Last week's tournament included many memorable moments, ranging from a tight team race involving Penn State, Minnesota and Oklahoma State to the individual star power provided by athletes such as Ohio State's Logan Stieber and Penn State's Ed Ruth and David Taylor. The generous bonus Ohio State athletic director Gene Smith received for Stieber's accomplishments has kept college wrestling in the news this week. Penn State won its fourth straight team title last week, another sign the sport is expanding from its Midwest nucleus.

Few sports offer the drama wrestling provides. Years of training produce solitary moments, exhausting physical and mental capacities. My wife once compared watching a wrestling meet to viewing a play except nobody knows the outcome. The sport also leaves room for underdogs. An athlete doesn't need to be a high school champion to succeed at the Division I level and small schools such as Edinboro, which finished fifth in the team standings, can compete with major institutions. All of this plays well on television.

This year's rating suggest ESPN will offer more college wrestling next year.

In wrestling terms, consider the development bonus points for a sport that needs some.

-- Guy Cipriano | @newsheraldguy

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