Now that I’ve brought you in with this attention-grabbing headline, let me explain why what is undoubtedly the greatest event in college wrestling and the “Super Bowl” of our sport isn’t good for a lot of wrestling programs.
The NCAA tournament itself is an incredible event! From Spencer Lee’s loss to Vito Arujau’s incredible title run to Penn State’s dominance to Yianni’s 4th title, and on and on. They all create these incredible moments of excitement for wrestling fans everywhere that will be talked about in circles for years to come. I wouldn’t change anything about it for the world.
Even better, it’s a massive commercial success! In our home state, Tulsa was buzzing this week and brought in over 95,000 people through the gates of the BOK Center over three days with lines out the door for merchandise, overpriced concessions, and more. ESPN puts it up over three days and lauds the PR numbers yearly and how well the event is viewed across their platforms.
But here’s why this tournament isn’t great for many wrestling programs. As one of the few financial successes in our sport, it doesn’t make any money for the actual programs. It all goes to the NCAA, venue, and local community. Now don’t get me wrong, as a native Oklahoman an event like this means a ton for our small state and the businesses it supports. But fans shell out a lot of money for this. If you’re bringing in a family of four from out of state, you’re looking at a minimum of a few thousand dollars between flights, hotel, tickets, food, etc. to attend. And that’s regardless of who is the host.
I my opinion, that money is completely worth it. The tournament was a blast! It’s an incredible time every year! But as we see our sport continue to struggle to maintain its footing amongst college athletics and many programs getting dropped nationally, it’s tough to wrap your head around the fact that these programs that are struggling to find the money for travel, staff, scholarships, facilities, anything… don’t make any money here.
There are programs around the country that would kill for a donation of the amount it costs a small family or group of friends to attend an NCAA tournament. There are teams that won’t see attendance numbers in five years of home duals that total one session at the NCAA wrestling tournament. And again, I get it, the tournament itself is incredible. But we have got to find a way in this sport to make duals and other events that more directly bring in money to programs a similar kind of commercial success that we have with the NCAA tournament. Because from a financial standpoint, this incredible and amazing event doesn’t do much at the grassroots level for some of these schools that badly need it.