There’s nothing greater than an intense, action-packed dual meet where the divided loyalty of the crowd heightens the competitive drama. Then again, there’s nothing worse than a tedious, run-of-the-mill dual meet where fans leave unimpressed and uninterested in coming back.
By making the standard dual meet an event, not just a match, the sport of wrestling can grow its fan base. It can both satisfy diehard fans and engage casual ones, enticing them to come back for more.
"We have a really good feel for this at the college level, but there’s a need to improve at the high school level," says Coyte Cooper, referring to dual meet management. Cooper, an All-American wrestler at Indiana University in 2004, is founder of Elite Level Sports Marketing, an organization that provides wrestling coaches resources to market and grow their programs.
Finding new audiences
Kevin Roberts, an assistant coach at Oregon State, says it's important for wrestling coaches and athletic administrators to be creative and think outside the box when promoting wrestling dual meets. "Wrestling needs to attract more than just the families of the wrestlers, alumni and former wrestlers," says Roberts.
Add-on events such as military appreciation night, alumni recognition night, and parent’s night are good ways to create a fun, festive environment. Finding ways to involve students, families, and community members takes hard work and determination, but programs can reap the rewards by trying new things.
"Wrestling isn't considered the most popular sport in our school, but we believe it is important to incorporate ideas and activities that the student body can connect withwhile attending wrestling events," says Ty Swarm, head coach at Kearney (Nebraska) High School.
"Even if they don't understand wrestling they leave the dual/event with a positive perspective on wrestling,” Swarm notes. “This, in turn, makes wrestling more popular and helps us recruit wrestlers and grow the sport in our school."
The interest level in wrestling is only going to be available if you showcase it to people, Swarm says. "Kids want to be part of something that is successful and is considered cool by their peers," he adds. "This is why we try to promote ourselves through social media, inside and outside of the school, as well as by making our home events student and fan-friendly.” These tactics, he notes, have helped increase attendance at home duals and grow the popularity of wrestling at the school.
In addition to creating a team poster and distributing 500 of them throughout the school and community, Swarm's Kearney program has incorporated these dual meet promotional ideas:
- Sumo Challenge: Students tweet matchups of random students to wrestle in sumo suits on a weekly school newscast. Team coaches pick and manage the matchups. The Kearney program gained 600 Twitter followers the past year, mostly due to this promotion. One sumo challenge featured two local middle school principals competing against each other during a dual meet intermission. "This helped bring in students from both middle schools to our home dual," says Swarm.
- Get students involved: Before home matches, the Kearney varsity team runs through a student-built tunnel to its home match theme song—“Welcome to the Jungle” by Guns ‘N' Roses—which adds drama and tradition to the moment, and increases student interest.
- Singlet night: In this promotion, Kearney wrestlers bring their extra singlets and volunteers check in the student section, nicknamed “The Rowdies,” wear them during the match. At one dual this past season, over 100 students were wearing singlets. "The key to the singlet participation was relationships with other student-athletes and getting them to buy into wearing a singlet to support the wrestlers," says Swarm. "The first year the boys did this, but not the girls. Once the first few girls said they were doing it the second year, the idea really took off."
The book Developing Wrestling Champions: The Total Program Approach, by Dariel W. Daniel, outlines other ways to increase attendance at home meets. One idea: hold elementary, middle school, and junior high wrestler recognition nights. If the visiting team allows it, consider a few exhibition matches featuring the younger wrestlers. "Parents and relatives will pack the house" to see these matches, he writes. And bringing non-wrestling fans to the dual meet introduces them to the sport. Daniel also recommends a family night special, where an entire family can gain admission to a meet for $5.
Cross-promotion is key
Bringing in the school band, dance team, and cheerleaders to play at a dual meet is another way to “pump up the excitement level,” says Roberts. Don’t overlook social media and local radio, either. A country singer performed at an Oregon State dual meet this year, something Roberts says "brought in some new fans that wouldn't normally attend." Boise State promotes its “Beauty and the Beast” event—an evening where the gymnastics and wrestling teams both compete in the same gym at the same time.
Even having something as simple as an exciting, enthusiastic announcer can help elevate the crowd’s energy and get people coming back, Roberts explains. "My theory is that if we can get people into the building, we can hook them into being fans," he says. "An offensive and exciting style of wrestling certainly helps. We have had first time match-goers become season ticket holders and attend the conference and NCAA Championships on a regular basis."
Make connections off the mat
Promoting honorary captains is another method to create excitement. They can be distinguished alumni, military personnel or local celebrities that people would want to see, says Roberts. Honor teams of the past. These wrestlers will bring their girlfriends, spouses and kids, creating a festive, atmosphere. Last year Oregon State honored its 1973 NCAA runner-up team. In addition, you could recognize other athletes or successful students from the school and/or recognize community leaders and success stories.
Consider promotional ideas such as t-shirt giveaways, posters, gift certificates, or coupons to local restaurants or businesses (be sure to enroll them as sponsors). Have the team sign autographs after the dual meet. And always consider pre or post-meet socials, where wrestling fans and non-wrestling fans can meet and mingle.
"This gives the fans and parents an opportunity to interact with one another as well as hear the athletes and coach speak and reflect on the meet," says Roberts. "It helps to build the fan-base, allowing them a chance get to know each other and the athletes on a personal matter."