Another Way to Grow the Sport: Fantasy Wrestling

By Matt Krumrie | Feb. 01, 2017, 11:40 a.m. (ET)

Wrestling fans are passionate about their sport, their teams, and their favorite wrestlers. They are also highly competitive; many diehard fans are former wrestlers themselves. So it makes sense that one of the best ways to combine that passion for the sport and that competitive nature could be to participate in a fantasy wrestling league.

"Fantasy wrestling is a great way to bring people together in a meaningful and fun way," says Kyle Klingman, director of the National Wrestling Hall of Fame Dan Gable Museum in Waterloo, Iowa.

Fantasy sports participation has exploded in recent years, gaining mainstream popularity across a number of sports, including football, baseball, basketball, hockey, golf, and NASCAR. As of 2016, there were a total of 57.4 million fantasy players in the U.S. and Canada, according to a recent Ipsos Public Affairs study completed for the Fantasy Sports Trade Association. Fantasy wrestling has been around for more than a decade, in various formats, but has attracted much less fanfare.

Some fantasy wrestling competitions are short, tournament-focused Pick ‘em contests. Others are season-long leagues, like the one Dusty Blankenship has participated in for nearly 10 years. A former high school and collegiate wrestler from Minnesota, Blankenship now runs the league, which he calls the Fantasy Wrestling League. The name, Blankenship laughingly admits, is "not very creative," but it serves its purpose.

The league is geared towards promoting wrestling and giving league members—all of whom are diehard wrestling fans—an opportunity to join together to share their passion and interest in the sport. League members draft teams and compete against others in a weekly, head-to-head competition to win that week's match (like in head-to-head fantasy football). Every weekend, Blankenship, as FWL Commissioner, scours the Internet to find wrestling results from across the country. He then manually tallies up points and standings, sharing that information with other league members—and the public—on the forum of The Guillotine, Minnesota's amateur wrestling newspaper. Members on the forum actively talk about their performance and the league, creating more chatter about the sport of wrestling.

"Following a sport that is often overlooked and finding a small way to make it even more fun with other wrestling fans is kind of unique." Blankenship says. And that is a big part of the appeal of fantasy wrestling.

More opportunities to participate in fantasy wrestling may be on the horizon. David Mirikitani has created the Ultimate Fantasy Wrestling Challenge, a unique, live-auction fantasy wrestling event that coincides with the NCAA Division I Championships. In addition, Intermat runs a popular Pick 'em contest before many conference and national tournaments, sometimes drawing as many as 2,000 fans to play in the free contests. And Dr. Timothy A. Gibbons, a former wrestler and current orthopedic surgeon from Mason City, Iowa, has created matpicks.com, an online tool for fantasy wrestling.

For as long as Gibbons can remember, he and his wrestling friends—many with sterling wrestling credentials, get together and pick their fantasy teams the night before the start of the NCAAs. Former wrestlers and fans from all over the country gather to talk wrestling, predict winners, share stories, and generate excitement for the sport. It gets competitive. But the social aspect is also a truly special part of fantasy wrestling, he adds. And the fantasy draft is one of the highlights of the championship weekend.

"It's our reunion," Gibbons says. "We love wrestling, and this adds a little more competition to the event. These guys that participate are all still competitive, and for many it's hard to sit there and not compete anymore, so [fantasy wrestling] gets those competitive juices flowing."

The strong social aspect of fantasy sports isn’t surprising, says Andy Behrens, a fantasy football and baseball writer for Yahoo Sports who is also the president of The Fantasy Sports Writers Association. "I'm involved in football leagues that keep me in regular contact with friends from high school, college, and various places of employment," he explains. Fantasy sports offer a framework for continuing those relationships, beyond whatever circumstances brought people together in the first place. “I've also struck up lasting relationships with people I've met via participation in fantasy leagues,” he adds, before joking: “There's really nothing like a lengthy trade negotiation to cement the bonds of friendship.”

Fantasy wrestling can also help to expand your knowledge of the sport, and keep you connected to wrestlers from your hometown, state, or school.

For example, Blankenship’s favorite college wrestling team is Minnesota, but to succeed in fantasy wrestling, he actively follows wrestlers from throughout the country, including wrestlers from Minnesota's rivals, such as Iowa, Wisconsin, and Oklahoma State, among others, to succeed. "Fantasy wrestling forces you to expand your knowledge of wrestlers from coast-to-coast," he says.

Behrens says fantasy leagues, by their nature, also keep you better tuned in to what’s going on in the sport. "There's little question that fantasy sports have made us better informed as fans and deepened our understanding of whichever games (or sport) we follow,” he says.

Klingman, of the National Wreslting Hall of Fame, agrees: "Fantasy leagues are fun because it forces you to pay attention to teams and athletes that you might otherwise overlook. It's a great way to pay attention to the entirety of the sport because every outcome affects your standing in the league."