National Duals wrestling tournament hopes to give sport a boost
Tony Ramos knows the success of his season will largely come down to a pair of individual tournaments. The place he achieves at the Big Ten and NCAA championships will determine how Ramos' excellent season is ultimately viewed.
But the Hawkeye sophomore also knows what excites wrestling fans most — and it isn't a tournament.
"I like watching dual meets," he said. "You see it coming down and you've got a close score, and there are two or three matches left, and everybody's getting excited. There's a lot of buildup there. Some [wrestlers] put more of a show on. You definitely can feel the energy in the air."
That philosophy drives a new format for the National Wrestling Coaches Association's National Duals tournament, a two-weekend event beginning on Saturday.
The National Duals will expand to a regional format for the first time since the event began in 1989; four six-team regions — hosted by Rutgers, Cornell, Oklahoma State, and Iowa State — will square off this weekend. The Hawkeyes will travel to Ames as the top seed in their region. They'll be joined by Oregon State, Iowa State, Virginia Tech, Northern Iowa, and Wisconsin.
The winners of each region will then enter a "Final Four"-style championship weekend at a location to be announced.
Mike Moyer, the wrestling association's executive director, said a primary goal of the National Duals is to add importance to every regular-season dual meet. With today's wrestling model, he said, regular-season results mean little because everything is decided by an individual tournament at the end of the season.
Moyer believes that model is why the sport struggles to attract fans.
"We need to make wrestling more relevant across the country on a campus level," he said. "Our spectator base is stagnant, and it wasn't big enough to begin with."
The wrestling association has big plans for the National Duals to improve that. Moyer said his goal is for the new and expanded Duals to do well enough financially that the NCAA will buy the event. That, he said, would legitimize the tournament enough to make it a yearly crowning of a national dual-meet champion and a complement to the individual NCAA championships. Teams would then try to qualify for the Duals tournament based on season dual-meet results, rather than invitations.
Minnesota head coach J Robinson said he believes a national dual-meet tournament is an important step toward growing wrestling's fanbase.
"If you go to any high-school tournament and watch, they have individuals wrestling on one side of the gym and teams wrestling on the other side — you listen to where the most noise is," Robinson said after Minnesota's loss to the Hawkeyes on Jan. 29. "You're rooting for teams. If you want wrestling to grow, you've got to have dual meets."
Hawkeye coach Tom Brands agreed.
"We have to make sure we get the message out to the fans to support it," he said. "The whole idea of this is to generate buzz for the NCAA to pick it up."
The wrestling association analyzed wrestling's fans last year and determined that only 11 of the nation's 78 wrestling programs have an average base of greater than 1,000 fans. Moyer said it's important for the National Duals to succeed in order to change that.
"I don't see any other way of growing the spectator base without this event," he said. "I truly believe that."
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