The public address announcement echoed inside Williams Arena, either from the stunned murmurs along press row or reverberations off the thousands of empty seats below.
Saturday night’s attendance: 2,344.
That’s not the turnout for a mid-season dual meet against Indiana or Purdue. That’s the size of the crowd that showed up for the finals of the National Duals.
“I was expecting — and maybe I was delusional — that there’d be more like 10,000,” Illinois associate head coach Mark Perry said. “It was a pretty disappointing event as far as spectators go, and that’s nothing against Minnesota. They have one of the best fan bases in the country.”
Yet even in one of college wrestling’s hotbeds, and even with a field featuring eight of the top nine teams in the national rankings, the National Duals still came up short of the January turnout for Southeast Polk’s home dual against Ankeny.
It underscores one of the biggest challenges currently confronting the sport at the college level. How does wrestling enhance the profile of dual meets — something National Wrestling Coaches Association executive director Mike Moyer and many college coaches believe is vital to the long-term health of the sport — when the stands at a supposed marquee event look like a home game for the Florida Marlins?
And folks wondered why Iowa’s Tom Brands and Penn State’s Cael Sanderson so adamantly opposed a proposal last fall that would’ve taken team scoring out of the NCAA Championships and made a dual tournament college wrestling’s national championship team event. It’s easy to understand their concerns when the average home dual at those schools draws three to four times as many fans as the National Duals.
“I think if we just drop (the National Duals), we’re in trouble,” Ohio State coach Tom Ryan said. “But 2,500 people is embarrassing.”
Don’t pin it all on Minnesota fans, the tournament location or the absence of Sanderson and the Nittany Lions. This was the result of bad timing more than anything, the product of wrestling butting heads with itself. Scheduling the National Duals on the same nights as Minnesota’s high school state qualifying tournaments was a formula for vacant seats.
“We cannot go head-to-head with high school (wrestling),” Ryan said. “That was the takeaway for me, for sure.”
Moyer indicated last week that he thinks it needs to be a culminating event, with in-season duals counting toward the coronation of a champion. He said it would be “a little odd” for the NFL to play regular-season games in the weeks after the Super Bowl. That’s true. Of course, it would be more bizarre to watch a Super Bowl with sections of empty seats in the background.
Clearly, last weekend was the wrong place on the calendar. But it raises a question college wrestling coaches have been kicking around for years: When is the right time for the National Duals? And where is the right place?
Perry said the tournament needs to be held at Iowa or Penn State, two programs that are dominant at the box office. That would no doubt increase attendance, but wrestling needs to be strong enough that it doesn’t have to rely on those two fan bases for a bailout.
Oregon State coach Jim Zalesky said he recently pitched a plan to Moyer that would flip-flop the National Duals with the conference tournaments on the schedule. He said such a scenario would pull the duals away from the high school tournaments and draw bigger crowds.
Ryan has a different idea. He points to the December turnout for the Grapple at the Garden in New York City and wonders if the National Duals wouldn’t be better off during that time on the calendar.
“It was just a bunch of dual meets … and there were 10,000 people there,” he said. “If you add some substance to it and you figure out who’s the national championship team, that time of year seems to be pretty good, because you’re not competing with anything.”
SMALL COLLEGES: Upper Iowa qualified six wrestlers for the Division II NCAA Championships. Three Peacocks — two-time national champion Trevor Franklin (133), Blake Sorensen (174) and Carl Broghammer (197) finished second Sunday at the Super Regional 3 in Waterloo. Franklin, bidding for his fourth super regional title, dropped a 4-1 decision to St. Cloud State’s Andy Pokorny in the finals in a rematch of last year’s national title bout. … Grand View finished the regular season on top of the NAIA rankings going into this weekend’s NAIA Championships at the Iowa State Fairgrounds. Defending NAIA heavyweight champion Eric Thompson, Roosevelt graduate Chad Lowman (157) and Gustavo Martinez (141) are all ranked No. 1 at their respective weight classes.
DIVISION I: Minnesota scored a pair of reversals for the second straight year on its way to another title at the National Duals. The Gophers dropped regular-season duals to Iowa and Oklahoma State for the second straight year before topping the Hawkeyes and Cowboys during their march to the title in the dual tournament. Minnesota handled the Cowboys 28-9 in the finals after losing to Oklahoma State 22-15 in December. The Gophers turned around two matches they lost, winning at 141 and 174, where top-ranked Logan Storley pinned No. 2 Chris Perry in a tiebreaker. … Missouri won four matches by a collective six points against Ohio State in Friday night’s quarterfinals, which turned what seemed like an evenly-matched dual into a 28-6 rout for the Tigers.
1. Cornell’s Kyle Dake: The three-time NCAA champion is 28-0 with 16 falls and a pair of wins against last year’s Hodge winner, David Taylor of Penn State.
2. Penn State’s Ed Ruth: Defending NCAA champ Steve Bosak of Cornell, who dropped a 7-3 decision to the Penn State 184-pounder, is the only wrestler to come within seven points of Ruth since November.
3. Ohio State’s Logan Stieber: The leader of the Division-I dominance statistics finally had his first regular decision of the season last week at 133 pounds when he beat Missouri’s Nathan McCormick 8-2.
4. Iowa’s Tony Ramos: Nobody has been more dominant lately than Ramos, who has five pins, a forfeit and a 9-0 major decision against No. 3 A.J. Schopp in his last seven matches.
5. Oklahoma State’s Jordan Oliver: The top-ranked 149-pounder isn’t racking up bonus points lately in the same manner he did earlier in the season, but he’s 28-0 with 13 pins.