Snow Day and National Duals by Cody Sanderson

I woke up today to freezing rain, a bunch of snow, cancelled school, and excited kids. As I was shoveling walks and building snowmen, I kept thinking about the National Dual Championship proposal. I am not sure what it is about icy roads and frozen hands that get the wheels in my brain turning, but I decided to organize my thoughts about the issue and share with anyone interested.

Over the past few years, I have had the opportunity to participate in several discussions concerning the national wrestling duals. The conversation has been lively and entertaining as well as frustrating and alarming. In the single most memorable discussion, an outspoken advocate of the dual championship and a very influential coach told me that “small programs like Davidson University don’t mean anything” to him and he wasn’t going to “waste” his time worrying about them. He continued by saying that the proposed changes “need to happen even if that means some programs get dropped”. (I can only assume he meant programs other than his own). I was certainly dismayed to learn that a coach of that stature is so willing to sacrifice those programs. Another coach from a major conference told me that, “Penn State needs to stop worrying about the bottom 20 programs because there is nothing that can be done to help them”. Since we were first “lobbied” by the NWCA leadership for support of the duals format, my main concern has been the security of our most vulnerable programs.
At Penn State, we are very fortunate to be a part of a healthy wrestling community. We have a vibrant fan following, world class facilities, large recruiting base, and generous funding. Regardless of any changes to the National Tournament and season structure, we will have the ability to make necessary adjustments and compete on an annual basis for one of the top spots on the podium. Unfortunately, there are only a handful of Division I programs in our situation. I believe it is our responsibility to help the less fortunate programs and I don’t consider it a “waste of time” to worry about them.

Outside of the threat to many of our Division I programs, I have several concerns about the proposed changes to the wrestling championship season that I will discuss below. I am a fan and staunch advocate of the current championship format. I believe it is superior to any proposals that I have seen. The traditional championship tournament is the most appropriate way for our sport to balance its unique blend of individual and team aspects. As is, the tournament is hugely successful and possibly the most exciting wresting event in the world. The attendance is great, the media attention is extensive and the television coverage continues to grow. Why would we risk changing it?

In no particular order, I have listed some of my concerns:

1. The National Duals is an event that will exclude the very schools that need the most help. There will be a huge void in the season for the teams left watching from the “sidelines”. How do the remaining 50 teams keep their fan base engaged when their “presence on campus” is completely eliminated? Any momentum they gained during the season will surely dissipate. No competition = no presence on campus = stagnation or elimination. Advocates for the National Duals claim that the non-participating teams can create and participate in “dual meet festivals”. It seems a bit ironic that the very people carrying the “dual meets don’t matter” banner are telling coaches to participate in duals that “don’t matter”. It should be noted that if these “dual meet festivals” are not exempted from the NCAA limit for competition dates, coaches would have to leave dates open in their schedules in order to participate.

2. Student-Athlete Welfare
a. Increased competition dates and an extended post season will further contribute to our APR problems (“wrestling as a sport ranks 3rd from last”… Mike Moyer). Our sport is already perceived as an academic liability with athletic directors and university presidents. We are skating on thin ice with this issue.
b. Our athletes have the most difficult time keeping up with class during the post season – an additional 3 weeks of post season would be detrimental to GPA , eligibility, and class attendance (further hurting APR). 70% of college wrestling participants are first generation college students. From the first day these student-athletes step on a campus, they are at a greater risk than the general student body. It is important to keep these facts in mind as we consider changes to our schedule infrastructure.
c. Skin infections: increasing competition dates and travel will lead to more skin infections. We have the most problems with this when we have multiple competitions on the same and/or consecutive days. With a two week, multi competition national duals format prior to the Conference and NCAA tournaments, we run a greater risk of losing athletes to an infection. According to the NWCA Leadership, skin infections are a “huge threat” to the future of our sport.
d. More competitions will lead to more injuries. It is not an easy task keeping a team healthy through a full season. Injuries are an inevitable consequence of athletic participation. However, with our current three week post season, we are generally able to have our athletes on the mat for the conference and national tournaments – even if an athlete is forced to miss a regular season match late in the season. As with skin infections, the addition of the National Duals increases the risk for losing an athlete to injury. I do understand that we currently have regular season duals scheduled during the proposed National Duals weekend, but they are single match events and the risk of injury is much smaller. As one commentator put it, “we could see championships determined more by health than the quality of the wrestlers”. With the additional risks and strenuous competition, it may even be an advantage for an individual if his team does not qualify for the National Duals.

3. “The Crown Jewel” The NCAA Division I Championship could be the most successful wrestling tournament in the world. “It is one of only two NCAA Championship events that sell out literally a year in advance, joining the NCAA Men’s Final Four as the fastest selling ticketed events in the NCAA Championship family. Changing something that is so beloved by our fan base is actually, in many ways, insulting to them if not outright short-sighted.”

4. The new dual meet portion of the tournament will make it more difficult for the majority of institutions to be competitive in the post season. The current format allows coaches a way to break into the top tier. With the change, teams that are in the upper echelon will distance themselves from the remainder of the field. They will have the advantage of scoring in the dual meet portion and then scoring again in the traditional format – with the exact same student-athletes. The current tournament has been called an “All-Star”* event. In the National Duals proposal the actual “All-Stars” will be scoring multiple times. A disproportionate amount of points will go to a very small number of schools. The teams that traditionally score the most points in the post season will now score even more.
*(I don’t believe it is reasonable to refer to a tournament with 330 participants as an All-Star event.)

5. This proposal could further stagnate the college wrestling fan base by eliminating viewership opportunities. This past season, the “top teams” and others eliminated dual meets from the regular season to accommodate the national duals. Rather than schedule 16 regular competitions as well as the dual tournament, many coaches scheduled 14 or 15 and then added the tournament. Ironically, in an effort to increase dual matches and viewership, the total number of duals and spectators was reduced. This is an indication that coaches believe that an increased number of competition dates is not in the best interest of their student-athletes. Our sport LOST revenue and viewership opportunities.

6. February should be a month for all teams to host and promote dual meets. The new proposal eliminates that opportunity. We already have limited opportunities to promote duals to the campus community. The month of February is historically one of the most successful times to host dual matches. In November, we must avoid the Thanksgiving Holiday and most of the athletic focus is on football. For the same reasons, it is difficult to market to the high school wrestling community at that time. During, the second half of December and the first half of January, duals can go largely unnoticed because of final exams and the winter break. With the new duals, the vast majority of NCAA DI teams will be competing at away sites all through February and March (or not competing at all). We can’t build a presence on campus, unless we are on campus.

7. With the addition of the National Dual Meet Championship, there will be a large disparity created between athletes on qualifying teams vs non-qualifying teams. Post season is the most strenuous time of the year for athletes. With the new proposal (no matter which format), many athletes will be forced to compete in a post season situation that lasts for 5-6 weeks. The remaining athletes (on “non-qualifying” teams) will compete under significantly different circumstances in a post season segment that lasts 2-3 weeks. When athletes from the two groups meet at the final competition, it will not be a level playing field. There is not a scenario that makes it just or equitable to have these two different groups of athletes compete at the final championship under such different circumstances.

8. It has been expressed by a spokesperson for the NCAA Wrestling Committee that “our research has shown the casual fan will more likely watch a wrestling competition that involves his/her institution in a two hour dual competition than an all-day invitational tournament”. That statement is likely true, but doesn’t seem relevant in this situation. The proposed dual meet tournament will occur when teams are traditionally engaged in dual matches not invitational tournaments. When considering the four most prestigious invitational championships (RTOC, Southern Scuffle, Midlands, and CK Las Vegas), three of these take place during the traditional university semester break. The new dual proposal is set to reduce dual competitions not invitational tournament competitions. It should be noted that individual and invitational type tournaments are very few in number when compared to dual competitions, but play an indispensable role in determining individual qualifiers for the NCAA Championship and serve as preparation for the championship. They also provide a unique opportunity for the promotion of individual match-ups between notable athletes that would not happen otherwise.

9. For many teams, there will be additional pressure on already strained budgets. They will have to come up with significant additional funds to travel to at least the early stages of the event. Of equal importance, when the NCAA gets involved with transportation funding, we start getting into Title IX and gender equity issues – they refer to it as championship opportunities. According to Anthony Holman, NCAA associate director of championships, “increased opportunities come with increased participation”. In other words, until athletic departments begin adding wrestling programs, there will not be additional championship opportunities or funding for wrestling. (This is why the original National Duals proposal only asked for 16 teams. The committee knows that the NCAA already feels that wrestling is “over represented” in the current championship. It is also a reason why there has not been a proposal that asks for a NCAA national dual championship team in addition to the current championship team).

10. The current NCAA wresting tournament structure is excellent. Every match in every dual and every tournament builds to the climax at the end of the season. Every athlete has the whole season to put themselves in position to score for their team. In a perfect world, every team would have 10 individuals wrestling at the NCAA tournament, but our current structure is the next best thing. Each individual competes against their weight class and scores points in relation to the rest of the field. Our tournament captures the essence of the individual nature of our sport and brilliantly uses it to determine the team champion. **

** The following is part of a discussion I had concerning the scoring merits of tournaments vs dual meets:

In regards to determining the best team, I certainly understand the sentiment that has been expressed by those who favor the dual method. However, given the individual nature of our sport, the current method captures the essence of wrestling. It allows each member of the team to earn points in relationship to how they finish against the rest of the field. I understand that the system is not perfect because the “whole field” is not present at the NCAA tournament. But, this is only a minor problem because the top 33 individuals at each weight class provide an adequate number of competitors to determine a significantly viable team score. Generally speaking, every athlete has a full season to demonstrate the ability to score points towards the team score. If they aren’t capable of making the top 33, it is generally accepted that the individual is very unlikely to impact the total team score. Properly understood, the current NCAA wrestling championship is the final stage of a season long event that culminates with a three day competition to crown the individual and team champions. From my viewpoint, the conference tournaments are the first round of this final event. Every team in the country is fully represented at the conference championship and each individual has one final chance to earn a spot in the “scoring round”. As is, every team has full representation in the post season.
I think the traditional system for determining the team champion is brilliant. The athlete gets the opportunity to fight through a bracket against other competitors his same weight is rewarded accordingly. There is no better way to test the strength of a team in our sport than to weigh the performance of its individuals against the top competitors.

(In order to have a perfect tournament, every team would have its full roster in attendance at the NCAA tournament. However, due to the logistics of running a marketable event that considers the welfare of the student athlete and the NCAA’s view point on gender equity, we are required to trim the numbers down to a manageable 330. The other option for determining a “true” team champion would be a traditional style bracket with every member of the top 32 teams, but I don’t think we want to go down a road that eliminates top individuals. The traditional structure blends the above two methods.)

The Arizona State team from the 2011 NCAA Tournament has been brought up many times to argue against the current method. There will always be an example of some team that finishes higher than conventional wisdom feels they should. However, when considering the merits of any event, it seems wise to focus on the majority and not on the individual outliers. I think it is important to remember that ASU had 20% of the individual national champions in that year. One in every five athletes on the top of the podium belonged to ASU. For any team, that is quite remarkable. If there is a flaw in the system and we are getting more “Arizona States” than we collectively feel is right, then the reasonable answer seems to be to change the point distribution – not change the whole system. Currently, the system may be considered a bit top heavy (I don’t necessarily agree). If it is, then increase the points earned at the lower end of the bracket. Give placement points for top 16 and top 12. Increase 8, 7, and 6 by a few points.

(Along the “Arizona State” lines, I have also heard similar complaints about American University and Edinboro. One National Duals advocate called their success a “travesty” and another coach told me their “success isn’t fair”. In my opinion, I would rather celebrate coaches that work their tails off and win with fewer resources than try to find a way to bring them down. Also, I think it is important to note that every coach and every team in the country had the opportunity to recruit the same athletes. They all come from the same pool.)

When it comes to dual meets, the outcome is far too subjective. The way a team “matches up” with another team has a huge effect on the outcome. The match-up problem plays a role in every single dual and is often the deciding factor in a close dual. I’m not a statistics guy, but intuitively, the tournament method seems far more statistically sound.

Here is a hypothetical to demonstrate my point:

Team A has 5 wrestlers ranked #1 and 5 wrestlers ranked #10.

Team B has 5 wrestlers ranked # 3 and 5 wrestlers ranked #12.

If a dual match is wrestled between Team A and Team B, the outcome will drastically change depending on the individual “match-ups”. If the #1s wrestled the #3s and the #10s wrestled #12s and the dual went according to ranking, the base score would be 30-0. If it flip flopped and the #1s wrestled the #12s and the #3s wrestled the #10s, the base score would be 15-15. The strength (and “balance”) of the teams haven’t changed, but there is an extreme difference in team score. In varying degrees, this happens in every single dual meet wrestled.

Another problem with dual meets is that the value of individual competitors is skewed. For example, in a dual meet, the number one ranked wrestler in the country is limited in the contribution he can make to the team. (Advocates for the National Duals like to compare wrestling to “team” sports. It would be strange to see Lebron James limited to scoring 10% of his team points.) Depending on match-ups in a dual meet, a number one ranked wrestler may be no more valuable than a guy that is ranked #50. There is also the case of a #1 guy matching up with a #2 guy. In this scenario, one of the top wrestlers in the country will not be scoring any points. Yes, he may “save” some points, but this does not properly award a team for having one of the best guys in the country. In a tournament setting, the points scored more accurately reflect the contribution of the individual. We could go on and on with these examples, but my point is that the dual meet is again statistically inaccurate when testing the strength of a team.

While, I don’t feel that the dual meet is the proper way to determine a national team championship, I believe it is the main vehicle for getting people to view and follow the sport through the regular season. We need to make sure that the season is structured for us to maximize the number of opportunities to get fans in the stands. While the National Duals structure may allow the “top” 3 or 4 teams to get a bit more media exposure, the overwhelming majority of programs could have fewer opportunities to grow their fan base. The subjective nature of the duals may add a bit of spice to the regular season, but for every dual that becomes more exciting, another dual loses its flavor because the “match-ups” result in a lopsided team score.

I have been told, “You can’t oppose the new duals proposals without offering up a solution or another alternative”. In the words of someone with a larger vocabulary than me, “this argument is specious, knowingly deceitful and willfully obtuse. To offer up a counter proposal to changing our national championship format would be to confirm that it is broken and needs fixing. In our view, the way we decide our national champion is not broken and does not need fixing. That does not indicate that we don’t need to find ways to grow the sport, to promote and foster exciting dual meet environments, and to treat our dual meet seasons with the same level of enthusiasm that we treat our tournaments. EVERY SPORT needs to do that, and wrestling is no different. We have been doing many different things to foster the dual meet environment, to assist and help promote smaller programs or programs in need. To imply that we cannot oppose changing our current championship structure without offering up alternatives is a canard”

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