Scott Green, the Head Coach of Wyoming Seminary and a confidant of mine tweeted "If you can't sell out the Lehigh Valley, the Mesopotamia of wrestling, I don't know if the live audience is as important as the online one."
It hits on two important points. 1) He's right - the live audience isn't as important as the online one. Just as the in-stadium attendance isn't as important as those watching on-line or on cable for a regular season baseball game or the Super Bowl, for that matter. The number of people that watch from afar will always be greater than the number that can afford the time and money to attend in person.
2) The fact that Senior Freestyle didn't sell out in wrestling-crazed State College, or the tradition-rich Lehigh Valley which sells out for Who's #1 (a high school event), or a Lehigh dual with Drexel, tells you there is work to be done in building the freestyle audience.
I've said for years: I don't understand the drop off between the rabid college appetite compared to the Senior level. Of course there is the school/college affinity, but it's akin to minor league baseball being more popular than the MLB; it just doesn't make much sense to me. Sorry, NCAA guys, but the Senior level is much more advanced. Isn't it amazing that NCAA's obliterates the WORLD CHAMPIONSHIPS in attendance? That an inferior level of competition out-draws a superior one begs for reform.
Now, if you take those two things (the online viewership and the need to build the international style audience), you arrive at the impetus of the move to Final X to begin with - building a better product.
And that product means more, not less.
Let's dig in to the pro's and con's, the truths and fallacies, and the most pervasive feedback from the first Final X.
The trials process has continued to be reevaluated year after year. Some said it was unfair for a World Medalist to sit in the finals. Some said it was unfair for the U.S. Open winner to sit in the finals. Some said it was unfair for anyone to sit in the finals on the same weekend that a challenger had to wrestle through a mini bracket. These are all incarnations of previous trials processes.
But first and foremost, we are here because USA Wrestling and FloWrestling agreed that to build the sport, there had to be more of a 'season'. Like United World Wrestling's move to a two-day format, the wrestling world is finally starting to come around to the idea that for growth you must be able to package and market it to fans in the best way possible.
For the first time in this country's history, senior-level wrestling had a season. Previous World Championships played a part. The Schultz and Farrell International Tournaments took on greater importance. The U.S. Open was again pivotal. And the Challenge Tournament set the stage. Then we had three weeks to complete our 20-person World Teams.
It accomplished several things. There was a narrative. Following along each event, wrestling fans became more familiar with the current history, previous results, and context of what was to come. It allowed media to make more analysis and create more features. And it allowed fans in several cities to attend.
When radical changes are applied, the world waits to assess.
With each passing week there was dialogue on what was going well, and what changes might need to be made. Everyone, from fans to USA Wrestling, FloWrestling and the coaches and athletes that competed in Final X agreed that it was a success and a step in the right direction for the sport in this country. For such drastic changes, everyone could exhale in relief that Final X worked.
But what is 'success'? What are the metrics we are measuring?
Let's first start with something before a single match was wrestled - USA Wrestling got a boost financially. The value of one of their event properties increased dramatically.
Some say attendance was poor. That's false. Attendance was higher in Lincoln than it was in 2013 Stillwater. Attendance in State College was greater than 2014 Madison. Attendance in Lehigh, although below expectations, was greater than 2015 Madison. That's three events in a span of two weeks that outperformed entire years of World Team Trials where all styles were held together.
But the single most beneficial aspect of Final X came as a result of continued engagement and viewership. For weeks people talked about, engaged with, and tuned in for Final X/USA Wrestling content. The equity gained by USA Wrestling, its events, and its athletes over the course of Final X is exponential and yet immeasurable. How do you put a number on Forrest Molinari becoming a star? For Women's wrestling gaining more respect and popularity? For the State College crowd applauding Rachel Watters in a losing effort?
How do you put a price tag on the collective boost that USA Wrestling and Senior-level athletes received by being the talk of the wrestling world over a prolonged duration as opposed to the past when the carnival came to town just once?
The Future and the Debate
To be clear, Final X isn't going anywhere in 2019 as the contract runs through that year. And I'm thoroughly optimistic, given the feedback by all, that it will be re-upped following the Olympic Year.
But there is one major item of contention that all stakeholders - Flo, USAW, coaches, athletes, media, and fans are divided on - number of dates and length of process.
Nearly every day over the last I've had conversations with people about the process and the response is invariably one of two things 1) Love it as is 2) It should be two weeks instead of one.
The athletes, particularly the men in Final X Lehigh, took issue with waiting so long. Some coaches complained of having to travel to more than one site.
To them, I say this is not about convenience. Baseball players play 162 games and travel incessantly. They also happen to be the highest paid athletes in the world. You can't, in one breath, say you want better compensation and then also say you want to travel and compete less. And after all, the returning medalists, didn't have to wrestle a single 'extra' match.
Somehow, lost in all the World Team Trials process changes, was the reason for the changes to begin with.
Somehow, the critics think this is about attendance, which was superior to most WTT's anyway. Somehow there are people (even people internally at Flo and USAW) who are looking at travel, and time, and profit/loss ledgers instead of remembering that this is about building equity in our sport; it's the long game that counts.
No. We need to stay with three events.
The value is greater than the sum of its parts. For both attendance, viewership, and expenses.
In Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal Lecter gives Clarise Starling a tip, 'we covet what we see everyday.' Which is to say, the more we see something, the more we want it.
Martin Floreani founded this company on that premise; that wrestling was the greatest sport in the world and that if presented right, and shown more, it could grow by leaps and bounds.
Part of that presentation is a tight, digestible show, which doesn't occur with ten best-of-three matches - what you'd have if compressed into two weekends.
Stay the course. Stay with three events.