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Stine: NCAA Wrestling Championships Need New Dates

Photo by NCAA: Aaron Brooks

The NCAA Wrestling Championships are wonderful, but something has to change.

Flip though the channels around noon on a Thursday or Friday afternoon most of the year and you will usually find a shortage of quality sports content.

That isn’t the case this week.

Every year, the first round of basketball’s NCAA Tournament  is played all day Thursday and Friday.

It also happens to be played at the same time as the NCAA Wrestling Championships. For those of us that enjoy both basketball and wrestling, it’s simply too much content at one time. Fans are forced to pick which one to watch.

Every year, I think to myself that wrestling would do itself a lot of favors if the powers in charge of NCAA wrestling pushed their tournament back a week so it isn’t competing with the basketball tournament.

Former Nittany Sports Now editor Cory Giger likes to call wrestling a “niche sport.” And he’s right. The sport only attracts a certain amount of fans. But those fans are as passionate about wrestling as you will find in any sport.

Basketball isn’t that.

The NCAA Tournament has become a phenomenon in itself over the years. People that don’t watch a whole lot of college basketball all of a sudden become hardcore fans for the first round of the tournament. People take days off of work or school just to watch basketball for those two days.

And for some reason, wrestling decides it wants to compete with that tournament when it shouldn’t have to.

Wrestling has come a long way in terms of popularity. It wasn’t all that long ago that you could only see the NCAA finals on ESPN. Now you can watch the whole tournament all three days on the ESPN family of networks. If there’s a specific match you want to watch, the ESPN app has a camera on every mat. The television coverage is simply better than it ever has been.

Ratings are getting a little higher every year for wrestling. Now think how well it would do if it weren’t competing with a huge money maker like the basketball tournament.

It gets a little bit trickier for Penn State fans this year. The basketball team has made the tournament for the first time in a dozen years. The basketball team doesn’t play until 9:55 Thursday night. That’s good news if you are a night owl like me. Wrestling will probably be pretty close to wrapped up for the night by the time Penn State tips off.

But what if the basketball teams wins Thursday night? PSU would play in the second round Saturday, and although we don’t know the game times yet, there’s a possibility that the team would play Saturday night around the same time that the NCAA wrestling finals are being held.

How are fans of both supposed to pick? Basketball is making a fantastic run and is arguably the most fun team in the program history. But wrestling is still the second most popular sport on campus, and we could also be seeing Roman Bravo-Young, Carter Starocci, Aaron Brooks and Max Dean going for national championships at the same time.

And this is hardly just a Penn State problem. You probably won’t find bigger wrestling fan bases than Penn State and Iowa anywhere in the country.

Iowa also made the basketball tournament, and it also plays Thursday and possibly Saturday.

Hawkeye fans could say the same thing for their basketball team while Spencer Lee will likely be winning another NCAA title.

The Big Ten is where you’ll find the most passionate wrestling fans, but this is a problem all across the country every year.

You might be thinking to yourself that the basketball tournament is still going on next weekend too, and even though the level of competition is even greater next weekend, there are still only 16 teams when the basketball tournament picks up next week. Basketball is only played at night next week, as well, meaning wrestling could have the day sessions all to themselves.

Besides, many basketball fans lose interest after the first weekend, either because their team is out of the tournament or their bracket is busted. That makes for even more room for wrestling to gain even more interest.

There is no perfect solution when you’re competing with basketball. The NCAA reported $1.14 billion dollars in revenues in 2022, and March Madness accounts for most of that money, so they aren’t going to touch the dates for the basketball tournament. You could move wrestling a week earlier when basketball’s conference tournaments are being played, but those are probably almost as popular as the NCAA Tournament.

The only wrong move is to keep competing with the first round of basketball.

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