A new NCAA wrestling calendar could add excitement and solve some issues

An Iowa wrestler goes for a pin in front of a raucous home crowd.

Last March, I wrote about how the NCAA calendar needs a major overhaul, especially the wrestling season.

While I followed the excitement of the Collegiate National Duals a couple weeks ago, it got me thinking that a new wrestling calendar could do much more than just get the NCAA Wrestling Championships out from the shadow of the most popular basketball tournament in the world.

If done smartly, it could also add an exciting new event to the sport and solve some other issues in the process.

Right now, the wrestling season runs from early November to mid-March. November and much of December feel scattered and meaningless, and that feeling has been magnified this season with so many good wrestlers sitting out of big matches.

January and February are exciting, with dual meets every weekend. But everything really comes down to March, when the conference tournaments and NCAA tournament happens.

Here’s a simple idea for a new calendar: Push the entire wrestling season back by one month. Start in December with some dual meets and tournaments like Cliff Keen Las Vegas and Midlands. End in mid-April, when the NCAA Tournament can have the college sports spotlight to itself.

Add a team tournament in March

Penn State’s Bo Nickal celebrates a win against Ohio State in front of his home crowd.

By pushing the season back one month, the meaningless month of November could be transformed into a fun month of March that can add excitement to the entire season.

The individual championships at the college and high school levels will always be the sport’s premier events. Nothing will ever change that. But all of the top wrestling states also hold high school team tournaments, full of exciting dual meets, to crown the top teams in the state. Why couldn’t the NCAA do the same thing to crown the top college teams in the country?

Wrestling is an individual sport, but dual meets are the sport’s lifeblood. They can unite an entire community to cheer on their school. A casual fan — the type of fan wrestling lacks — can walk off the street and understand what’s going on.

At the college level, dual meets are also losing their luster as more and more coaches sit their top wrestlers against the best competition. They have their reasons for doing so, but a big part of the problem is that coaches just don’t see anything to gain, besides bragging rights, from winning a dual meet.

There are some rule changes that could help deter teams from sitting their best wrestlers (like a higher minimum match count to qualify for NCAAs), but giving teams more of an incentive to win their dual meets might offer better motivation.

There are a myriad of ways to format a team tournament, but here’s how I would do it:

  • The top 8 teams in the country are selected for the tournament based on dual meet success in December-February. That’s a large enough tournament that 15–20 teams are in the mix throughout the season, but small enough that teams can’t just take it easy and backdoor their way in.
  • Teams have to wrestle at least 15 duals to be considered. I took a look at this year’s schedules for 28 teams across 7 conferences, and they averaged 14.82 duals. Dual meets bring out the fans, and should bring out even more fans if a postseason tournament berth is on the line.
  • Teams seeded 1–4 host the teams seeded 5–8 in standalone dual meets, with the four winners earning a spot in the Final Four at a neutral location the following weekend. Those four teams are guaranteed a team trophy, which means those four dual meets should be absolutely electric.
  • The Final Four teams meet with back-to-back semifinal duals on a Friday night and the third-place dual and championship dual the following night. Those duals could take over some of the ESPN windows in March currently reserved for the individual tournament.

Move the NCAA individual tournament to April

Right now, the individual tournament lands on the same weekend that the NCAA basketball tournaments begin. That takes away from what could be a much bigger wrestling audience.

By moving the individual tournament to mid-April, wrestling could have the spotlight to itself for a weekend. College basketball would be done, the NBA and NHL regular seasons would be wrapping up, and the excitement of baseball season starting would already be wearing off.

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