Financial success marks program's emergence
On paper, the Rutgers wrestling team had one of its best regular seasons in history, winning a school-record 21 dual matches compared to just two losses.
On paper, the Scarlet Knights had one of the most disappointing showings at the NCAA Championships, sending eight wrestlers to Philadelphia but failing to land any of them on the podium.
But on the most important paper in this day and age — the financial balance sheet — the Knights may have excelled the most.
For the first time in the program's history, the team offered a ticket plan for fans to reserve seats for all 13 home matches, including five at the Louis Brown Athletic Center. The plan was a basic one: $60 for season tickets and $200 for floor seats at the College Ave Gym and front row seats for matches at the RAC.
And despite having to pay, the fans came in droves.
"For our first year doing it, it was awesome," said head coach Scott Goodale, the frontrunner of the initiative. "We made money. We made a lot of money. I just think it's something that we probably should have been doing all along."
No matter the venue or the event, fans showed their support all season long. The year began with the wrestle-offs — an intra-squad match where spectators literally cannot cheer for one wrestler over another — and still over 1,200 packed the Barn to see the team.
The season ended with the largest crowd ever to attend a Rutgers wrestling match, when 5,011 fans filed into the RAC for the Scarlet Knights' home finale against Lehigh. That number is more than any attendance figure the men's basketball team recorded in its non-conference home schedule.
What makes this all the more remarkable is that it occurred at a time when collegiate wrestling is in crisis mode all over the country.
The University of North Carolina-Greensboro announced less than a week prior to the NCAA Championships that it will eliminate its wrestling program, citing budget cuts as its reasoning.
And it is not that the Spartans were a bad program. In fact, UNCG sent four wrestlers to the national tournament.
The school also hosts one of the premier wrestling tournaments during the year: the Southern Scuffle. The Scuffle falls during winter break and rivals the Midlands Championships in Chicago, where Rutgers spends its break.
The top-two programs in the country — Penn State and Cornell — actually chose to head to Greensboro rather than Chicago.
It is safe to say that nobody is in the clear. But despite this harsh climate, New Jersey wrestling fans showed their support for the state university's team. It does not hurt that the Knights finished in the top 10, either.
"I think it was important for us to get some success first," Goodale said. "People are now excited with what's going on. There is less of the coaching staff marketing. We used to text and email all of our contacts and we don't really need to do that anymore."
The vision of the program moving forward is to not only remain in the top 10 in the country in terms of wrestling, but to stay there in terms of attendance, too. Goodale knows for that to come true there needs to be constant support from one area in particular.
"The next step is making sure our student body at Rutgers comes out," Goodale said.
There are two ways to ensure the program creates a buzz not only on campus, but also in the whole state.
First, remove the dead weight from the schedule. The Knights opened the season against Sacred Heart and East Stroudsburg, which Rutgers beat by a combined 88-6 score. The team also went on to breeze past the likes of George Mason, Cleveland State and the United States Merchant Marines.
Second, move the rest of the matches to the RAC. The program proved it is capable of attracting crowds when hosting other upper-level programs in Lehigh and Virginia Tech. With schools like these being the only ones on the schedule, it will garner more interest based on the caliber of opponent and the location.
Penn State only hosted seven home matches this season, but they all featured programs that sent wrestlers to the NCAA Championships. The same holds true for the other top-tier programs, such as Cornell and Iowa.
While the All-American conundrum is keeping Rutgers from being in the conversation with these programs in March, the Knights stand their ground when it comes to attracting big crowds.
And with the way things are going for college wrestling, on paper, selling the product is almost as important as the wins and the losses.
— A.J. Jankowski accepts comments, criticisms and witticisms at firstname.lastname@example.org.