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National Duals: Please Stop [Updated]

The NWCA is back at it, trying to make something out of National Duals.

Tom Ryan is confused.  Let's help him out.
Tom Ryan is confused. Let's help him out.

Earlier this week, Penn State wrestling coach Cael Sanderson got into a scrape on twitter with Ohio State's Tom Ryan and Tommy Rowlands, among others. The issue at hand? Changing the National Wrestling Coaches Association (NWCA) National Duals event to make it relevant. Well, more specifically - Ryan wants to mess with wrestling's best event, the NCAA Championships, in order to try to make National Duals relevant. Cael's not so hot for that idea.

Twitter's not the most functional tool for clearly communicating your concept, though. So Dan Vest from Buckeye blog Land Grant Holy Land will be interpreting Tom Ryan's message. I'll be laying out my notion of Cael's rebuttals below. And, even though Tom Brands only used twitter one time ever - and wow, was it a great one time - The Pants' wrestling honcho RossWB will be fabricating whatever he pleases as the voice of Tom Brands, because Brands' twitter feed hasn't been active since that one time back in August. I'll link their posts here when they are published.

So - just what, exactly, is Tom Ryan advocating? After failing to make National Duals the NCAA-approved team championship; and after failing to draw interest for the tournament by reorganizing the Duals into four regionals two years ago; and after failing to draw even 2,000 attendees last year, when they got their ultimate matchup wish - Minnesota vs. Oklahoma State in Minneapolis; and, this year, after having most of the top teams decline invitations; well, now Ryan and Cornell's Rob Koll want to award team championship points to Duals participants, which will give those participants a leg up when everyone meets a few weeks later at the regular NCAA Championships. If you compete and place 3rd, you might get 15 points. For 1st place you might get a 30 point lead before the Championship tournament begins. In other words, Ryan and Koll think they'll make Duals popular by forcing teams to participate, and forcing fans to pay attention.

Why? Ryan and Koll are trying to make National Duals relevant. They're trying to make it a marketable event, in order to generate revenue and grow the sport. Let's genuinely commend them for the effort. But not only are they misguided in their spastic approach these last few years, they're completely missing the issue.

Here's what Ryan and Koll keep missing: National Duals suck. Why do they suck? First, let's rule out some of the excuses Ryan and Koll have used in the past: 1) Duals don't suck because Penn State skips them; 2) Duals don't suck because they span two or three weekends; 3) Duals don't suck because of the gym, or the hotels, or because Minnesota's state high school tournament is running concurrently.

No, friends. Duals suck because they use an arbitrary "team" scoring method that discourages excitement. This is the root cause.

Duals, by their existing incentives, discourage aggressive, offensive wrestling, and encourage boring, scoreless, defensive wrestling, particularly between mismatched opponents. That, friends, is why Duals suck.

How so? Let's say you're not a very good wrestler, and you're facing a champion stud against whom you might have just a 1-in-20 chance of victory. If you go for the win - if you pull out all the stops, and throw every bit of junk and funk you have at the stud, in an attempt to get the victory - although you increase your chances at pulling the upset, you also increase the chances that you'll make a critical mistake, and get pinned. Getting pinned gives the other "team" six points, while you get none. Conversely, if you turtle up, attempt no offense, and try only not to get killed - you create an awful sporting event, but you likely only get beaten by a little bit, instead of a tech fall or pin. And congratulations! The stud only gets three "team" points, instead of six.

Let's state that again, because it's critically important: duals, by their existing incentives, discourage aggressive, offensive wrestling, and encourage boring, scoreless, defensive wrestling, particularly between mismatched opponents. That, friends, is why Duals suck.

Dual meets, from the perspective of what you see on the mat, are not half as entertaining as individual tournaments. In an individual tournament, the incentives are clear: win and advance, or lose and die. You either beat the man in front of you, some way, some how, or you are getting knocked out of the tournament. There's no incentive in an individual tournament to lose by a close margin. Consequently, you get far more exciting action, brilliant moves, and unbelievable upsets at individual tournaments - which, more than likely, is at least part of the reason that the existing NCAA Championships, an individual tournament, has grown by leaps and bounds in both attendance and viewership (ESPN is increasing coverage, by the way). The Southern Scuffle, a mid-season individual tournament, has become a massive success under the guidance of Chattanooga in just a three years, packing the gym with attendees, and selling a boat load of over-the-web video content (licensed to Flo). National Duals, meanwhile, can't draw 2,000 people to a championship final in Minnesota, when the Gophers are wrestling in it.

There are, of course, a litany of other reasons why National Duals is not already a great event, and won't be a great event even after you bolt some artificial "meaning" on to it as if it was Frankenstein. Foremost among them, from my perspective at least, is that "National Duals" aren't national. There are 16 teams in the current National Duals format. There are 79 Division 1A wrestling squads. National Duals excludes 80% of the possible participants.

You want all of the top 16 teams to participate? Then why not just replay the Big Ten regular season? Eight of the Intermat top 16 right now are Big Ten teams. Half the field would come from one conference.

And what would make having half the field from one conference even better? (Sarcasm, engage). Why, let's hold National Duals just after all those Big Ten teams have wrestled each other in duals during the regular season, and just before all of the Big Ten wrestlers face each other in the conference's individual tournament! Yes! The Big Ten regular season and conference tournament aren't difficult enough already. Let's make those guys wrestle each other a 4th and 5th time before NCAAs.

Come on, guys. Really.

Do you want to make National Duals, and Duals in general, into an event? Do you want to grow the sport? Then get rid of incentives in your scoring that discourage action, and discourage risk taking. FILA and Olympic wrestling just got through this not six months ago, for crying out loud. Wrestling was cut, among other less valid reasons, because 1-0 matches are boring. So what did FILA do? They increased the point value for a takedown. Hooray! Suddenly, all across the world, we're seeing fast paced, action packed battles, with more risks taken.

Set the incentives correctly, and the intended behavior will follow. There are tons of examples for this. The "Iowa style", which routinely packs Carver Hawkeye, is constant pressure, and attacks. What has Hawk fans concerned today? Lack of offense. Penn State is a similar example. Rec Hall has been sold out for three straight years of home duals, despite the incorrect incentives, in part because the Lions ignore them and wrestle aggressively.

The NFL took off in popularity after rule changes in the mid 1970s encouraged offensive action - the passing game, specifically. The NBA took off in popularity in the late 70's and early 80's after rule changes increased scoring, and decreased brawling. The NHL, after nearly ruining their sport, has spawned a rebirth by encouraging action - scoring - by changing the rules. That is, they modified the incentives.

Fans want to be entertained. A 1-0 heavyweight match is painfully boring. Perhaps worse, though, is watching a superstar struggle to score because his opponent refuses to take any risks in an attempt to keep his margin of defeat close. It's frustrating.

Thinking that National Duals will take off in popularity because you'll force teams to participate, and force fans to pay attention, by inventing an artificial "meaning" is - actually, it angers me. It's Orwellian. It's moronic, and offensive, particularly when the obvious answer is slapping you in the face. Change the incentives.

[Update: Dan's Buckeye take is available. It's a good read.]