Iowa, Oklahoma State playing pivotal role in growth of wrestling’s popularity

The second-ranked Iowa men’s wrestling team will take on No. 10 Oklahoma State at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas on Feb. 12.


Jerod Ringwald

Iowa head coach Tom Brands prepares his team during a wrestling meet between No. 2 Iowa and No. 9 Wisconsin in Carver-Hawkeye Arena on Saturday, Feb. 5, 2022. The Hawkeyes defeated the Badgers, 29-6.

Tom Brands once called Iowa City “the Mecca” of wrestling, hailing it as the sport’s worldwide epicenter. The now-15-year head coach of the University of Iowa men’s wrestling team said there’s no better place to wrestle than the Hawkeye State.

That was Jan. 28, 2020. Now, Brands is taking his show to a place it’s never been before: A major league baseball park.

Brands’ second-ranked Hawkeyes will take on the No. 10 Oklahoma State Cowboys at Globe Life Field in Arlington, Texas, on Feb. 12. The event has been dubbed the “Bout at the Ballpark.”

The day-long event at the Texas Rangers’ home facility will begin with a youth takedown tournament. Then, the U.S. Women’s National Team will face Mongolia before the Hawkeyes and Cowboys battle it out under the lights.

The U.S. Men’s National Team was scheduled to host Iran at the same time as the college dual, but the Iran Wrestling Federation made the decision not to come to the U.S. because of visa issues.

The U.S. Men’s National Team will still compete on Saturday. It’ll take on a variety of international opponents in a dual format.

“It’s a wrestling bonanza,” Brands said of the event during a virtual news conference on Feb. 2. “We love it. We love being a part of it … I know what the highest level of wrestling is. It is the Olympic Games and the international style. But college wrestling is the biggest stage in wrestling. It’s the most-attended type of wrestling that we have on the planet. I’m not even talking about in the United States, I’m talking about on the planet.

“Being a world champion is a big deal, but college wrestling’s still a big, big platform and we gotta be ready,” Brands added. “We gotta be ready. We gotta show up and perform, and that’s what’s gonna make it the most special for us, if we perform.”

The “Bout at the Ballpark” will stream live on FloWrestling on Saturday evening.

Oklahoma State head coach John Smith — who brought his team to Iowa City in 2015 to wrestle against the Hawkeyes in the “Grapple on the Gridiron” at Kinnick Stadium in front of nearly 43,000 fans  — echoed Brands’ sentiment that events like the “Bout at the Ballpark” mean more than just a win or a loss.

“It’s bigger than our own programs,” Smith said. “It’s bigger than the sport. It’s just a nice thing to always promote your sport however you can promote it. Sometimes, it’s not the best for your team to maybe do some of this stuff, but, in the end, it creates more interest in our sport, we believe. And these are things we need to do to continue to grow our sport.”

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Smith also estimated that “Grapple on the Gridiron” and “Bout at the Ballpark” are the biggest duals the sport of wrestling has ever seen.

The Hawkeyes aren’t strangers to big dual meets with a great deal of spectators both in the stands and watching at home.

The 2022 Iowa-Penn State men’s wrestling dual was sold out months before the No. 1 Nittany Lions and No. 2 Hawkeyes hit the mat at Carver-Hawkeye Arena.

Four days after the match, which resulted in a 19-13 Penn State victory, the Big Ten Network announced that the event averaged a record-breaking 363,000 viewers, according to Nielsen Media Research. The previous mark for the highest-viewed wrestling match in Big Ten Network history was set by Iowa and Penn State in 2020. An average of 342,955 viewers turned on their television sets to watch the Hawkeyes and Nittany Lions wrestle each other two years ago.

“Well, I think we have a good product that we put on the mat,” Brands said at a Feb. 1 press conference. “I mean, it’s great for the sport. We love the attention. But things earn themselves, so to speak. We have great guys that take pride in competing hard, and when you do that, and you have [an opposing] team that comes in that embodies those same things in their wrestling, you’re going to have two titans that are going to be watched by a lot of people.”

Apart from the Hawkeyes’ “product” being a draw for fans, both Brands and Iowa senior 165-pounder Alex Marinelli touted BTN’s commitment to showcasing college wrestling on their television station, not only on BTN Plus.

“I think the Big Ten Network has a lot to do with [the growth of college wrestling],” Brands said. “There is a lot of access for viewing. This is real TV. This isn’t, you know, a subscription. This is something that you could sit down in your living room and you’re scrolling through your channels and all of a sudden something comes across the screen and there’s, you know, some craziness going on. It catches people’s eye. They might pause there. You might catch a wrestling fan that’s a sports fan that’s looking for something interesting.”

When Brands wrestled at Iowa from 1989-92, there wasn’t a national or regional station that televised Big Ten duals. The Hawkeyes’ matches were broadcast on Iowa Public Television.

Brands said former Iowa men’s wrestling coach Dan Gable gained a lot of fan and donor support just because his team’s duals were broadcasted on TV.

The Big Ten Network didn’t launch until 2006. ESPN first televised the NCAA Division I Men’s Wrestling Championships in 1980.

Marinelli believes the proliferation of social media and the Hawkeyes’ brand attractiveness have also played a role in the growth of wrestling’s popularity.

“I think social media [is a reason for the sport’s emergence],” Marinelli said Feb. 1 “I think the Big Ten’s doing a really, really good job of just putting content out there.

“But also, you know, Iowa’s the top dog now, and a lot of people want to see them fall,” Marinelli added. “The Big Ten, in general, is just the best conference in college wrestling. So, I think they lead the country as far as social media presence … Putting us on the big screen, like [Brands] said, is a huge deal. It’s putting our wrestling in a lot of people’s living rooms.”

The Big Ten Network’s original documentary profiling Tom Brands and his brother, Hawkeye assistant coach Terry Brands, also attracted a large audience Jan. 28. A record-setting 175,000 viewers watched “The B1G Story: The Brands Brothers.”