Last week something weird happened at the Ohio State wrestling dual against Penn State. It wasn't that they lost to the Nittany Lions (Penn State is very good), and it wasn't that Kyle Snyder lost (because he didn't, because he's amazing). It was that over 15,000 people showed up to watch a non-revenue sport that typically gets very little attention outside of tournament season.
15,338, if we're being precise, and what's even more astonishing about that number is that attendance figure is higher than the attendance figures for every single Ohio State men's basketball game at home this season except for one: a mid-January matchup against Tom Izzo and Sparty.
There are a lot of factors in play there, to be fair; men's basketball has been middling-to-bad this season depending on how many pizza rolls they've had before the game, and the wrestling team currently can field what may be the greatest wrestler in the world right now. As I mentioned on the Dubcast this week, it's not super shocking that the wrestling team could find around 15,000 or so people in central Ohio and eastern Pennsylvania to watch a guy who has won virtually every major wrestling tournament in the world.
It's a bigger issue for Thad Matta. In each of the last five seasons, men's basketball attendance has gone down. To wit:
This season they are averaging all of 12,128 people at home games, which is a generous number considering that even a cursory glance at the crowd during once of those games would suggest that the actual number of people there is much, much lower.
It's a troubling trend for the program, because their financial relevance to the university is directly tied to their success on the court. Urban Meyer and Ohio State football could go 6-7 next year and they'd still bring in over 100,000 fans for each game and turn in a gigantic profit. If Thad Matta's squat ends up getting bounced in the first round of the NIT for a few straight years, you'll be hard-pressed to find anyone in Columbus willing to go outside in below freezing temperatures and check out a bad team that plays in an aircraft hangar.
Matta's woes aside, that wrestling dual got me thinking: is it possible for any non-revenue sport to overtake basketball on a consistent basis, at least in terms of raw numbers of people attending?
Well... no. Not even close. But what this little thought experiment does highlight is that while Ohio State men's basketball is becoming less relevant on the national stage and therefore isn't drawing the crowds that they should, there are also a number of other sports on campus that deserve far more of a following than they currently get.
As awesome as it was, the over 15 thousand fans that watched Kyle Snyder beat the hell out of a guy really just mess all of the stats up. With that insane atmosphere, the Ohio State wrestling team is averaging over 5,000 attendees per dual, but if you discount what seems to be a weird fluke, that number drops to under 3,000 per dual.
But the larger point is that the crazy atmosphere that showed up last week shouldn't be a one time thing. Buckeye wrestling, even outside of Snyder, is really, really damn good and deserves every right to be counted alongside basketball on a regular basis.
While you're probably never going to see the kind of draw to women's basketball at Ohio State in the way that you might see it at a place like Tennessee or UConn (or apparently South Carolina, which has led the nation in attendance for women's basketball for a few years now, with over 14,000 per game somehow?), the relative success of the women's basketball team has done it some favors as its averaging a hair over 5,000 fans per game.
That's nothing to sneeze at, but while getting into women's basketball might seem a little futile given the complete domination of the sport by one school (that isn't Ohio State), I refuse to believe that South Carolina and South Carolina alone can get their shit together enough to watch women's basketball.
Right now men's hockey is doing extremely well in a difficult conference, but is still only averaging a shade under 4000 fans per home game. This hurts my heart, because as a student at Ohio State, one of my absolute favorite pastimes was to drop a few bucks on a hockey game, get a few beers with my Buck ID, and sprint back to my dorm to hide under the covers for a few days.
Hockey is one of those sports that can be entertaining to watch no matter what the skill level is, but in the Big Ten and at Ohio State you're starting to see a lot more professionally qualified skaters, and that's pretty exciting.
I just included these guys because it's a little criminal that a team this damn good would have so few people watching them kick ass. Right now they're averaging a paltry 900 or so people per match, which is unbecoming for a team riding a historic win streak and defending a national title.
Get your butts out there, ladies and gentlemen! Volleyball is both cool and good, actually, and it's time we started wrapping our heads around that fact.
In the short term, men's basketball is not in any way likely to be surpassed in terms of attendance by another Ohio State sport. Even if the team completely fell off the cliff in terms of talent, it'd still likely average a few thousand more ticket sales per game than any other winter sport, and generate more revenue than most of them combined.
That's not really the issue here. What's more important is that of the billion or so varsity sports that Ohio State fields every year, there are many really exciting teams that deserve your dollars more than a middling basketball team might. 15,000 people absolutely should show up to see Kyle Snyder wrestle in every match, because he's Kyle Snyder, dammit!
Hockey, women's basketball, men's volleyball, and literally everything else that Ohio State has to offer is worth your time, and while thousands have already figured this out, thousands more should join the party.