By Jason Elmquist
STILLWATER, Okla. —
The fans continued to file in long after action began Sunday in Gallagher-Iba Arena between two of the greatest college wrestling programs.
The crowd was so large the black drapes covering the upper bowl had to be pulled back to accommodate more seating. The final tally for the historic dual between No. 2 Oklahoma State and fourth-ranked Iowa was 5,537 — with several hundred Iowa faithful making the trek into Stillwater.
The number exceeded the attendance of most OSU wrestling duals the past few years — even bettering last year’s National Duals championship held in the historic hall named after a wrestling great.
The atmosphere was electric with both wrestling diehards and novices alike in Gallagher-Iba.
“It was a classic match,” OSU coach John Smith said.
The event even drew some celebrities — from Boone Pickens and Mike Gundy, to Matt Holliday and Randy Couture, who signed autographs 30 minutes before the dual. It was a turnout worthy of such a classic dual.
“It’s big for the support, because those kinds of people attract a lot of publicity and fans to this sport,” said OSU junior Blake Rosholt, a native of Ponca City.
“This is the pinnacle of what we do in collegiate wrestling,” Couture said prior to the dual. “The two top programs, traditionally. When you think about college wrestling, you think about the Cowboys and you think about the Hawkeyes.”
But in reality, the turnout was simply pedestrian.
Last year’s dual in Iowa City, Iowa, between these two programs drew a crowd of 15,400 — roughly 10,000 more on hand than for this year’s version in Stillwater.
Only one section of the black curtain covering the upper bowl had to be pulled down, still leaving the ends shuttered in emptiness.
“I want to keep those curtains down,” Smith said. “I was disappointed they raised them. (I want) sell outs. I want to pull them down on all sides.”
At a university where football has become king, this type of dismal turnout for big sporting events is becoming a norm.
The last two years while covering OSU men’s basketball games in Gallagher-Iba against heated rival Oklahoma, I have received text messages from people asking “This is Bedlam, right? Where are the fans?” The past two Bedlam contests in Stillwater have averaged a reported attendance of just over 10,000 — taking in mind that season tickets sold automatically factor into the final total, not relying solely on the turnstile.
Some argue the reason for the lack of a turnout is based on the price of tickets. On ticket-selling websites, tickets for OSU home games start as cheap as $15 — with the big game against top five opponent Kansas starting at $27.
In comparison, tickets for home games at Kansas are either unavailable on these sites or range from $64, to $130 for a ticket to see rival Kansas State — and KU’s games are sold out year after year with those prices. Yes, the product has been consistent in Kansas, but I’d been told since my first day in Stillwater that OSU has a faithful basketball following. And that hasn’t been the case.
OSU wrestling has historically been great and yet can’t pull the same attendance as Iowa. Even in the football’s glory year of 2011, the home games didn’t sell out — and last year’s up and down year saw a drop in attendance.
Oklahoma State is being challenged yearly in all sports by fans across the country. And both the ticket office and the fan bases are coming up short.
Maybe fans are becoming too reliant on Boone Pickens to buy their ticket for them — the only way OSU men’s basketball got a sold out arena for the Gonzaga game, despite it being a matchup of top 25 teams. Maybe ticket prices are higher than preferred.
Whatever the case, one thing is for certain: OSU sports have the talent to compete every year, but they don’t have the fan support of universities who claim the same.
Jason Elmquist is sports editor of The Stillwater NewsPress. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.