The Maneater

How Brian Smith made Mizzou wrestling into a local marketing giant

The Tigers will open the season with a meet at Mizzou Softball Stadium, continuing a tradition of events at unusual venues.

Maneater File Photo

As the ground level fills in, incoming fans are redirected to the balcony of one of the University of Missouri’s most iconic assembly halls. Among the gold-and-black clad patrons already seated inside, a buzz of anticipation lingers in the air. Suddenly, the lights go down in Jesse Auditorium.

The show is about to begin.

The performers in this show aren’t actors though; nor are they musicians, dancers or speakers. These entertainers are wrestlers.

Dual meets at historic Jesse Hall have been one of several marketing tactics employed over the years by Missouri wrestling to attract crowds and earn the program attention.

Despite compiling a 59-8 record over the last four seasons, the team, perhaps Mizzou’s strongest, has to deal with the challenges of being a non-revenue sport, often having to find unique ways to gain a following.

To meet those challenges, the program has embraced creative strategies and an innovative, albeit unusual, mentality.

“We're really trying to make it more than just a sporting event,” head coach Brian Smith said. “If we have to do some crazy things … that’s kind of what I have to do to bring attention to our sport, even though we do win often. We’re not the mainstream sport, so I'm gonna throw it in your face sometimes.”

Along with building the program into a national powerhouse over the last 19 years, Smith has proven to be a marketing mastermind behind many of his promotional events in recent seasons. His approach has produced results, with recorded crowds as large as 2,128 during his tenure, according to mutigers.com.

“I’m always scheming, always scheming,” Smith said with a grin. “There’s always something going on.”

His core idea — selling wrestling as a grand entertainment spectacle — has taken many forms, ranging from alumni events to promotional giveaways to special ticket deals. The most prevalent, however, has been holding meets and practices in atypical locations around campus.

Two seasons ago, while pregame festivities for an Oct. 10 Mizzou-Florida football clash were in full swing, Smith brought his Tigers outside to the front lawn of Hearnes Center nearby Faurot Field so the public could see the team’s first practice of the season.

“Thousands of people walked by, but they would stop and they would watch practice,” Smith said. “So there were a lot of people who maybe had not watched wrestling before, and they got to see us practice and see the intensity of the practice. That just drew a lot of attention to our program.”

The plan was to do the same thing the next year, but the idea evolved to an even bigger and better stage. After some deliberation and planning, Smith was able to bring practice to the first floor of the Student Center.

“It was crazy, but it made it fun,” Smith said. “For our guys it was fun, and I know for a lot of students, it was an interesting thing to say, ‘Well, where’s my regular table? Right now there are two guys wrestling where I usually sit and eat lunch.’”

With tables pushed out of the way and replaced with wrestling mats, and even a big screen pulled down for the occasion, over a thousand people came throughout the day to see the Tigers wrestle.

“That was neat because professors and students were coming up and talking with me,” Smith said. “It got us in touch with the campus. A lot of times we’re hidden over here in the fourth floor of Hearnes Center, and people don't see us. And so it brings us to the people. They’d say, ‘I didn't know we were that good; I'll come watch a match.’ We’re just trying to draw some attention to our sport.”

Smith is currently working with Alan Petersen, the manager of many Campus Dining Services locations, to set a date for another such event this season. Petersen was Smith’s contact at the Student Center when planning last year’s event, too.

“Earlier this fall, Coach Smith was in the building and saw me, and we discussed about doing it again this year,” Petersen said. “I sent it for approval, which we have, and the wrestling staff is working on potential dates for this year’s practice. It’s a great event and I hope we can do it every year.”

And then there’s the Jesse Hall meets. The historic MU structure has played host to three of Mizzou’s duals in the last four years, offering an atmosphere unlike any other in collegiate sports.

The tradition began in 2013, when the Tigers were having trouble finding a location for their dual against Ohio; with a nationally ranked volleyball team laying claim to Hearnes in early December and basketball being played in Mizzou Arena, it looked like the wrestlers would have to resort to a local high school gym.

“Then all of a sudden somebody came up with the idea of the stage, so we ran over to the stage the next day and measured it,” Smith said. “We knew it was gonna be tight, but we thought, ‘Okay, let’s have it at Jesse Auditorium.’”

Since then, Mizzou has also hosted Cornell and Virginia Tech on the stage. The Tigers are 3-0 at the unique venue, a record that includes one of the great moments in recent memory for Tiger Style wrestling.

In an instant classic against No. 14 Cornell, then-junior J’den Cox, who had just been bumped up a weight class, catapulted Mizzou from behind 17-10 to a dramatic 18-17 win with one of his signature moments as a Tiger, a walk-off technical fall in the dual’s final heavyweight match.

“The people were actually running up to the side of the stage and low-fiving him because he was up higher on the stage,” Smith said. “So it was pretty cool, the ending with the crowd going crazy.”

Attendance at the Jesse Hall meets, which started at around 800 for the Ohio dual in 2013, has almost doubled over the last three years. Nearly 1,500 fans packed into the 1,732-seat auditorium for last year’s clash with Virginia Tech. Smith appreciates the atmosphere of these duals more than anything.

“It’s like watching a show, but it’s a show that you don’t know the outcome of,” Smith said. “Like when you go to a drama, you know how it’s gonna end; you’ve known it before. If you go to a concert, you know the songs that they’re gonna sing. For the staff there and the people that come to the match … you’re sitting in an auditorium that’s hosted some amazing events, but now they have a real NCAA competition there that you don't know the outcome of.”

The program’s promotional tactics are often focused on giving the fans a show. The “Beauty and the Beast” event, combining a Mizzou wrestling dual with a gymnastics meet, has resulted in turnouts with up to 7,000 spectators in the past, Smith said. There is no such event scheduled for this season, but Smith says it’s a priority to secure another Beauty and the Beast for next year.

“It’s kind of a three-ring circus atmosphere, where there’s always something going on,” Smith said. “There’s maybe a floor routine going on, and then also a wrestling match going on, and so it’s craziness. It is a crazy atmosphere to coach in because in the middle of the match, a guy will be getting a takedown and then all of a sudden this music starts playing and there's a girl dancing.”

The Tigers also utilize their successful alumni base to appeal to long-time followers of the program. A “Tigers with Titles” promotion last season provided fans with autographed posters of Ben Askren, Tyron Woodley and Michael Chandler, all former Tiger Style wrestlers who have won MMA titles.

Every year, the team holds an alumni homecoming at one of its duals to further celebrate the program’s past. The occasion usually brings out 70-80 former wrestlers, Smith said. Some alumni even competed against 2014’s then-current 24-0 team in a promotional scrimmage — and won.

“The older guys don’t let me forget that,” Smith said with a laugh.

Then there are the recent stars of the program, none more decorated than Cox. While the Olympic bronze medalist’s sheer presence often drew large crowds, marketing his image proved to be one of the most ingenious tactics in years for attracting fans. At a dual last season, attendants received a free Cox bobblehead.

“The lines were scary; we actually had to hire extra security,” Smith said. “My wife was out there saying you will not believe the lines that are out here, like an hour before the match. We ordered 500 at one point, and then I remember going, ‘This is J’den Cox. We’re going to have to buy more.’ We definitely hit the jackpot on that one.”

With a new season one month away, the team is still finding new ways to get the community’s attention. Jesse won’t host a dual this season, but the Tigers will open their 2017-18 campaign against Illinois at Mizzou Softball Stadium Nov. 4, before the football team hosts Florida.

“Everybody’s out there tailgating, and you can just walk into the softball stadium,” Smith said. “We’re gonna have it packed like it's never been packed before, because we can put people on the infield. Our matside seats are gonna be on the infield, and the mat will be over home plate.”

Why is Smith so confident they will come? Part of the appeal, he says, is the knowledge that the team is always willing to think outside the box.

“I know that Mizzou fans, with my crazy things, they're starting to know me and think, ‘Let’s go check this out; Coach Smith’s doing another looney bird thing,’” he said.

At the center of it all is a process: Grab people’s attention with stunts to reel them in, then give them a positive experience at meets that will motivate them to return — and bring friends.

To provide that experience, the program is even working to add to the viewing opportunities at Hearnes. After recently instituting matside seating, the team is now arranging a lounge area for fans with matside tickets. The lounge will sell alcoholic beverages, as well as Mizzou wrestling-themed food items such as Ben Askren curly fries (due to his curly hair) and the J’den Cox slice of pizza (based on Cox sneaking off to get a piece of pizza before competing in the NCAA finals, Smith says).

“There will be a story behind all the foods and we’ll have fun with it, and make it so people can socialize,” Smith said. “We want it to be an event where people enjoy coming and bringing their family.”

The program’s stunts appeal to all audiences, with promotions such as youth clinics, pre-dual amateur meets and military groups with Marine-led practices.

Since Smith took over the program in 1998, it’s been all about elevating Mizzou wrestling to a new level, both on the mat and in the seats.

“When I first got here, I knew everybody by their first name in the stands,” Smith said. “We were wrestling on the track. It was kind of almost oppressive that we couldn’t even get into the facilities, but we did things to promote. Now we have a solid fanbase. I just think that we have a really good product, and I'm going to find ways to get people to watch it.”

Edited by Joe Noser | jnoser@themaneater.com

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