Outside The Gym

April 26, 2015

The following article appears in the April/May 2015 issue of Athletic Management.

Over the past decade, colleges have been experimenting with moving indoor sports contests to outdoor venues. California Baptist University, an NCAA Division II school, has capitalized on this trend, placing its wrestling mats under sunny California skies for matches both this and last year. Its 2014-15 event, dubbed “Take it Outside,” drew 2,600 fans to see the Lancers challenge Stanford University on Saturday, Nov. 10.

“The idea came from [Head Coach] Lennie Zalesky when we were talking about ways to publicize the program,” says CBU Athletic Director Micah Parker. “Being located in Southern California, our wrestling team is one of only a few that can host a match outside during November, so we decided to try the concept.”

In 2013, the school hosted an outdoor tri-dual meet that included two junior colleges, and it attracted 400 fans. “I realized that if we could draw that many spectators competing against a pair of small schools with minimal publicity, this had the potential to be a major event,” Parker says.

From there, CBU approached Stanford about being this year’s opponent, and the Cardinal quickly agreed. “With a big-name school on board, we knew the match could be a great way to promote the university, so we went all out,” Parker says. “Several on-campus entities were involved—marketing, campus events, security, and IT—and we met weekly beginning in May.”

Choosing a location with high visibility was the first task. “We decided to hold it on our ‘Front Lawn,’ which is a big grass clearing at the entrance to our campus,” Parker says. “We hired a company to build a raised 45-by-45-foot platform for the mat to go on and brought in enough bleachers to seat 2,400 fans.”

The school also arranged for three food trucks to provide refreshments and UFC fighter Urijah Faber, who had won an NCAA wrestling title for Zalesky, to sign autographs. At the same time, the university’s marketing department went into overdrive.

“We sent posters to every high school within driving distance of campus with an invitation from Coach Zalesky, and we bought billboards on a nearby highway promoting the event,” Parker says. “We also got a lot of publicity through our local newspaper.

“To draw in CBU students, we talked about it during chapel services,” he continues. “We also initiated a cross-promotion with our basketball program—any student that attended the wrestling match would get a free ticket to our Midnight Madness event the following Saturday.”

The school hyped the match through its social media accounts and put three promotional videos on YouTube. That helped news of the match go viral, as it was picked up by wrestling blogs and magazines. “The wrestling community is close knit, and they typically get behind an event like this,” Parker says. “Once they did, we knew it was going to be huge.”

The one thing the school couldn’t control was the weather. “We had sunny skies for four solid months prior to the event but the forecast called for rain on Friday, heading into Saturday’s match,” Parker says. “And since Southern Californians won’t go anywhere when there’s bad weather, we had to post constant updates on social media assuring everyone the match was still on.”

As predicted, the rain started Friday, and while the indoor arena was being prepped as an alternate location, plastic tarps were placed over the outdoor platform to keep it dry. “We were going to decide whether to move it inside at 11:00 a.m., and the rain stopped at 10:30,” Parker says. “We called it our wrestling miracle.”

Under cloudy skies, the Cardinal topped the Lancers 27-9, and the event was a resounding success. “The fans loved it,” Parker says. “We had a lot of students who had never been to a wrestling match, and they were posting on our school’s Instagram and Twitter accounts. There were also a lot of families with young children watching.”

In the months since, Lancer coaches of all sports say fans, recruits, and even opposing coaches have been talking about the event. “Something like this is rarely going to be a money-maker,” Parker says. “But the buzz and publicity
it provides for a school is priceless.”

 

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