When Cornell's Kyle Dake won his third consecutive NCAA title in 2012, he smiled broadly to acknowledge the standing ovation, turned four times for the audience and was quickly ushered off the mat.
Should he win his fourth title in as many years this weekend in Des Moines, Iowa, the affable towhead will have more time on the stage and presence in the national media -- perfect timing for a sport that's trying to restate its case to the International Olympic Committee.
The Cornell senior is the main storyline of this weekend's national championships because he's aiming to become the first wrestler to win four NCAA titles at four different weight classes (141 as a freshman, then 149, 157 and now 165). But the junior wrestler he's expected to meet in the finals, defending national champ David Taylor of Penn State, is an impressive 96-2 in his career and last year was named the most outstanding wrestler in the country.
Dake and Taylor are more than just future adversaries. Among the 330 wrestlers competing in Des Moines on Thursday, Dake and Taylor rate as both the most dominant and the most popular of the bunch. Their rivalry, accelerated by two heart-pounding one-point matches this season (both won by Dake, though one was in an exhibition match) and assisted by catchy nicknames ("Kid Dynamite" for Dake and "Magic Man" for Taylor), has driven interest in the sport of college wrestling to record levels.
The match is so compelling that for the first time ever, the NCAA has elected to change the order of Saturday night's finals to ensure they conclude with the 165-pound weight class. "We saw this as an opportunity to give the tournament another shot in the arm," says Dave Martin, chair of the NCAA wrestling committee and associate athletic director at Oklahoma State.
"With the possible elimination of Olympic wrestling, this kind of attention provides an audience and the potential for a huge upside. We're going to get more casual viewers, and I think wrestling deserves that kind of exposure."
Despite the negativity surrounding the IOC's decision, college wrestling is showing signs of financial health and even rapid expansion. After decades of contraction among Division I programs, amateur wrestling has been tagged as a struggling sport. But in a time when questions about superconferences are in the ether, the broadening appeal of college wrestling offers lessons about the profitability and sustainability of small but fan-friendly collegiate sports.
The NCAA Division I wrestling championship is one of only five NCAA championships that made money in 2012. Between ticket sales, programs and merchandise, the tournament netted more than $500,000 for the NCAA. That ranked third behind men's basketball and men's ice hockey, topping every other championship, including the College World Series and the women's basketball tournament.
According to the Des Moines Register, tickets for this year's event have soared recently to as high as $580 on StubHub, and city officials from St. Louis and Philadelphia -- hosts of the 2011 and 2012 wrestling championships -- estimate that the three-day event dumped $15 million apiece into their local economies. Jeff Jernacke of the NCAA credits a dedicated online following for much of the recent expansion. Among all the NCAA's sports, wrestling's Facebook and Twitter feed are the second most trafficked, with more than 200,000 members.
"Lots of people like basketball and baseball," says Jernacke, who was in charge of the 2012 championships, "but wrestling fans are some of the most active and passionate online fans we've ever seen."
The Big Ten Network has also seen an uptick in viewership and feedback. The Chicago-based network broadcast 55 live events this season, an offering that was up more than 600 percent from 2010. According to BTN VP Elizabeth Conlisk, this season's 55 events were seen by 27 percent more viewers than the 2011-2012 season.
"Wrestling has some of our most dependable numbers and our most active fan base in terms of quality feedback," says Conlisk. "When we air a wrestling match, the fans watch."
This year's dramatic finale between Dake and Taylor might be coming at the ideal time for a sport in international disarray. The wrestling community is locked in a political and public relations battle with the IOC to prove the sport should remain an Olympic sport. A key element to the IOC's decision and the sport's response is proving commercial viability through ratings and public interest. Supporting their argument is that all six sessions of the championship are being shown on ESPN networks, starting with Thursday's early rounds on ESPN3, followed by Friday's semifinals on ESPNU and the Saturday night finals at 8 p.m. on ESPN.
Dake and Taylor are fierce competitors on the mat but friends off it, having wrestled together in amateur tournaments throughout middle school and high school. But now, with legacies on the line, the pair will face each other in the most hyped amateur wrestling match ever.
"Most of the time, people run away from the competition, especially if they're friends," says Dake. "It's just a sport, though. Nothing that's going to happen on the mat is going to ruin anything. We're both going out there to win and put on a show."
Taylor enters the tournament having been taken down only four times in the past two years. This season, he has 10 pins, 10 technical falls and five major decisions. His last remaining order of business? Avenging his early-season losses to Dake. "I don't see myself as the underdog -- I believe I'm the best wrestler in the country," Taylor says. "In the beginning of the year, we both knew that somebody was going into the tournament with a loss and somebody wasn't. The matches that matter happen this week, not in January."
The final match of the night will feel like a pay-per-view event, and for the small community of wrestling fans huddling around barstools, it'll be a validation of their passion.
T.R. Foley is an ESPN Insider and former All-America wrestler at Virginia.