STILLWATER – John Smith has spoken highly of Tulsa for the past four years as the host site for the Big 12 Conference Wrestling Championships.
He viewed the growing success of an event that saw an increase in attendance every year it was held at the BOK Center as a test run for the potential of hosting the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships.
It was announced Wednesday, that it has been an affective showcase.
Tulsa and the BOK Center – which is locked up to the host the Big 12 tournament through 2024 – was awarded the 2023 Division I national tournament, which will be co-hosted by Oklahoma State, by the NCAA site selection committee. It is the first time Tulsa will host the event, and the first time it will return to Oklahoma since Oklahoma City hosted in 2014.
“It’s been a little bit longer than we’ve wanted, for sure, but it’s a new look for the NCAA,” Smith said in an interview with the News Press while on his way to Tulsa to “celebrate” the news. “We have never had it in Tulsa. The last time we’ve had a tournament that was a first-time location was in New York City (at Madison Square Garden). It’s nice that we have two locations in our state that’s hosted NCAA championships now. I think that’s important for the future that Oklahoma City and Tulsa now will have hosted the NCAA championships.”
Since the BOK Center took over hosting duties for the Big 12 Wrestling Championships in 2017, the event saw a steady increase in attendance – though attendance hasn’t been reported yet for 2020, which was still held in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic reaching the United State. In 2019, the BOK hosted just short of 20,000 fans over the two-day conference championship with 19,892 – nearly double the league’s previous record for attendance when it was hosted on campus (10,551 at Ames, Iowa, in 1999).
The Big 12 Wrestling Championships is the largest neutral-site wrestling conference championship in the NCAA, with the Big Ten hosting its conference tournament on campuses.
“The Tulsa Sports Commission, as well as the BOK Center, really made a huge commitment to Big 12 wrestling the last several years, and I think it made it made a big difference,” Smith said. “It’s been a successful event. It really showed the BOK Center, as well as Tulsa, is very much capable of running a bigger event like the NCAA championships.”
While the clear excitement surrounds the national championships returning to Oklahoma for the first time in nearly 10 years, there was an added bit of shock and excitement for Smith and the Cowboy wrestling fan base.
It was discovered that three of the next four national tournaments will be held within driving distance of Stillwater.
The 2021 championships, which have been set in stone for a few years, will be in St. Louis, while the year following Tulsa’s opportunity to host will be held in Kansas City, Missouri.
It will be the first time the event has been hosted in Kansas City since 2003 – which was the first year in Oklahoma State’s four-year run of national championships. Kemper Arena was home to that tournament – the only previous time it has been held in Kansas City – with the 2024 championships being held at the T-Mobile Center, which opened four years after the tournament at Kemper Arena.
“Sometimes you get lucky, and maybe that’s all I can say is that I feel pretty luck that three of the next four NCAA championships are definitely in driving distance,” Smith said. “It’s close enough for our fan base to be able to drive to the event. And that’s always good. There nothing negative about it.”
The Big 12 Wrestling Championships were held in the Kansas City arena in 2016 – the first year the conference went from on-campus conference championships to a neutral site – and had over 10,000 in attendance for the two-day event. That season, the state’s top wrestling program (Missouri) was no longer in the Big 12, and it marked the first year of the conference including affiliate programs such as South Dakota State, Wyoming and North Dakota State.
Kansas City getting to host the NCAA championships puts the pinnacle of the college wrestling season halfway between the sport’s two most historic programs in Oklahoma State and Iowa.
“It’s a great town to host the championships,” Smith said. “If there was any I was a little bit surprised of, it was Kansas City. I just didn’t hear their name a whole lot in the last year. But what they’ve done in the past, having the experience of putting on the championship, probably makes a big difference in the outcome.”