TAKEDOWN IN ST. LOUIS: The Stifel Theatre set the stage for college wrestling between Missouri and Illinois on Dec. 21. (Courtesy Scott Rovak)

Wrestling showcased in classic theater

The St. Louis Blues transformed the historic Stifel Theatre stage into a sports venue for the college wrestling meet between Missouri and Illinois, shortly before the winter holidays.

“Mizzou to the Lou,” the tagline for the Dec. 21 event, showcased two strong Midwest programs and drew 2,967 spectators to the 90-year-old theater, said Todd Mitchell, the facility’s vice president and general manager. Missouri, ranked second in the in nation, defeated Illinois, 29-6.

Mitchell works for the Blues, the NHL team that runs the venue, as well as Enterprise Center, the arena attached to the theater.

The wrestling match took place one day before the annual “Braggin’ Rights” men’s basketball game, which saw Illinois beat Missouri 87-73 before 18,485 fans at Enterprise Center. It came to fruition after discussions between the St. Louis Sports Commission, the University of Missouri and the Blues for how to expand both schools’ sports exposure in the city that sits next to the Illinois border, situated 125 miles east of the Columbia, Missouri campus.

“It’s all about trying to make a stronger connection between Missouri and Illinois for recruiting purposes, and we were happy to be able to host,” Mitchell said.

READY, WRESTLE: The referee signals for action during a wrestling match at the Stifel Theatre. (Courtesy Scott Rovak)

Over the past 50 years, Missouri and Illinois have played for “Braggin’ Rights” in men’s hoops at Enterprise Center, and the two schools have met in football many times, including this past September at the Dome at America’s Center.

Most recently, Missouri’s women’s soccer  staged an event in St. Louis, and in February, its women’s gymnastics team competes in St. Charles, Missouri, a St. Louis suburb; all part of the Mizzou to the Lou series.

As part of talks on the wrestling side, Mitchell brought up the Stifel Theatre as a potential venue for the event. The University of Missouri is familiar with booking the sport at non-traditional venues. On campus, the Tigers have held wrestling meets at Jesse Auditorium, an 1,800-seat venue. Stifel, with greater capacity, had a stage big enough for wrestling competition, and there was no reason all parties couldn’t get it done, he said.

On its own, Stifel’s ballrooms have been used as practice venues for the NCAA Wrestling Championships, which Enterprise Center has held nine times over the past 25 years. In addition, under its original design, the theater’s stage was shared with old Kiel Auditorium, separated by a fire curtain. For basketball, fans could sit in the theater end and watch the action from the end of the horseshoe-shaped format, Mitchell said.

In that respect, the St. Louis landmark has a sports background. Plus, decades ago, many vintage high school and middle school auditoriums across the country doubled as sports venues for basketball, wrestling and volleyball. The Stifel Theatre serves as a throwback in that sense at the NCAA level.

In St. Louis, the Blues signed a rental agreement with the sports commission to use the theater. In turn, the commission, serving as the promoter of record, did a deal with Missouri, which brought Illinois to the table.

“With a first year event, we wanted make sure that everybody was able to cover all the expenses,” Mitchell said. “We made it affordable for the fans. There were a lot of high school wrestling teams in attendance, which was the point, to expose them to Missouri and Illinois wrestling and help foster that (relationship) as a possible destination for those kids.”

STAGE LEFT: Fans holding VIP tickets sat on stage at the Stifel Theatre. (Courtesy Scott Rovak)

Setup was easy, using the theater’s in-house lighting system, Mitchell said. Officials installed a digital scorer’s table on stage and hung a big video screen over the platform for image magnification. Missouri brought its octagon-shaped competition mat for the stage. The Blues sourced practice mats locally for warm-ups in the theater ballrooms. Three local high schools were invited to practice on the stage mat for Media Day, held the day before the event.

The event was essentially a sellout at the 3,100-seat theater with the exception of scattered seats in the upper mezzanine level. The average ticket price was about $30. VIP ticket packages cost $200 a person, which included seats tied to risers on one side of the stage next to the wrestling mat, a “chalk talk” from Missouri Coach Brian Smith in one ballroom, plus a private bar and restrooms.

As part of the showcase, officials took a cue from WWE. Individual wrestlers paraded down the center aisle, accompanied by entry music and a spotlight, as they high-fived patrons before climbing steps to the elevated stage. Wrestlers signed autographs in the lobby after the event.

The Blues would like to stage more sports events at the Stifel Theatre, whether it’s another Missouri-Illinois match as part of “Braggin’ Rights” week, a local high school wrestling tournament or a mixed martial arts competition.

“It puts the theater on the map as an option that people may have never considered,” Mitchell said. “We’re trying to work with local MMA promoters to do some fights, instead of at a casino. That way, they can do an all ages show here.”