Before goals and balls, courts and manicured fields, and long before scoreboards, people had the urge to compete. In those early days of sport, combat was not just a thrilling competition, but also a necessary survival skill. Today, combat sports are not simply surviving, but thriving in communities all across America and the world.
What is a combat sport?
The distinctions among the many sports in this category are significant, but they all share two common threads: one, they involve one-on-one bouts, and two, they are all forms of self-defense being used for competition. Using that definition, wrestling, boxing, martial arts, fencing and mixed martial arts (MMA) all qualify as combat sports — and that is where their similarity ends.
Each sport has its own unique set of governing body, rules and regulations, scoring and deep traditions, and this presents a special challenge for destinations interested in hosting these events. Hosting an event in a location where your sport has a strong following is always an advantage. Fortunately, combat sports have both fans and participants throughout the Unites States, and their popularity is only growing.
Mt. Pleasant, Michigan
In Mt. Pleasant, Michigan, the influence of Central Michigan University (CMU) has helped create strong followings for many combat sports, a fact that has benefited both the school and the convention and visitors bureau when bidding for events.
CMU offers teams, classes and/or intermural clubs for everything from wrestling, boxing and fencing to Judo and Hapkido.
“It’s a creative way to keep students active and expose them to different things, and it’s a big bonus for us,” says Jake Schmittler, marketing coordinator for the Mt. Pleasant Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. “As far as event management goes, all the clubs have experience in acting as that local organizing committee, and they do a great job of hosting their own events.”
Fayetteville, North Carolina
Combat and Fayetteville are intertwined in a way you don’t find in just any location: Fayetteville is home to Fort Bragg, America’s largest U.S. Army base (by population) and the home of the 82nd Airborne Division.
“Our close military ties with Fort Bragg allow us to bring in a built-in audience and experts in all of these types of sports,” says John Meroski, CEO, Fayetteville Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “From a philosophical standpoint, there’s a great match between these sports and this community. You can go anywhere in the USA to have your tournament, but if you want a heroic experience, then that’s Fayetteville.”
Fayetteville hosts numerous wrestling events, including the North Carolina Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Middle School State Championships, and wrestling event owners considering Fayetteville will find a special perk.
“We own 15 mats, so we provide them at no cost to tournaments that need them,” says Meroski. “They’re stored at the Crown Complex, one of our several combat sports venues, and when you rent that venue, you get the mats, too.”
Fayetteville also hosts a fencing tournament as part of an annual birthday celebration in honor of its namesake, Revolutionary War hero Marquis de Lafayette. The community’s deep military ties make it a unique location for the sport of fencing, another combat sport experiencing strong growth.
“Our participation is up in nearly every category,” says Bob Bodor, senior manager, membership services, USA Fencing, the sport’s national governing body. “Our youth category is quite large, but we’re also interested in our adult and our para-athletic populations. Wheelchair fencing we think is poised for tremendous growth.”
The American fencing team had an especially good Olympic experience in Rio, a fact that is showing up in the sport’s popularity. “We won the fifth most medals out of any sport, and we had some great stories, such as the first U.S. athlete to compete at the Olympics in a hijab,” says Bodor. “Fencing got excellent TV coverage, and it’s helped us. Every club owner I talk to says they’ve seen an uptick.”
Deschutes County Fair & Expo Center: Redmond, Oregon
Oregon has a tremendous wrestling community, and one of the sport’s favorite places to compete is the Deschutes County Expo Center. The facility annually hosts the Rock of Redmond tournament, the Oregon Wrestling Association State Championships, and the Oregon Wrestling Classic, events that deliver a total $5,237,000 economic impact every year. This year, they are adding the Oregon Middle School State Championships and, in 2018, they will host the Western World Championships, which is estimated to bring an economic impact of $12 million.
“The Oregon Wrestling Classic is the state’s biggest wrestling event, and it originated at the Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Portland,” says Dan Despotopulos, director, Deschutes Country Fair & Expo Center. “It moved here 12 years ago because we’re centrally located and it’s just more affordable here than the big city. We’re excited to have recently signed another three-year contract to host this event.”
The Expo Center is well-suited to wrestling and other combat sports due to its large, open arena floor — 320 by 125 feet — that provides direct, unobstructed sightlines from every seat. Also, a 22-foot-wide concourse surrounds and overlooks the arena floor, allowing for a unique space where teams and even vendors can set up.
“In some combat sports, Pittsburgh is just as well-known as we are in some of the major league areas,” says Derek Dawson, sports development director, Sports PITTSBURGH. “It’s all part of the authentic, hard-working attitude that people are known for here. We have more people reach out about volunteering, officiating, anything to get involved because these sports are just so popular.”
Last year, the city hosted the USA Karate National Championships & Team Trials, an event made successful in part by the enthusiastic support of the local karate community.
“Our clubs are really active. They work really well with us,” says Dawson. “The USA Karate Nationals, which was held at the David Lawrence Convention Center, was a heavy lift for our local karate community, and they did an amazing job. It was a really great time to be in downtown Pittsburgh.”
Wrestling is another wildly popular sport in Pittsburgh, stemming from the success of the state’s wrestling athletes: the NCAA lists Pennsylvania as the top producer of wrestling state champions and all-stars. The city hosts numerous major wrestling events every year, including the Pittsburgh Wrestling Classic (formerly the Dapper Dan Classic), which has been held at the Fitzgerald Field House on the University of Pittsburgh campus for 40 years.
MMA also has a devoted Pittsburgh following, with both amateur and professional events happening throughout the year. Pittsburgh is not alone. MMA’s popularity is rapidly expanding worldwide.
“Participation among youth is growing and there is increasing demand from our members for the development of a progression pathway for youth,” says Isobel Carnwath, marketing, communications and brand director, International Mixed Martial Arts Federation (IMMAF).
Like other combat sports, MMA events have some special requirements. “IMMAF medical safety standards are set well above those in other sports. For IMMAF events, the venue must be within 15 minutes’ drive of a pre-notified emergency hospital with an emergency neurological unit. The venue also needs to be near a brain scanning unit, as all competitors suffering concussions or who have undergone KOs must be referred for a CT Scan,” says Carnwath.
Greenville, South Carolina
One of The New York Times’ “52 Places to Visit in 2017,” Greenville, South Carolina, is known for its charming downtown and Southern hospitality, but it also happens to be known for another thing: karate.
“This will be USA Karate’s 3rd visit to Grenville for our National Championships and Team Trials,” says Phil Hampel, CEO, USA National Karate-do Federation. “The Bon Secours Wellness Arena has been a wonderful space for us to hold our competition and we look forward to seeing the enhancements that have been made since our last visit.”
Greenville is ideal for large events, with a number of hotels in walking distance of its arena, as well as a downtown area that prides itself on being unique.
“We have locally owned businesses and restaurants downtown,” says Robin Wright, senior sales manager, sports, Visit Greenville. “When you’re walking down our main street, it’s cool, eclectic, hip and new, and when you have people coming from all over the country, and in some cases even outside the country, that’s appealing.”
Jacksonville, North Carolina
Another military town with a strong combat sports following, Jacksonville, North Carolina, is home to Marine Corps Base Camp Lejuene and Marine Corps Base New River, providing it with a strong following for combat sports.
“We just held our first USA Boxing event, which involved boxers from our local community and all over the Southeast, as well as some athletes from the base,” says Marisa Reeder, acting executive director, Jacksonville-Onslow Sports Commission. “This was a great event because we’re home to 35,000 Marines and Sailors, and they want to be entertained.”
While the event was not affiliated with the Marines, there is a strong boxing tradition within the military in general, and the Jacksonville-Onslow Sports Commission works with its military partners regularly on events, including its second boxing event, held at White Oak High School.
The Goettge Memorial Field House at Camp Lejeune, a state-of-the-art facility that can accommodate a wide variety of sports, from combat to football, is another excellent resource in Jacksonville.
Council Bluffs, Iowa
Iowa is another leader in the production of wrestling champions. Dan Gable, an Olympic gold medalist wrestler, hails from central Iowa and has inspired Iowan wrestlers for generations, says Josee Beier, sales manager, Council Bluffs Convention & Visitors Bureau. “All of the high school athletes around here aspire to be like him, and we always see a big draw for wrestling.”
The Council Bluffs Wrestling Classic is one of the state’s largest high school wrestling events. “We host the tournament at the Mid-America Center, 30,000 square feet of space with no barriers or beams, so it’s the perfect venue,” says Beier.
Among the community’s many other wrestling events are the Heartland USA Wrestling Duals, an event that draws more than 7,000 athletes, coaches and fans from 10 states, and delivers an economic impact of $2.6 million and the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) 2016-2017 Wrestling Championship, a two-day event that drew almost 2,500 athletes, coaches and fans from colleges nationwide and generated $577,000 in economic impact.
The Wildwoods Convention Center, New Jersey
As combat sports’ popularity continues to grow, they’re increasingly becoming family events, and the Wildwoods offers not just an ideal venue, but also a family-friendly experience.
“The Wildwoods is literally built around the beach, with a huge glass window,” says John Lynch, director of sales and entertainment, The Wildwoods Convention Center. “When you’re sitting in the stands, you can look to the right or left and you get a full view of the Atlantic Ocean.”
Atlantic Coast Wrestling agrees, hosting two events at Wildwoods: the Wildwoods War at the Shore every Easter and Wildwoods National Duals every February.
“For the National Duals, they come when we’re in an off-peak season, and they really like that there are no distractions. They take up all the hotel rooms, which have lower rates at that time, and focus on three days of serious wrestling.”
Wildwoods is a family resort, and the surrounding community has embraced the events, expanding their own town traditions to include the young athletes. “The Chamber of Commerce did a bonfire just for the athletes, and the local Jaycees have an Easter egg hunt on the beach every year, which they expanded to include these extra 6,000 people we bring to town that weekend. They kids can win big prizes — gift cards, pier passes, bikes. And every year, these athletes and their families become part of our community,” says Lynch. SDM