One of civilization’s oldest forms of competitive sports, combat sports come in a variety of forms. Martial arts, wrestling and boxing offer some general categories, but the sports and their competitions become much more specific from there. More than a hundred distinct schools of martial arts emanate from China alone, for example, and wrestling comes in three separate varieties—Greco-Roman and freestyle, both competed in the Olympics, and folk style, competed in collegiate and youth wrestling. Then there’s mixed martial arts, or MMA, a relative newcomer to the category.
While all of these adrenaline-pumping sports have their own unique attributes, they also have a few common threads. For one thing, they thrive in communities with a strong following or heritage. And for most of these sports, Olympic heroes are inspiring a whole new—and sometimes surprising—surge of athletes.
Combat Sports Governing Bodies
Martial arts, wrestling and boxing are all led by national governing bodies (NGBs) that both aim to grow and govern their sport and to build Olympic teams that can bring home the gold. These organizations include:
Although MMA is not under consideration as an Olympic sport, the International Mixed Martial Arts Federation — of which the American governing body, USA Mixed Martial Arts Federation (UMMAF) is a member — aims for “Mixed Martial Arts to be recognized as a sport and ultimately become an Olympic sport.”
Gold Equals Growth
Organizers of Olympic sports know that the Games come with the promise of boosting participation.
“Obviously every time we have an Olympic Games, it helps the sport if we do well,” says Pete Isais, director of national events, USA Wrestling. “Anytime the U.S. does well, it has the natural effect of making your sport more popular and helps your membership growth.”
But combat sports are experiencing an Olympic-inspired growth surge in one particular demographic: women. Because these sports didn’t always allow participation by female athletes, those membership-inspiring athletes simply didn’t exist for many years.
“Right now our strongest growth is on the women’s side,” says Brandon Dyett, director of events and partnership marketing, USA Boxing. “A lot of it has to do with the fact that female boxing was recently included in the Olympics for the first time. Our female team won two medals, so there’s definitely a lot of excitement. Anytime there are more doors open, by nature it helps people see the opportunity to walk through.”
A similar trend is happening in martial arts. “Our two female medalists from London have directly qualified for Rio,” says Corinne Shigemoto, COO, USA Judo. “They have been heroes to our female athletes in particular, which is helping to drive our retention of teenage athletes.”
Hero inspiration is at work in wrestling, as well, says Isais. “Girls are seeing more heroes successful on a world level, and women’s wrestling is really growing.”
Events That Inspire
Grassroots athletes are no doubt inspired by the success of their sports’ heroes, but event organizers who run exceptional events also motivate their sports’ athletes by creating experiences participants are eager to repeat. Forming partnerships with destinations that have strong roots in a sport can be an effective first step in creating those indelible athlete experiences.
Des Moines, Iowa
Iowa’s capital city has a strong love for combat sports of all kinds, hosting the USA Taekwondo State Championships, as well as an annual boxing tournament that draws more than 100 boxers and a number of MMA events each year. But at the heart of this community’s combat sports passion is a distinguished wrestling history, one that shows itself clearly in the state’s high school wrestling following.
“The Iowa High School State Wrestling Tournament takes place at the Wells Fargo Arena every year,” says Katie Fencl, director of sports, Des Moines Area Sports Commission. “It’s a 17,000-seat arena and the tournament sells out every year.”
Des Moines has hosted wrestling championships for all three collegiate organizations, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) and National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA).
“The Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) also has a very strong presence in Iowa, holding multiple youth events here every year,” says Fencl.
These events made use of the city’s many different wrestling venue options, including Wells Fargo
Arena; Richard O. Jacobson Exhibition Center, a 3,500-plus seat arena at the Iowa State Fairgrounds; the Iowa Events Center, which shares the downtown campus with Wells Fargo Arena; and the arena facilities at local colleges and universities such as Simpson University.
Grand Island, Nebraska
Boxing has an illustrious history in Grand Island, fostered by the community’s boxing gyms, in particular Frank’s Gym, which is helping to bring a piece of the area’s boxing history to life again.
“Frank’s Gym hosts the district’s Golden Gloves tournament, and this year, they brought it back to the historic Liederkranz Center, reigniting a piece of our heritage that’s very cool,” says Brad Mellema, executive director, Grand Island Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The nearly 150-year-old, 300-plus-seat Liederkranz Center frequently held boxing events in the 1920s, but those events migrated to other venues in following decades. In 2015, the Central District Golden Gloves tournament moved to Grand Island’s historic home, underscoring once more the area’s deep boxing roots.
The area is also a center of wrestling competition in Nebraska, hosting the Flatwater Fracas, a tournament that draws the state’s top wrestlers, for the ninth year in 2016.
Missouri State Fair
Combat sports are spectator sports, which adds another dimension to finding the right facility for any wrestling, martial arts or boxing event. At the Missouri State Fair, those facilities are ready and waiting.
“Wrestlers ages six and up comes from all over the state for the Missouri USA Wrestling State Competition, which happens in several different events, depending on age group, throughout the year,” says Courtney Fry, concessions/off-season events manager, Missouri State Fair.
The Fairgrounds offer a unique characteristic that earns enthusiastic reviews from families and event owners, says Fry. “We have concessions, a great staff and amazing campgrounds on site, and some groups come in for their event and stay on the grounds the whole time,” she explains.
Just an hour from the Kansas City airport and with ample hotels and restaurants to accommodate major spectator events, the Missouri State Fair also began hosting an annual series of MMA events last year, which drew eager crowds.
Las Vegas, Nevada
As the popularity of all of the combat sports grows, event owners are in need of larger venues and more robust support. That’s where the new T-Mobile Arena, a 20,000-seat venue, located on the Las Vegas Strip between New York-New York and Monte Carlo, comes in.
“We opened T-Mobile Arena on April 6 , and while we haven’t hosted any amateur-level events to date, we anticipate hosting a number of events in the near future,” says Dan Quinn, general manager, T-Mobile Arena. “These will include NCAA basketball games this December as well as the 2017 Pac-12 Men’s Basketball Tournament next March, among others.”
The flexibility of this multi-purpose venue offers event owners the a variety of options in terms of floor space design, and T-Mobile Arena also delivers the full service support of its expert staff, including marketing, public relations, and operations and security. Sponsorship assistance is also available.
“We can certainly recommend a variety of sponsorship opportunities in the Las Vegas market and for T-Mobile that effort is led by Mark Faber and his AEG Global Partnerships team,” says Quinn.
When vetting possible hosts for a USA Judo event, says Shigemoto, “The whole package is a must: hotel, venue, and airport proximity in particular. All pieces of the puzzle must work.” But experience is just as critical, she says. “If we’re working with a CVB, it’s important that they understand sports.”
In Reno, Nevada, that package comes together, sometimes even on one property.
“We were able to do [the 2014 USA Karate National Championships] at a hotel here, which is a differentiator for our destination, that we have hotels that have 100,000 to 200,000 square feet of space that can host these events, making it conducive to the event being all under one roof,” says Shelli Fine, director of sports development, Reno Sparks Convention and Visitors Authority (RSCVA).
Emphasizing its capabilities, the “Biggest Little City in the World” has numerous championships and large-scale martial arts, boxing and wrestling events under its belt. USA Taekwondo held its US Open and Olympic team trials in Reno in 2016 and welcomes the annual Reno Tournament of Champions, an elite high school and collegiate wrestling event, for its 20th year in 2016.
Dallas is part of the growing trend of sports festivals.
“I have been in talks with other NGBs about more sports festivals,” says USA Boxing’s Dyett. “It’s important for our events to not just go into a city and then pack up and leave. We want [our sport] to be more tied to the community. It creates excitement and in any sport whenever you can build that buzz in the arena, it elevates the level of the competitiveness.”
To that end, USA Boxing is participating in a new event, the Dallas Sports Festival, this summer.
“We’re in an Olympic year, and we wanted to put together an event that brought multiple Olympic sports in about a month before the Olympics to create an atmosphere of patriotism and support for Team USA,” says Larry Kelly, communications and marketing director, Dallas Sports Commission.
The event will welcome USA Volleyball, Fencing and USA boxing for the five-day festival. USA Boxing will be hosting its Junior Olympic and Prep National Championships, as well as Youth Western Championships.
Deschutes County Fair & Expo Center
One of America’s largest wrestling events, and the largest in Oregon, is the Oregon Wrestling Classic, and it calls the Deschutes County Fair & Expo Center home.
“Each January, over 3,000 participants and 4,000 to 6,000 spectators come to the event, and 85 percent of them are from out of the area,” says Roxia Thornton Todoroff, director of sales and marketing, Deschutes County Fair & Expo Center.
The event delivers an economic impact of $4.3 million, and that’s just one of this wrestling-avid area’s major events. The Rumble at the Rock, a junior high/middle school tournament, also travels to Deschutes every year. So what’s the secret behind this region’s wrestling success? Once again, a history of victory always helps.
“Typically on an annual basis, one of the high school teams in the area seems to win the state championships,” says Dan Despotopulos, facility director, Deschutes County Fair & Expo Center. “We’ve become known as a wrestling mecca.”
It’s All About the Thrill
When communities begin to welcome combat sports, as Gatlinburg, Tennessee, has, they quickly discover that these events thrive on thrill.
“Wrestling is one of my favorite events. I’m learning and experiencing something new, and it’s intense,” says Lori McMahan Moore, interim general manager/marketing and business development director, Rocky Top Sports World. “We definitely want to broaden our horizons with future wrestling and martial arts events.”
But, she adds, the meticulous attention of an experienced staff is just as critical to event success.
“We partner with our local hospital group and always have a trainer available. Our staff is also diligent about the cleaning of mats,” says McMahan Moore. “After we hosted our first event, we realized that this was a sport that required special attention and cleaning products to make sure that the mats are truly safe and clean as they can be.”
Finding an established and passionate community is a key factor in all these sports’ success, but as combat sports spread their thrill nationwide, opportunities will certainly increase. And if Team USA prevails, get ready for a whole new generation of combat sports athletes to grow.