From wrestling and boxing to martial arts, combat sports are becoming increasingly popular across the U.S. A particular bright spot is the niche sport of women’s wrestling, which is coming into its own at both the high school and college levels. The Olympic Games in 2004 gave female wrestling a big boost and the sport is now into its fifth Olympic cycle.
Also of note is that surging interest in MMA competition has positively impacted all combat sports including wrestling, which is a foundation sport in MMA. In response, many cities are adding or improving venues, and this is attracting a broadening range of events and competitions. Here are eight locales in the fight.
Asheville, North Carolina
Wrestling is the name of the game here and most youth, high school and collegiate competitions are held at Harrah’s Cherokee Center-Asheville in the downtown district, or at Kimmel Arena on the UNC Asheville campus. Each venue offers four team locker rooms, medical training facilities, auxiliary meeting space and full-service concessions.
“We feel that wrestling is a niche market for Asheville. The sport is very popular in western North Carolina, South Carolina, Tennessee and Georgia and we are within a couple of hours drive from those markets,” says Demp Bradford, President of the Asheville Buncombe Regional Sports Commission.
A particularly popular event has been the Great Smoky Mountain Grapple wrestling tournament. The first edition was held in 2017 and drew 12 high school teams along with some JV and youth competitors, and in the following two years it grew to include 12 mats with 32 high school teams and 23 JV teams.
“We also started an independent girls’ invitational tournament with 64 [female] wrestlers,” says Bradford. “We hope to grow the Grapple to a maximum of 40 teams and increase the girls’ tournament significantly.”
This past season, the Grapple attracted more than 800 participants and 3,000 spectators and surpassed $750,000 in economic impact. Looking ahead, says Bradford, “We are working with NC USA Wrestling to look at potential bids for regional and national events. In addition, we would like to build our college wrestling profile.”
Cedar Point, Ohio
The state-of-the-art Cedar Point Sports Center in Sandusky, Ohio, opened in December 2019 and totals more than 200,000 square feet. The $30 million indoor complex offers 85,000-90,000 square feet of hardwood surface, a “Championship Arena” has retractable seating for fans, and a grand lobby provides event space. Also included is the Lee C. Jewett Sports Medicine Center, a facility funded and operated by Firelands Regional Medical Center.
“Wrestling is our primary focus right now,” says Wes Hall, General Manager of Cedar Point Sports Center. “We’ve hosted a high school dual tri-meet and national duals are on the schedule. We also host youth clinics in cooperation with local wrestling coaches. So far, we’ve hosted four to five events and we plan to bring in more with different owners.”
About 60 percent of event participants come from within Ohio, with others traveling from Michigan, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Illinois. “We could shift more toward out-of-state in 2021 with national tournaments and qualifying events,” Hall says.
There are plans to add martial arts events, and boxing also has potential. “The space is here and we just need the proper event/rights owner to bring in boxing events,” says Hall. “We have a really good base within the community for wrestling and we want to lay a base for karate and taekwondo.”
Cedar Rapids, Iowa
The primary venue is the U.S. Cellular Center, a complex located in downtown Cedar Rapids that consists of a 6,800-seat arena, a 28,754-square-foot convention center and a 267-room hotel. The convention center can accommodate athlete weigh-ins and warm-ups as well as coaches’ meetings. The attached arena, which was completely renovated in 2013, includes four team and two officials’ locker rooms.
The facility hosts one to two amateur wrestling events annually, as well as state and national competitions. Past events have included the NCAA Division II National Wrestling Championships in 2008 and 2018, and the NCAA Division III National Wrestling Championships in 2008-2010, 2014 and 2016. Iowa USA Wrestling has held the USA Kids State Tournament here annually since 2014.
Mary Lee Malmberg, Director of Sports Tourism for Cedar Rapids Tourism, notes that 144 wrestlers compete in the NCAA Wrestling Championships and attract an average of 2,500 spectators each day, generating $465,650 in direct visitor spending.
“We have had success hosting youth and college-age tournaments, but we’re not limited to just these types of events,” says Malmberg. “Cedar Rapids is a family-friendly and safe city and welcomes all persons and abilities.”
Located on 460 acres in the Central Oregon city of Redmond, the Deschutes County Fair and Expo Center lives up to its slogan, “We really can do it all!”
Roxia Thornton Todoroff, director of sales for the Deschutes Fair and Expo Center, remarks, “Sports event organizers are amazed at everything we have to offer at our facility. Beyond equestrian, rodeo, livestock and agriculture events, our center’s appeal is for sports of all types, for all age groups, and has caught the eye of sports event organizers.”
Wrestling has proven to be very popular. “Currently, we host wrestling tournaments in our First Interstate Bank indoor arena, and we’re also well-suited to host martial arts, gymnastics, competitive cheer—really any indoor events,” Todoroff says.
The First Interstate Bank Event Center is a 279,000-square-foot multi-purpose indoor arena that offers concert festival and seating capacity for 13,000, seating for 4,000 for rodeos, and 5,000 for basketball. It offers more than 40,000 square feet of concrete floor space and more than 28,250 square feet of space on a circular concourse. Other features include full broadcast capability, a score clock, four full locker rooms, permanent ticket booths, and dual large concession stands. The arena has hosted the Oregon Wrestling Classic, the biggest wrestling tournament in the state. The annual three-day competition attracts more than 3,000 male and female athletes of various ages.
Wrestling generates big excitement in the region, especially for youth, high school and collegiate competitions that take place during the winter. Erie County is home to one NCAA Division I, one Division III, and two Division II wrestling programs, as well as one varsity collegiate women’s wrestling program. Competitions have taken place in the Erie Insurance Arena and the Bayfront Convention Center. Professional MMA and charitable boxing events are also held at the Bayfront Convention Center.
“In addition to regular season wrestling competitions, Erie has special event facilities that are well-versed in hosting wrestling tournaments at varying levels. Erie is the annual host to the Rambler Wrestling Battle on the Bay tournament, which brings approximately 300 young athletes to a two-day wrestling competition held at the Bayfront Convention Center each January. Nearly 700 spectators watched the event over two days in 2020,” says Mark Jeanneret, Executive Director, Erie Sports Commission. Erie has also hosted the two-day Pennsylvania Junior Wrestling Championships that in 2016 drew nearly 1,000 wrestlers and 10,000 spectators, resulting in an economic impact of nearly $1 million.
The Erie Insurance Arena has eight locker rooms, seating for 6,700, and space for training and medical rooms. The arena and adjacent UPMC Park are in the midst of a $16 million restoration project that will connect the two facilities and provide additional meeting space. The 120,000-square-foot Bayfront Convention Center is connected to two hotels, and wrestling, boxing and MMA events have been hosted in the Great Hall, which has more than 28,000 square feet of column-free space.
“We are always looking for new events to add to the Erie sporting event calendar, and we know that wrestling is hugely popular in this region,” says Jeanneret. “While we are not actively pursuing any wrestling events at this time due to the threat of the spread of the COVID-19 virus, we are looking forward to a time when it is safe to host and support wrestling again. We know that we have the facilities and the fan base to support both wrestling and boxing events here.”
Chicago Northwest, Illinois
The Chicago Northwest Region boasts the Schaumberg Convention Center that has 100,000 square feet of column-free space, ideal for mat-based sports. An additional 50,000 square-foot space is seamlessly attached and includes 500 rooms at the Renaissance Schaumberg Convention Center Hotel.
Meanwhile, Harper College offers a 30,000-square-foot field house at the Health and Recreation Center on campus. As a bonus, there are medical facilities in partnership with Northwest Community Hospital.
Most recently, US Karate held its National Championships at the Renaissance Schaumberg Convention Center Hotel. The two-day competition drew 1,200 participants and 3,000 attendees and had a $270,600 economic impact. The destination has also hosted the USA Weightlifting Pan American Masters.
“We have a long history of working with youth sports groups,” says Dave Parulo, President of Meet Chicago Northwest. “Our venues are easy to get to and have plenty of parking, and the region has a lot of flexibility with family dining, shopping and entertainment options. The convention center is easily accessible from the expressway and is in an entertainment district now under development. We’re a major metro area close to Chicago that offers more
Placer Valley, California
Located just 20 miles east of the Sacramento International Airport, Placer Valley welcomes youth, high school, college and adult competitions. The destination’s new 160,000-square-foot Placer Valley Event Center opened in mid-February. A second facility, the 73,000-square-foot Hardwood Palace, provides additional space.
“There are wrestling and two martial arts events hosted in the Placer Valley footprint annually,” says Donna Dotti, Director of Sales for Placer Valley Tourism. “With the recent opening of the Placer Valley Event Center, we intend to host national-level youth wrestling, martial arts, fencing and indoor archery.” Most of the events hosted in Placer Valley are youth sports, but the locale is also home to some major amateur adult and senior events such as the two-day Cliff Keen’s Women’s West Coast Tournament of Champions that attracts nearly 600 athletes and more than 1,200 spectators.
“With California being so large, the majority of local events attract local and regional participation within a two- to three-hour drive,” explains Dotti. “Events such as Cliff Keen’s Women’s West Coast Tournament of Champions attract college teams, high school teams and individual female wrestlers from Canada and all across the U.S. including Hawaii.”
This wrestling hotbed features three main venues for wrestling, boxing and martial arts competitions: the Cox Business & Convention Center (CBCC), BOK Center and the Expo Square Pavilion, all column-free venues that can host events year-round. BOK Center and Expo Square include locker rooms and hospitality space for staff, officials and athletes.
“We have had a mixture of youth and collegiate wrestling events in these venues from 2019 to 2020. BOK Center is focused on collegiate and professional championships, and CBCC and Expo Square Pavilion are open for all demographics from youth to pros,” says Matt Stockman, VP Experience & Events, Tulsa Regional Tourism. “Right now, Tulsa hosts about five wrestling events per year and hopes to add the NCAA Wrestling Championship in future years, as well as any other regional and national opportunities. Additionally, CBCC will be home to the boxing Golden Gloves Tournament of Champions in 2021.” Previous events in the locale have included the Big XII Wrestling Championship, USA Wrestling Junior National Duals, World of Wrestling Tulsa Nationals, Flo Youth National Duals and the Kickoff Classic.
“Tulsa is looking to grow NCAA Wrestling, as well as its relationship with USA Wrestling and World of Wrestling. And with our first boxing match coming to town, we are focused on growing our presence in that category,” says Stockman. “There are a lot of martial arts events in Tulsa, and while we haven’t had a hand in them yet we would love to partner more closely with that community of athletes.” SDM