Combat sports such as boxing, wrestling and martial arts continue to generate excitement among competitors and spectators alike. On the participation front, boxing still holds the title as the most popular combat sport in the world, and here in the U.S. the sweet science boasted 5.4 million participants in 2021, according to the SFIA’s Boxing for Fitness Single Sports report 2022.
From a spectator standpoint, a recent Harris Poll found that boxing was the fourth most popular sport in America in 2021 (behind football, basketball and baseball, respectively). However, mixed martial arts (MMA) is catching up to boxing quickly and could soon overtake it, helped in large part by easily accessible action on cable channels such as ESPN and on social media.
Moreover, an increasing number of females are joining the fight, both in participation and interest, which is helping to boost overall visibility and interest in combat sports. For example, women’s high school and college wrestling continues to make gains, and USA Wrestling has been focusing on growing women’s grappling since the 1980s.
In response to the growing enthusiasm, many cities are adding or improving venues and actively marketing to a broadening range of combat sports events. Here are eight destinations in the fight.
Chicago Northwest, Illinois
On the edge of O’Hare International Airport, the Chicago Northwest Region boasts the Schaumburg 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 Schaumburg Convention Center Hotel.
Meanwhile, Harper College offers a 30,000-square-foot fieldhouse at the Health and Recreation Center on campus. As a bonus, there are medical facilities in partnership with Northwest Community Hospital.
Most recently, USA Karate held its National Championships at the Renaissance Schaumburg 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.
“Chicago’s Northwest suburbs have long been a popular destination for youth amateur sports,” says Heather Larson, president of Meet Chicago Northwest. “Our large array of family-friendly attractions and ease of access draw big numbers for our rights holders. Our state-of-the-art Schaumburg Convention Center provides the perfect space for all types of sporting events. And your teams will love choosing from our 63 hotels with all price points.”
Chicago Southland, Illinois
Located in the heart of the Midwest, this destination draws regional and local athletes and offers a variety of sites that can accommodate combat sports. Key facilities include the MegaPlex Sports Center in Homer Glen, Roma Sports Club in Frankfurt, and Southland Center in Lynwood.
The MegaPlex Sports Center offers 8,000 square feet of space, seating capacity for up to 800 people and an onsite restaurant plus a concession stand. The Roma Sports Club boasts two gyms and two indoor soccer fields. The Southland Center has 100,000 square feet of space including Desso turf and wood-floor courts, with 90-person seating capacity per per playing area. This facility will host the 2022 Central AAU Combat Games in September.
Previous combat sports events held in the Chicago Southland have included multiple iterations of the Great Lakes National Karate Championships (typically drawing more than 600 competitors and 1,000 spectators); USA Judo Middle School, High School and Collegiate National Championships; American Taekwondo Association Class A and Class B tournaments; and Illinois Kids Wrestling Federation State Freestyle Championships and IKWF State Dual Meet Championships. The Professional Karate Commission, American Karate Association, Crosstown Wrestling Club, Freelance Wrestling, American Grappling Federation, and the North American Grappling Association have also held competitions in the area.
“Event sizes have varied over the years, and we’ve hosted both smaller regional events and large-scale national events,” says Andy Ritter, PR manager, Chicago Southland CVB. “We’re open to any group, gender, age and skill level — if you’ve got a combat games event, we’d love to host it.”
Fayetteville, North Carolina
The city is eager to expand its roster of combat sports events and it has the facilities to do so. The three main venues are the Crown Coliseum & Expo Center (part of the four-building Crown Complex), Freedom Courts Sportsplex, and Robinson Courts at the TJ Robinson Life Center.
“We typically hold about four large events per year but are looking to add more events and grow existing events,” says Amy Karpinski, director of sports marketing, Fayetteville Area CVB. Past events have included the Christy Martin boxing tournament that attracted approximately 350 boxers and 1,200 spectators, resulting in economic impact of about $303,000. The Carolina Gloves Boxing Tournament drew approximately 250 boxers and 600 spectators and had an economic impact of about $150,000. And the one-day NCWAY State Championships attracted about 400 wrestlers and 1,300 spectators and had an economic impact of $150,000.
“For the two boxing events, about 65 percent came from out of state, and the wrestling event is 100 percent in-state as it is a state championship,” explains Karpinski. “We want to add more boxing and wrestling events. Martial arts are also high on our radar and we’re hoping to add this to our repertoire in 2023.”
Centrally located among a five-state area and hosting five to seven combat sports events annually, each drawing 1,000 to 15,000 athletes, Lubbock has become a haven for combat sports competitions. The city is actively working to attract more such events to the area as well as grow its own combat sports communities.
The two main venues that host competitions are the 40,000-square-foot Lubbock Memorial Civic Center and the 60,000-squre-foot APEX Event Center. Previous and future combat sports events at these sites include the USA Boxing National Junior Olympics and Summer Festival (July 2021 and 2023), USA Boxing National Championships (December 2022), and the United States of America Wushu Kungfu Federation Junior Team Trials and National Championship (May 2022). The 2021 USA Boxing competition drew 2,000 participants and 15,000 spectators and had an estimated $3.1 million economic impact. The 2022 Wushu Kungfu competition had 500 participants, 2,500 spectators and nearly $1 million estimated economic impact.
“Lubbock is attracting athletes of all ages, genders and backgrounds and is also proud to host athletes with a diverse range of abilities as it is equipped to meet the needs of Special Olympics events and more,” says Scott Harrison, sports director at Lubbock Sports. “With a competent and attentive team at Lubbock Sports, each tournament and event is sure to be a knockout.”
Placer Valley, California
Just 20 miles east of the Sacramento International Airport is Placer Valley, a destination that welcomes youth, high school, college and adult competitions. Placer Valley is made up of three cities: Roseville, Rocklin and Lincoln, and while each has its distinct identity, they are less than a 20-minute drive apart.
One of the primary venues is the $34 million, 160,000-square-foot Roebbelen Center that offers 108,250 square feet of open contiguous floor space, electronic score boards, flexible meeting space, two complimentary Wi-Fi networks and an 11,000-square-foot-plus lobby with 13 wall monitors and two LCD projection walls. Adjacent is Jones Hall, a flexible event space. Meanwhile, the 73,000-square-foot Hardwood Palace provides hardwood flooring, complimentary Wi-Fi, a P.A. system, and full-service concessionaire.
“Wrestling and martial arts are very prevalent in Placer Valley, and the area hosts multiple grappling and martial arts competitions attracting upwards of 600-plus spectators each,” says Donna Dotti, director of sales, Placer Valley Tourism. She notes that the area’s biggest wrestling event, the Women’s West Coast Tournament of Champions (the WWCTOC), occurs each December at the Roebbelen Center. “The 2021 WWCTOC welcomed 93 high school teams, 19 colleges and for the first time, middle school athletes,” she says. This coming October, RMN Events will host the Cosmic Bash, a new youth wrestling event, at the Roebbelen Center.
“We will continue to support and grow the WWCTOC,” Dotti remarks. “This coming December, we’ve added dedicated coordinators/bracketologists for college, high school and middle school divisions.”
South Shore, Indiana
The South Shore typically hosts more than 10 combat sports competitions annually, and in addition to expanding existing events, there are plans to insert more youth/amateur and possible college events into the schedule. Previous events have included USA Wrestling-sanctioned youth and amateur competitions with 1,200 participants, 2,400 spectators and an economic impact of $100,000. The locale also hosts youth wrestling camps, WWE Wrestling and MMA competitions.
Most of the action takes place in three main venues. The Hammond Civic Center is a multi-purpose, 4,500-seat arena known for hosting events such as WWE Wrestling, Impact Wrestling and MMA fighting. The Hammond Sportsplex, which opened in 2018, boasts 135,000 square feet of space. And the Dean and Barbara White Community Center is a new, state-of-the-art facility that is packed with amenities.
“We would love to grow youth/amateur and collegiate combat sports in the South Shore. Our facilities are growing; the Hammond Sportsplex is expanding and will add three more basketball courts with construction to be completed in 2023,” says Megan Goodan, manager of sports development, South Shore CVA. “As wrestling and MMA become more popular in our area, it’s important to market our destination as a premier place to host regional and national combat sporting events.”
This area is a magnet for combat sports competitions, the largest of which are held at the Angel of the Winds Arena that provides a 32,000-square-foot surface and arena seating for 8,300 people.
Since 2009, the facility has hosted a number of MMA events as well as a variety of youth sport competitions and men’s and women’s pro tournaments. Other facilities on offer include the Walt Price Fitness Center at Everett Community College and the Snohomish Sports Dome, a soccer arena that has hosted two FUJI Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu events (December 2021 and April 2022) and will host two other FUJI BJJ events later this year.
Snohomish County has hosted numerous martial arts events such as the Pacific Northwest District AAU Taekwondo Championship, Pacific Northwest District AAU Karate Championship, Pacific Northwest Karate-do Classic, and USTA Hanmadang Tournament. Wrestling competitions have featured the 2022 WSWA Freestyle & Greco Roman State Championships that attracted 30 wrestling clubs with 801 athletes competing in the Freestyle division, and 30 clubs with 450 competitors in the Greco Roman division. The economic impact was $553,920.
“Since December 2021, we have hosted three martial arts events,” says Tammy Dunn, executive director, Snohomish County Sports Commission. “We are always looking to expand the number of wrestling, karate and taekwondo tournaments in our county. Our goal is to continue to help grow our current tournaments that local clubs host because by doing so, we show organizations that we have the support and venues to host larger tournaments.”
Wicomico County, Maryland
Conveniently located in the Mid-Atlantic region between the Atlantic Ocean and the Chesapeake Bay, Wicomico County has hosted multiple events over the past 30 years. These have included Middle Atlantic Wrestling Association tournaments such as the MAWA Eastern Nationals and South Regionals. This year’s Eastern Nationals featured a pre-tournament clinic with two-time Big Ten and two-time NCAA wrestling champion Aaron Brooks.
The primary venue is the Wicomico Civic Center, a 28,000-square-foot arena that has hosted wrestling tournaments as well as MMA and WWE events. The site can accommodate 12 to 15 wrestling mats and also provides locker rooms, a promoter’s lounge, concession stands and rooms that can be used for weigh-ins. The facility employs EMS personnel, too. Previous events hosted also include Stellar Fights-Eastern Shore Edition in fall 2021, featuring MMA fighters. The facility also regularly hosts WWE events.
“Wrestling events at the Wicomico Civic Center attract visitors from numerous states in addition to locals,” says Cole Lacey, assistant tourism manager, Wicomico County Tourism. “The MAWA Eastern Nationals, held April 30-May 1, drew wrestlers from at least 12 states and Washington, D.C.” He also points out, “Wicomico County’s professional sports marketing team is experienced in hosting national and regional events, and our championship facilities are ready to accommodate your next event. We’re always open to new opportunities.” SDM