Wrestling’s global day of mourning arrived on Feb. 12, 2013. That’s when the International Olympic Committee’s executive board voted to remove the world’s oldest and most storied sport from the world’s most glorious sporting event, beginning in 2020. The board reviewed 26 sports and based its decision on such criteria as TV ratings, anti-doping policy, global participation and popularity — despite the fact that wrestling counts participants in 180 countries and on all continents.
Thus, wrestling became the eighth sport that would need to vie for the now-vacant spot, pitting itself against baseball/softball, squash, roller sports, wakeboarding, sport climbing and two martial arts (karate and wushu).
“That may have been the biggest challenge of our time facing the sport,” says Gary Abbott, director of communications for USA Wrestling in Colorado Springs, Colorado. “We couldn’t be certain of anything.”
That challenge forced wrestling leaders around the world to take a closer look at the sport and implement what Abbott calls “real serious changes” — including rewriting rules, creating greater transparency and inclusion in governance of the sport, and making wrestling more exciting to the general public. Numerous promotional events were held in such high-profile places as New York City, Los Angeles and even the hallowed ancient Olympic Grounds in Olympia, Greece. Then, on September 8, 2013, the IOC reinstated wrestling for the 2020 Games in Tokyo, admitting the organization made a big mistake when eliminating the sport in the first place.
After spending some time on the ropes, the sport now is able to point to some new highlights:
• The 2014 NCAA Wrestling Championships received unprecedented exposure on ESPN networks in March.
• More women are competing at the college level than ever before.
• Females are training to compete in 2016 for only the fourth time in Olympic history.
• Nearly 10,500 high schools offer boys’ wrestling, 1,600 schools include opportunities for girls and at least six states host girls’-only championships.
“A wrestling renaissance is happening right now, forced by a challenge,” Abbott says. “Because we went through this challenge, I think the world is going to be paying more attention to wrestling. We’re investing a little more in better showcasing wrestling at all levels, and we’re taking back our sport and taking it to the people.”
Wrestling isn’t the only growth area. Boxing and martial arts are increasing in numbers, thanks to new growth and awareness initiatives, as well as to new programs for youth competitors. Even programs for special populations are expanding.
“Judo for the blind and visually impaired is definitely growing,” says Ron Peck of the Blind Judo Foundation. “It is a sport tailored for the blind as sight is not a major physical sense required when training/competing in the sport of judo.”
Those who want to put on the best event possible have their choice of various strategies recommended by communities around the country. Here are seven of them.
Placer Valley, California, will be the first to admit: you can’t do it alone. Participation in youth wrestling in this large Northern California county, which stretches from Sacramento to Lake Tahoe and the Nevada border, has increased substantially in recent years. Donna Dotti, director of sales for Placer Valley Tourism, credits the organization’s partnership with Hardwood Palace and Courtside — two privately owned facilities located across the street from each other in Rocklin, California, that provide flexible bleacher seating and, respectively, 55,225 and 36,400 square feet of space. Hardwood Palace hosted the No Guts, No Glory Wrestling Tournament for high school boys and girls in December, and both facilities will help Placer Valley attract more youth wrestling competitions from out of state, Dotti says.
The region, known as “Gold Country,” also hosted the California Community College Athletic Association NorCal Regional Championships in December at Sierra College, and the NorCal Tournament of Champions attracted the state’s best middle school wrestlers in March to Del Oro High School in Loomis, which will also host next year’s event. And look for some inaugural competitions too.
“Del Oro High has approximately 40 female wrestlers,” Dotti says. “You will be seeing a female tourney in our footprint in the near future.”
It’s All About the Spectators
Ocean Center, located steps from the surf in Daytona Beach, Florida, knows there’s strength in spectator capacity when it comes to establishing success in hosting all disciplines of combative sports: wrestling, boxing and martial arts.
“We’re a huge facility,” says Angela Miller, director of sales and marketing for the Ocean Center. “and a lot of times those sports and events think they can go to a smaller facility.”
Ocean Center has a 94,000-square-foot exhibition hall and an arena that seats 9,300 spectators — plenty of room to pack in locals who want to check out a high-level wrestling or karate event. Some sponsoring organizations are beginning to offer that kind of outreach in host communities, according to Tim Buckley, Ocean Center’s sales manager.
The venue hosted nearly 1,000 wrestlers from 26 states (plus several thousand spectators) at the mid-June USA Wrestling Cadet National Duals. As part of that event, the Greco-Roman World Team Trials were held on separate mats accompanied by temporary seating structures.
In Wisconsin, building a grassroots fan base for martial arts is one of the continuing goals of the Madison Area Sports Commission, an arm of the Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“Outreach builds awareness for those events locally,” says Jamie Patrick, director of sports sales and program development, adding that boosting event attendance also boosts local club participation. “It turns out that martial arts are a best-kept secret in Madison. There are so many disciplines of martial arts here.”
The commission’s work with local groups paid off and for two years running, Madison has hosted the USA Taekwondo Wisconsin State Championships at nearby Middleton High School. The World Hwa Rang Do Association, which practices a Korean martial art that teaches fighting techniques, weapons, spiritual training, intellectual enhancement and artistic pursuits, will hold its event in a 30,000-square-foot hotel ballroom from July 25-Aug. 2. Training sessions for color belts will be open to the general public.
“We’re hungry enough to try all of these different strategies and tap into untapped markets to find out what we do well,” says Judy Frankl, the CVB’s public relations and communications manager. “We saw the opportunity to start making Wisconsin a taekwondo destination.”
The city has already proven itself a wrestling stronghold: The 2014 U.S. World Team Trials for junior freestyle/Greco-Roman and senior freestyle were held at Veterans Memorial Coliseum in late May and early June. An estimated 400 elite athletes and 4,000 spectators attended.
Tap into Boxing’s Future Athletes
USA Boxing has recognized a trend toward younger participants, and Laredo, located deep in southwest Texas, has harnessed that energy, according to Blasita Lopez, director of the Laredo Convention & Visitors Bureau.
The South Texas Junior Olympic Tournament, hosted by the Webb County Sheriff’s Office Police Athletic League and held at the Laredo International Fair & Exposition (LIFE) Pavilion in late April, attracted boys and girls between the ages of 8 and 16. It was billed as the largest such event ever held in Laredo, and Lopez says she wants to build on the foundation set during the Junior Olympic Tournament by bidding on future boxing competitions.
There’s certainly no doubt the youth movement will keep growing. The number of boxers between the ages of 15 and 18 increased substantially between 2013 and 2014, according to Julie Goldsticker, USA Boxing’s public relations consultant . As a result, USA Boxing has added several new events for kids, including the first Junior Open in 2013, which was expanded to the Junior and Youth Open this year at the Grand Sierra Resort in Reno, Nevada. There are tentative plans to introduce Prep Nationals in 2015 for athletes under the age of 15.
Depend on the Powerhouse Sport
Wrestling is another sport drawing in young athletes, and according to one destination, the momentum of that sport helped power it through a difficult time.
When Ben Rose tells people he’s director of marketing and public relations for the Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement and Development Authority along the Jersey Shore, they presume the area suffered Hurricane Sandy’s wrath in fall 2012. “We were not impacted,” he says, adding that The Wildwoods Convention Center (located right on the boardwalk) held a cheerleading event that very weekend. “The media really painted the entire Jersey Shore with one broad brush.”
Rose and his team fought that misperception throughout a challenging 2013, but wrestling — which is a powerhouse youth sport in New Jersey and Pennsylvania — helped keep the local sports tourism business moving well into 2014. Last summer, the North American Grappling Association hosted the “Battle at the Beach,” a three-day event featuring various grappling competitions and mixed martial arts cage fighting with contestants from the tri-state area of New Jersey, New York and Connecticut.
This past February, the South Jersey Wrestling Association once again hosted the National Youth Challenge Duals at the convention center, featuring more than 40 teams of wrestlers in grades 2-8 competing in what has become known as one of the East Coast’s most challenging dual tournaments. Two months later, the 11th annual “War at the South Jersey Shore” — a national freestyle wrestling event hosted by the SJWA — featured more than 2,300 wrestlers across five age divisions and a high school division; they represented more than 50 weight classes and 20 states. New this year was the K-12 girls division.
Reach Out to Local Clubs
Sometimes, a successful event is attributable to resources in the venue’s back yard. Ontario, California, has a high concentration of martial arts organizations to make use of the Ontario Convention Center, which features a column-free, 70,000-square-foot exhibition hall that currently houses national- and regional-level karate and taekwondo events.
The first leg of the North American Sport Karate Association’s Triple Crown series was held at the venue in February and attracted hundreds of participants and several thousand spectators, according to Angela Hui, director of convention center sales. The American Taekwondo Association held its Southwest District Championships at the facility, which also hosts graduation ceremonies for area martial arts studios and allows graduates to demonstrate the skills they’ve learned. Citizens Business Bank Arena also hosts California Interscholastic Federation-sponsored wrestling and HBO boxing events, and Hui and Keliiholokai say they’re working with a local MMA promoter in an effort to book an amateur event in August.
The Greater Ontario Convention & Visitors Bureau is in the process of establishing a sports commission, which sales and marketing director Sean Keliiholokai says will help the area attract more of those sporting activities, beginning at the local level.
Bask in the Spotlight of High-Profile Events
Some destinations say they are drawing in boxing, wrestling or martial arts events because they have already established a reputation by hosting high-profile events. The Anaheim/Orange County area of California is one example. The Honda Center in Anaheim has hosted WWE’s WrestleMania XII, Monday Night Raw and Smackdown, and a series of Mixed Martial Arts Ultimate Fighting Championships. Meanwhile, the Anaheim Convention Center brings in multiple events such as the American Taekwondo Association’s Spring Nationals and was the previous host of the Disney Martial Arts Festival.
Boxing and MMA events also take place at The Hangar at the OC Fair in Costa Mesa and at Fight Club OC in Fountain Valley. “We have noticed an increase in female involvement in martial arts, as Fight Club OC usually features two or three female cards per event,” says Jay Burress, president and chief executive officer of the Anaheim/Orange County Visitor & Convention Bureau. “Also, there are a good number of females competing in the various taekwondo events hosted at the Anaheim Convention Center.”