Some of the oldest sports in history don’t involve equipment or even teammates. Like all sports, they require precision, practice and patience to master. Unlike most other sports, though, they’re rooted in survival in the form of hand-to-hand combat.
Wrestling, boxing and martial arts continue to ride the wave of popularity, pushed forward by the Olympics and boosted by the rise of specialty gyms, studios and instruction programs. It’s no surprise, therefore, that combative sports have made serious inroads in the sports travel industry as well.
Growing Awareness and Numbers
According to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association, many Americans are engaged in wrestling, boxing, and martial arts. As a result, the national governing bodies (NGBs) of those activities are focused on increasing the popularity and appeal of the sports they represent.
“We have seen a strong, steady support for our sport each year,” said U.S. Taekwondo CEO Bruce Harris. “The U.S. has earned eight Olympic medals since taekwondo became an Olympic sport in 2000, and the continual success of our athletes here at home and by Team USA on the international stage is a strong indication that the future is bright for USA Taekwondo.”
According to USA Taekwondo (USAT), the governing body has seen a three percent increase each year in membership. This year, USAT had 15,132 members, which is a 15 percent increase in membership since 2008. Not surprisingly, there has been a surge in participation at USAT’s events, including a three-year 35 percent surge in attendance at the U.S. Open, the sports largest international event in the U.S.
According to USA Judo, there are hundreds of judo clubs in America which offer a variety of programs for children, families and elite athletes. Some clubs offer programs tailored for mixed martial arts, health/fitness or family fun.
Multiple opportunities for getting involved with martial arts exist. Some studios specialize in teaching karate, judo, kendo, aikido, jujutsu or taekwondo only to children, while others have an adult focus. Krav Maga, an Israeli martial art, is growing in popularity as well, though it is not a competition sport.
Boxing’s NGB, USA Boxing, is as focused on helping the U.S. win Olympic gold as it is developing a positive environment conducive to developing the character of its athletes and coaches.
Wrestling remains popular at the high school and college level. To help promote the sport, USA Wrestling has its own TV network -- the USA Wrestling Weekly Television Network.
Some good news for wrestling is that the International Olympic Committee has selected wrestling (along with baseball/softball, karate, squash and several others) for the short list of candidate sports for the final provisional spot in the 2020 and 2024 Olympics. The final vote to pick one of those sports will take place this September.
One of USA Karate’s goals is publicity. As a result, the NGB has unveiled its own video multimedia channel.
Achieving success with any sports event calls for an effective strategy. Various destinations have shared their secrets for an event that will leave athletes, families and spectators happy – and planners financially satisfied.
Safety as a Priority
It’s not exactly headline news that athletes’ injuries, including concussions, are getting more negative press than ever. Therefore, the initiatives to keep athletes safe (and coaches, parents and officials educated) are proliferating. Sometimes, awareness starts at the top. For example, the USA Karate Safe Sport Program is seeking to create a healthy, supportive environment for all participants. The Safe Sport Program represents a total commitment to athlete safety.
Savvy event planners are always looking for ways to keep athletes safe, and destinations are helping them achieve their goals.
In Wicomico County, Maryland, the main facility for wrestling, boxing and martial arts is the Wicomico Youth and Civic Center, located in Salisbury, Maryland. Wicomico County has seen its share of wrestling events, including the Mid-Atlantic Wrestling Association South Regionals, Eastern National Wrestling tournament and the NHSCA National Duels Wrestling Tournaments.
James Simmons, the sports marketing representative for Wicomico County Recreation, Parks and Tourism, says officials have learned that having emergency access during a sporting event is of paramount importance.
“You definitely need a good ambulance access point when hosting wrestling and boxing events,” says Simmons. “When we host large wrestling tournaments, our athletic trainers get worked harder than in any other sport. They are constantly moving from mat to mat.”
The Faces of the Sports
In many cases, the love of a sport is passed down, and family members will have a long-standing tradition of participating. It is not uncommon, therefore, for children to be enrolled in programs such as karate or wrestling starting at young ages, although they may not be competing that early.
“Combat sports meets, such as martial arts, wrestling or boxing, generally lean toward ages 12 and up,” notes Alyssa Kitten, communications coordinator for Visit Lubbock, Convention & Visitors Bureau.
The summer Olympics featured women’s boxing for the first time in 2012, but co-ed wrestling at the high school level was far ahead of that.
“The sport really started for Texas high schools in this area,” says Eric Miller, director of communications and digital assets for the Amarillo Convention & Visitor Council. “Now, most area high schools have either a boys’ or girls’ program. Some schools have both.”
Sports participation figures from the National Federation of State High School Associations show that while numbers for girl wrestlers lag significantly behind those of boys, the girls’ numbers are growing steadily. In judo, girls’ participation numbers are much closer to those of boys.
Maintaining order at any sports event is key to its success, and combat sports are no exception. Whether at a youth or pro event, emotions can run high. Effective security can help an event run smoothly on all levels.
Danny Corte, executive director of the Mobile Sports Authority, has seen his area’s interest in boxing grow. Mobile has been the host for the U.S. Olympic Men’s Boxing Trials and the USA Boxing Junior Olympic National Championships. According to Corte, Mobile Sports Authority and the Mobile Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau worked closely with USA Boxing on all the details of these events from hotels to security to hospitality.
“We take pride in making sure the details are taken care of, no matter what event we’re hosting,” stated Corte.
Two recent boxing events in Lubbock, the Golden Gloves Regional and the USA Junior Olympic Boxing Regional, were sellouts. Alyssa Kitten noted that security was essential.
“Crowd control during martial arts, wrestling or boxing meets depends on the venue,” adds Kitten.
A venue with a unique configuration is the Heartland Events Center in Grand Island, Nebraska. Heartland is the major venue for wrestling and boxing, including televised events. It can seat 6,000. According to Debbie Sweley, event coordinator with Heartland, the Events Center floor can be dedicated to the wrestlers and their coaches. Spectators sit in seats above the floor.
Some venues offer their own security staff, while others outsource. Heartland uses Double Locked Security to provide hands-on services.
“Their knowledge of the facilities, grounds and emergency procedures is an asset to servicing the safety of our participants and spectators,” says Dianne Willey of Heartland.
The level of security needed at an event may vary. Some events, particularly those on the pro level, may want a visible security presence including uniformed guards who can inspect bags as visitors enter a building, while other events may simply want someone to act in more of a guest relations capacity.
“Having event staff present to keep the peace is a great idea,” adds Wicomico County’s James Simmons.
Adding to the Event
Providing a ‘value-added’ experience for athletes and spectators is something many destinations recommend.
James Simmons reveals that one of the things that Wicomico County incorporates in its tournaments is an ‘expo’ where restaurants and local businesses set up booths to showcase their services.
“We decided to do this during the weigh-ins of the wrestling and boxing events,” notes Simmons.
York County, Pennsylvania is a popular destination for tournament organizers in wrestling, boxing, and martial arts, and officials work to make participants feel welcome.
“The CVB develops e-newsletters to send to the event participants and we staff a hospitality table at every event we bring in, which provide visitors guides, maps, snacks and coupons to participants,” says Allison Freeman of the York County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “In addition, we’ve gone to events a year prior to hosting to drum up interest and help increase registrations for the following year.”
York County has hosted prestigious events in martial arts and wrestling such as the USA Taekwondo National Qualifier #1; the Brute Scholastic (wrestling) Showcase; and the USA Judo Youth & Scholastic National Championships.
Other groups also have worked to help make visitors aware of the opportunities for dining, shopping and more while they are in town.
“Lubbock Sports has a strong relationship with restaurants and hotels,” says Alyssa Kitten. “Quite often, restaurant representatives speak at welcome receptions to discuss what’s happening in Lubbock and the discounts they offer.”
In Winston-Salem, North Carolina, organizers use service and hospitality as the keys to attracting events.
“This is a community that embraces sports,” says Bonnie Bernat, sports & events sales manager for Visit Winston-Salem.
In Winston-Salem, the Benton Convention Center and the Winston-Salem Entertainment-Sports Complex are the primary facilities for wrestling and martial arts. Winston-Salem has been the home in recent years for many wrestling and martial arts events such as the AAU Karate Junior & Senior National Championship and the North Carolina High School Athletic Association Individual Wrestling State Championships.
Economic Impact: A Knock-Out Punch
There’s no doubt that wrestling, boxing and martial arts are popular. That popularity, say destination officials, packs a serious punch. When Mobile hosted the U.S. Olympic Men’s Boxing Trials and the USA Boxing Junior Olympic National Championships, the town benefitted not just financially but in credibility, according to Danny Corte.
“We estimate that the total economic impact to Mobile County for hosting these prestigious boxing events will be over $7 million,” says Corte. “Due to the success of these major boxing events, it showed the entire U.S. Olympic family and the sports-event industry that Mobile can host sports events of this stature. With Mobile being the host for those events, interest in boxing seems to be increasing again in our area.”
In Grand Island, mixed martial arts, cage fighting and Golden Gloves boxing have all been good draws. In 2011, the World Class Boxing "Rumble in the Heartland" filled the Heartland Events Center and was broadcast on Showtime.
According to Paul Nielsen, the marketing manager for the Grand Island Sports Council, wrestling is big news.
“We roll out the ‘red carpet’ for wrestling,” said Nielson.
Each March, the Nebraska USA Wrestling State Folkstyle Tournament is held in Grand Island. In December, another major wrestling tournament, the Flatwater Fracas which attracts teenaged athletes, comes there. It has become the premier regional wrestling tournament in Nebraska.
Some cities, having seen success in one combat sport, are actively courting others.
“We would also love to grow Amarillo as a destination for boxing,” adds Eric Miller. “I would think that much of our wrestling background would help Amarillo as a host for boxing events.”
Amarillo is currently nurturing a good local martial arts scene. Lee Gray, the owner of the Amarillo Martial Arts Center, is leading the way, with the goal of hosting martial arts tournaments.
According to Danny Corte, Mobile is now trying to attract more martial arts competitions. A few years ago, Mobile was the host of several regional USA Taekwondo competitions, the most recent in February 2012.