Combat sports had a good year. Martial arts, MMA, boxing and wrestling all posted participation gains in 2022, according to the SFIA Topline Participation Report 2023.
A growing cadre of females is helping to boost overall visibility and interest in combat sports. For instance, women’s high school and college wrestling continues to grow, a goal of USA Wrestling since the 1980s. This year, it was announced that more than the requisite 40 colleges now offer women’s wrestling at a varsity level, clearing the first hurdle for women’s wrestling to become an official NCAA championship sport.
In response, many locales are adding or improving venues and are actively seeking to host a broadening range of combat sport competitions. Here are eight destinations that are ready to go to the mat to ensure successful events.
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. The facility is seamlessly connected to the 500-room Renaissance Schaumburg Hotel which provides on-site concessions and restaurants. Meanwhile, Harper College boasts a 30,000-square-foot field house at the Health and Recreation Center on campus, where lockers, a pro shop, a fitness center and the Northwest Community Healthcare outpatient center are also available.
Previous marquee events that took place in the area include the 2021 USA Karate National Championships held at the Renaissance Schaumburg Convention Center Hotel. The competition drew 1,200 participants and 3,000 attendees. “After using the Destinations International Economic Impact calculator, we are able to say that USA Karate brought $1 million of economic impact to the Northwest suburbs,” says Melinda Garritano, senior account executive, Meet Chicago Northwest. The destination also hosted the Harper College 2019 Invitational Wrestling Tournament held at Harper College Palatine, a member school of the National Junior College Athletic Association.
Chicago’s Northwest suburbs have long been a popular destination for youth amateur sports due to its variety of family-friendly attractions and ease of access. “We tend to see event participants from local areas and throughout the Midwest,” notes Garritano. “Meet Chicago Northwest is always looking to expand in the mat sports arena, and we support all participants regardless of age and ability.”
Boxing, wrestling and martial arts are all popular at this destination, and the two main venues are the 27,000-square-foot Selland Arena, part of the Fresno Convention & Entertainment Center, and the 430,000-square-foot Save Mart Center, a multi-purpose arena on the campus of California State University Fresno. Events previously held in Fresno include Top Rank Boxing, California USA Youth Wrestling Championships, and California United Taekwondo State Championships.
“We typically host around 700 to 1,000 athletes per event, with an estimated 500 to 600 spectators per event,” says Andrew Smith, director of sales, Fresno/Clovis CVB. The locale usually hosts six to seven combat sports competitions per year, and the economic impact from each of these events ranges from $500,000 to $1 million-plus annually.
“We see a good mix of in-state and out-of-state participants,” Smith remarks. “Because of our central location in California, we typically see high levels of participation because no one has to travel more than four hours to reach the competition city.”
Going forward, “The FCCVB is currently looking into opportunities to host MMA and additional martial arts tournaments,” says Smith. “While we are open to hosting all demographics, we have the most experience with youth sports at all ability levels. We are currently looking to bring some Olympic taekwondo and wrestling qualifier sports to Fresno leading up to the 2028 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.”
Youth wrestling is a big draw here, and the action takes place at the Wings Event Center. The venue offers three NHL-size hockey rinks under one roof, and each can be covered to meet specific needs. One rink is considered the main arena and can hold 5,000-plus spectators. The second rink can hold 600-plus spectators, and the third rink can accommodate portable bleachers. Other amenities include multiple locker room facilities, medical facilities and training/weight rooms. There is also access to a loading dock, power services and wireless internet.
“Wings Event Center hosts more than eight wresting, boxing and martial arts events each year, including the Michigan High School Athletic Association (MHSAA) Team wrestling Finals, which has called the [facility] home since 2018,” notes Brian Persky, director of business development, Discover Kalamazoo. “WEC also hosts multiple year-round wrestling events for the Michigan Youth Wrestling Association.” He adds that the majority of youth wrestling participants hosted in Kalamazoo come from throughout Michigan.
In the future, says Persky, “We would love to host more girls’ youth wrestling, Jiu-Jitsu and college wrestling.”
Placer Valley, California
Located just 20 miles east of the Sacramento International Airport, Placer Valley welcomes youth, high school, college and adult competitions.
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 600-plus spectators each,” says Donna Dotti, director of sales, Placer Valley Tourism. She notes that the area’s biggest wrestling event, the CK Women’s West Coast Tournament of Champions (WWCTOC), occurs annually in December and is held at the Roebbelen Center. “The 2021 WWCTOC welcomed 93 high school teams, 19 colleges and for the first time, middle school,” she says.
“We will continue to support and grow the WWCTOC, which is slated to be bigger, stronger and better than ever this coming December 15-16, 2023,” reports Dotti. “We have secured exclusive tournament directors for the College, High School and Middle School divisions which will be most beneficial, logistically. Ten nationally ranked high school athletes were among last year’s medalists, including two weight classes in which both finalists were nationally ranked.”
Located in the heart of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, Plano focuses on hosting youth martial arts events. These competitions are typically held at the Plano Event Center which provides more than 86,000 square feet of flexible function space that accommodates up to 5,000 people. The main 21,600-square-foot exhibition hall is column-free and includes a main stage and dressing rooms. Among the other amenities are in-house audiovisual equipment and technicians, 16 breakout rooms, in-house catering and concessions, free public Wi-Fi plus private fiber internet access.
“Across Plano, there are usually two to five martial arts events per year,” says Alysha Carse, sports sales manager, Visit Plano. “Most participants tend to be local. The events draw about 1,500 spectators per day, and the economic impact stands at about $120,000.”
Carse also points out that Plano would like to attract beginner- to intermediate-level events for youth and adults: “Anything that will bring in additional spectators and families without needing an arena. We would love to see beginner Jiu-Jitsu events held in Plano.”
There is no doubt that combat sports are popular in the Land of Lincoln, where competitions have included the NCAA DIII Wrestling Regional, USA Wrestling’s Jon Davis Kids Open, the FUJI BJJ Springfield IL Open, and USA Boxing.
The BOS Center’s Main Hall provides 40,000 square feet of column-free space with an additional 25,000 square feet of space for awards, meetings and vendors. The Orr Building at Illinois State Fairgrounds boasts 39,000 square feet and has a complete kitchen, loading dock and office space. The 150,000-square-foot Air Dome at Scheels Sports Park at Legacy Pointe is being billed as the biggest sports dome on the planet.
“Four or five [combat sports] events are held here annually, and competitions range from youth to collegiate. That number could certainly expand with the addition of the Air Dome at Scheels Sports Complex,” says Terry Truman, sports sales manager, Visit Springfield Illinois. “In total, the events draw about 1,500 total spectators with an economic impact of $225,000.” He notes that most competitors come from within the state, but higher-level competitions draw regionally.
“As we gain more space for floor sports, we would love to grow all of these areas as they have proven to be very successful,” says Truman. “What helps make these events so successful in our city is that we have terrific local partners to help facilitate the events.”
Wicomico County, Maryland
Conveniently located near major metro markets including Baltimore, Philadelphia and Washington, D.C., Wicomico County is a great place for families and teams to enjoy while visiting for combat sports events. The Wicomico Youth & Civic Center (WY&CC) is the area’s primary indoor sports facility, offering a 30,000-square-foot arena, a 10,000-square-foot secondary space with a fixed stage, and 10 meeting rooms.
The WY&CC’s largest and longest running events are held in partnership with the Mid Atlantic Wrestling Association (MAWA).
“The WY&CC has hosted MAWA’s South Regional and Eastern Nationals since 2006. Each of these tournaments brings over 1,000 wrestlers to Maryland’s Wicomico County annually,” says Chip Woytowitz, Maryland’s Wicomico County sports marketing representative. “This year’s MAWA events had record-breaking registration numbers, as the girls’ division expanded dramatically since its debut in 2022. MAWA Regionals drew more than 1,000 participants and 2,000 spectators and generated $1.3 million in economic impact. MAWA Nationals attracted over 1,200 participants and 2,000 spectators and generated $2.3 million in economic impact.”
This past March, the WY&CC was selected to host the Maryland State Wrestling Championship. “The youth wrestling championship drew 650 wrestlers from across the state,” says Woytowitz. “The WY&CC also hosts boxing events, including Middleweight Professional Boxer Fernando Guerrero, and entertainment events like MMA and WWE.”
Woytowitz notes that Wicomico County is working to support additional growth in the youth wrestling sector and is interested in expanding into adult sporting events.
Wildwood, New Jersey
The Wildwoods Convention Center is the premier venue for combat sport competitions that run the gamut from youth wrestling and boxing events to MMA and WWE contests. “The most popular annual events are the National Youth Wrestling Duals, War at the Jersey Shore National Youth Wrestling Tournament, and the Battle at the Beach Mixed Martial Arts Tournament, as well as WWE pro wrestling shows. These events attract thousands of sports fans, resulting in significant economic benefit to the Wildwoods and the surrounding area,” explains Ben Rose, director of marketing and public relations at the Greater Wildwoods Tourism Improvement and Development Authority.
The 260,000-square-foot Wildwoods Convention Center is equipped with an arena, exhibit, ballroom, meeting and pre-function space. Located within a day’s drive of one-third of America’s population, the facility can handle groups as small as 100 or as large as 10,000.
“The Wildwoods Convention Center accommodates events of up to 5,000 competitors with ease,” says Rose. “There are also many hotel/motel rooms available at attractive rates during the off-season, plenty of great family restaurants, a two-mile boardwalk with hundreds of eateries, rides and attractions, and more than 180 free island-wide events and festivals annually. The Wildwoods are the perfect location for hosting and attending any sporting event, any time of year.”
Rose adds, “The Wildwoods are constantly looking for new events to bring to the Wildwood Convention Center. Each year, new events are added to bring new and returning guests to the area.” SDM