The cheers were deafening.
More than 2,000 screaming mixed martial arts fans filled the Event Center at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa earlier this month to watch fighters such as Buena Vista Township middleweight Mike “Cowboy” Wilcox and Millville middleweight Tim “South Jersey Strangler” Williams compete for Cage Fury Fighting Championships.
The excitement started to build during the introductions, when fighters emerged from a cloud of smoke and stepped into the cage. Fans roared throughout each of the 10 bouts, which featured a dazzling array of punches, kicks and submission holds that forced opponents to tap out just before losing consciousness.
Afterward, those same fans and fighters streamed down the escalators and into Borgata’s casino, restaurants and bars.
Atlantic City is betting on sports such as mixed martial arts to help save the city.
While it’s still illegal to place bets on the outcome of games, officials are gambling that events such as boxing, beach volleyball, midget car racing, powerboat racing — and perhaps even independent-league baseball — will help the city’s quest to become known as more than just a struggling casino resort.
The Aug. 9 show was CFFC’s seventh at Borgata. One more event is scheduled for this year, and it’s likely that at least three or four more will take place in 2015.
“Take a look around the city, and the casinos are hurting,” Cage Fury President Rob Haydak said. “Properties are looking for nongaming revenue. We bring 2,000 people here for every show, and, not to sound arrogant, but our clientele is a little more affluent than some other companies’. They are not only here for our show, but they are also eating in restaurants, staying in hotels and even gambling.”
Repeated attempts to reach Atlantic City Mayor Don Guardian about the future of sports in town were unsuccessful.
“All of our research shows that we need to attract new visitors to Atlantic City, and we’ve found that sports is a great way to do that,” said Jeff Guaracino, chief strategy officer for the city’s marketing arm, the Atlantic City Alliance. “Whether they attract spectators or participants and their families, sports bring a whole new audience and allow us to brand Atlantic City in a whole new way.”
The Atlantic City Alliance has thrown its support behind a variety of sports events in recent years. In the past 10 months, it has sponsored the fourth Boardwalk Rodeo (Oct. 5 and 6, 2013), the second Atlantic City Offshore Grand Prix powerboat races (June 22) and the inaugural Challenge Atlantic City Triathlon (June 29). The second Do AC Pro Beach Volleyball Invitational will be held Sept. 5 to 7 on the courts between the soon-to-be-closed Revel and Showboat casinos. It was announced Thursday that the world’s best male and female longboard surfers will be riding waves in the resort from Sept. 19 to 21 in the inaugural Atlantic City Longboard Surfing Invitational.
Last year’s beach volleyball tournament, which featured the top players on the Association of Volleyball Professionals tour, was a hit. Fans packed the bleachers and lined the Boardwalk.
“When we came to Atlantic City last year, we weren’t sure what to expect,” AVP owner Donald Sun told The Press earlier this year. “We were blown away by the way the courts were set up, the number of people who came to the tournament and the tremendous support from the community. We’re super, super excited to be coming back.”
Boardwalk Hall’s new leadership also intends to keep sports as one of the staples of its entertainment menu.
The facility is now run by Comcast-Spectacor, which is in charge of booking events at several arenas across the country, including the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia. The hall landed a huge boxing event on Friday, when it was announced that light-heavyweight champions Bernard Hopkins and Sergey Kovalev will meet in a title unification bout Nov. 8.
“We look at anything and everything that is out there,” Boardwalk Hall general manager Fran Rodowicz said. “Sports has always been a big part of Boardwalk Hall, and we intend to keep it that way for many years to come.”
Besides boxing, the venue has been host to a variety of events in recent years, such as the Atlantic 10 men’s college basketball tournament, indoor auto racing, minor-league hockey and the state high school wrestling championships.
The A-10 tournament has since moved to the Barclays Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., but Rodowicz suggested they would be open to holding another league basketball tournament if an opportunity arose. The rodeo will not be held this year, but it is scheduled to return in 2015.
Ice hockey will be back in some form. Tentative plans call for a two-game series featuring the Albany Devils, the New Jersey Devils’ American Hockey League affiliate. There is also a chance the Philadelphia Flyers could stage an open practice at the arena.
“It’s our job to have as few dark nights as possible,” he said. “We’re looking at a variety of possibilities. We’re exploring whether the floor of Boardwalk Hall would be able to support motocross or monster trucks.”
Placing a minor-league sports franchise at Boardwalk Hall again, however, is a long shot.
The Boardwalk Bullies of the East Coast Hockey League called the hall home from 2001 to 2005. Although they enjoyed a loyal following among hard-core fans, they failed to consistently draw enough spectators and wound up moving to Stockton, Calif.
“I don’t know if the market can support a minor-league franchise,” Rodowicz said. “From what I understand, the community support just wasn’t there for the Boardwalk Bullies. But we’re willing to listen to all ideas.”
Atlantic City was once home to a number of minor-league franchises. Besides the Boardwalk Bullies, it also was host to the Atlantic City Seagulls basketball team (1996-2001) in the United States Basketball League and the Atlantic City Surf baseball team (1998-2008), which played as an independent team in the Atlantic and Can-Am leagues.
All of them disappeared, due in large part to a lack of support.
But boxing and mixed martial arts continue to play prominent roles in the resort. Saturday’s card at Bally’s Atlantic City was the eighth boxing show to be held in town this year.
“Obviously, we’re always looking for fights that will draw boxing fans to Atlantic City,” said Caesars Entertainment consultant Ken Condon, who books fights for the company. “The Hopkins-Kovalev fight continues that tradition.”
Boxing was in its heyday in Atlantic City in the late 1980s and 1990s. Casino mogul Donald Trump staged a number of cards at Boardwalk Hall featuring Mike Tyson, the heavyweight champion at the time. Tyson fought four times at the arena, including an epic, 91-second knockout over fellow champ Michael Spinks that drew a record crowd of 21,785. Two years later, an announced crowd of 20,000 saw Evander Holyfield defeat George Foreman there.
Boardwalk Hall later underwent a renovation that reduced seating capacity for boxing to about 12,000. The late Arturo Gatti was the big draw in the 2000s. Sellout crowds packed the arena to watch him take on fighters such as Floyd Mayweather Jr. Two of his legendary fights against Micky Ward took place in the hall.
Revel’s demise throws the local MMA scene into a state of flux.
The casino’s Ovation Hall was the site of two UFC cards in the past three years. Bellator also held two shows there and was hoping to have another one in early 2015. Another national MMA organization, World Series of Fighting, held two fight cards at the resort.
“We are monitoring the situation, and we will explore holding events at other venues in the city,” said UFC spokesman Dave Sholler, an Egg Harbor Township native.
Other MMA companies are expected to continue the relationships they have established at other Atlantic City properties.
Ring of Combat has been holding shows at Tropicana Casino and Resort for eight years. Ring of Combat 49 will be there Sept. 19. Vineland-based Cage Fury Fighting Championships will hold its eighth card at Borgata Hotel Casino & Spa on Nov. 22.
“MMA will have a vital role in the future of sports in Atlantic City,” Haydak said.
Contact David Weinberg:
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