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A battle-scar galactica taking place in Russia’s St Petersburg

The second edition of the World Combat Games starts on Friday in the Russian city of St Petersburg. The mixed martial arts extravaganza reflects the sport's rapidly growing global appeal, both to viewers and corporations.
Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin. AFP PHOTO / SEBASTIAN DERUNGS
Russian prime minister Vladimir Putin. AFP PHOTO / SEBASTIAN DERUNGS

The 2013 World Combat Games gets under way in St Petersburg on Friday and will feature 15 martial arts with about 1,300 athletes from all over the world heading to Russia to participate in this six-day Sport Accord-sanctioned tournament.

Russia was recently awarded the 2018 Fifa World Cup, an event that when last held, in 2010, was reported to have raised the GDP of 2010 host nation South Africa by nearly 1 per cent and authorities in the former Communist country will be anxious to ensure the World Combat Games runs as smoothly as possible.

The Fifa World Cup attracts an average of 3.6 billion viewers since the turn of the century and the Combat Games will be an opportunity for Russia to show it can competently host an albeit comparatively small-scale international competition before one of the biggest sporting events on the planet comes to town in five years’ time, not to mention the Winter Olympics in Sochi next year.

While hosting the World Combat Games will not have an appreciable impact on Russia’s GDP the governor of St Petersburg, Georgy Poltavchenko, points out how seriously his city is taking its responsibilities as only the second destination to ever host the competition after Beijing in 2010.

“It’s like the Olympics for combat sports,” he says.

“I’m sure that the competition will be held at the highest level and subsequently this arena will provide a stage for the highest standard of competitions in various sports in the future.

“The more sports facilities we have, the higher the bar of St Petersburg will be raised.”

Construction on the 7,000-capacity Spartak Arena began in 2010 and was accelerated to ensure it would be ready in time to host the Combat Games. It will eventually become a full-time base for the BS Spartak St Petersburg team that competes in the Russian professional basketball league, replacing the 46-year-old Yubileyny Sports Palace where BS currently play their home games.

St Petersburg, which is home to the second-largest construction industry in Russia, has already hosted international sporting events including the 2007 World Fencing Championship, the 2008 World Sambo Championship, the 2010 World Ju-Jitsu Championship, the 2010 WTF European Taekwondo Championship and the WTF World Para-Taekwondo Championship.

The city is an industrial hub with an annual budget revenue in the region of US$10 billion and its infrastructure is set to benefit even further from hosting the Combat Games as the fibre-optic lines connecting St Petersburg with Moscow and Stockholm have been modernised in preparation for a broadcast programme of events at the games that will reach 50 countries worldwide.

Dmitry Anisimov is the sports programming director of the Russia 2 TV Channel, which will be one of a number of local broadcasters showing a collective five hours of footage per day of the 2013 World Combat Games.

He points to the success of sports such as boxing and mixed martial arts, both of which can attract pay per view audiences measured in the millions, and hopes the Combat Games can capture the imagination of fight fans in a similar way.

“The Combat Games are not capable of competing with team sports in terms of the spectator interest, only professional boxing and mix fights [mixed martial arts] are part of the top 10 best-rated TV shows,” he says.

“There is some interest for combat sports but we need a powerful push that will transform this interest into a strong attraction. We believe that the 2013 World Combat Games will allow us to do it,” he adds.

If such a push were to come, the financial benefits could be significant. For instance, the recent world title boxing match between Saul Alvarez and Floyd Mayweather raised a record $150 million in TV revenue.

Meanwhile the market leader in mixed martial arts (MMA) is the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), which consistently attracts pay per view audiences in the region of 200,000 to 1 million viewers.

The Russian region has produced more than its fair share of marketable fighters over the years. The Klitschko brothers, who have dominated the heavyweight landscape in boxing since the turn of the century, hail from Ukraine and both can currently command purses of in excess of $2m per fight.

Fedor Emelianenko is regarded by many as being the greatest mixed martial artist of all time and the Russian heavyweight became the first fighter in the sport to ever break the $1m mark for a fight purse before his retirement last year. The 2013 World Combat Games has astutely recognised his enduring popularity and enlisted him as an official ambassador of the event.

While the amateur nature of the tournament precludes any millionaire professional fighters from participating there is still an impressive array of sponsors on board for the games in St Petersburg.

The South Korean multinational conglomerate Samsung, which last year had revenue of $268.8 billion, is leading the way with the luxury Swiss watch maker Tissot, whose revenues last year reportedly broke the $1bn mark, also an official sponsor.

The event is also receiving strong support from domestic companies including Gazprom, which produces 17 per cent of the world’s natural gas and which has taken steps to increase its European profile this year by investing heavily in sponsorship of the Uefa Champions League football tournament.

Gazprom registered revenues of $153bn last year and the open joint stock company also owns last season’s Russian football Premier League runners-up Zenit St Petersburg, who play their football in Petrovsky Stadium, barely a stone’s throw away from the newly constructed Spartak Arena in Krestovskiy Island.

Of the events represented at the Combat Games only boxing, fencing, wrestling, judo and taekwondo are also on the Olympic roster meaning this is an opportunity for some of the more obscure sports to press their claims for a place at the oldest athletic competition of all.

Combat sports have been capturing the imagination of Hollywood producers since the 1970s with martial artists such as Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Tony Jaa and Jean Claude Van Damme getting to demonstrate their skill sets on the big screen.

The so-called “chop-socky” low-grade movies out of Taiwan and Hong Kong in the 1970s and 80s were replaced by slick Hollywood blockbusters and audiences loved them. Chan’s remake of the classic Karate Kid in 2010 has grossed about $360m since its release, while Lee’s US-made classic Enter The Dragon has pulled in about $90m since its release in 1973.

Although the interest the martial arts movie genre has sparked has certainly helped to boost participation in the sport it has yet to translate consistently into increased spectator and TV audience numbers.

But the 2013 World Combat Games provides a rare platform for sports such as wushu and aikido to demonstrate they can compete with the multibillion-dollar industries of boxing and the upcoming MMA at the business of entertaining, and benefiting from the largesse of, a global audience.


Updated: October 12, 2013 04:00 AM



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