With the heavy French influence across Louisiana, you would think a destination in the state would be a natural host for Team USA’s road to the 2024 Olympic Summer Games in Paris. But the story of how USA Boxing came to choose Lafayette, Louisiana, and the Cajundome for its recent Olympic Trials and national championships goes deeper than that.
Last week, about 1,000 boxers and another 1,000 coaches, family and support filled the arena that the University of Louisiana Ragin’ Cajuns call home for basketball. The event ran December 4–9, with two sessions a day of boxing at its finest. While USA Boxing used the event to help qualify the 13 boxers it will send to the Olympic Games next year, the majority of participants were youth competing a wide range of classes for the goal of a national championship, with bouts earlier in the day for the up-and-comers and bouts in the evening for the high-performance track.
Divisions at the event included bantam (10–11 years old), intermediate (12–13 years old), junior (14–15 years old), youth (16–17 years old) and elite non-Olympic weight classes (18–39 years old). Junior and youth age boxers also competed for a place on USA Boxing’s 2024 High Performance Teams.
Years back, the national governing body held its national championships and Olympic Trials as separate events. But after Mike McAtee was hired as executive director, USA Boxing combined the effort for an economy of scale. It also brought a different kind of economy: The event expects to bring an estimated economic impact of $2.5 million to Lafayette in a time that is normally slow for visitation.
“Our event is long and we put a lot of heads in beds because we start checking in on a Saturday, Sunday we have meetings, and then we box all the way through Saturday,” said McAtee. “And it’s great for our members because if you’re a coach, you can bring every boxer, so everybody gets experience. The other thing it does is you’ve got the young kids boxing and then they get to see the potential Olympians.”
And for the Lafayette Convention & Visitors Commission, the event gives it instant credibility in the NGB space and the chance to fill rooms in the south-central Louisiana destination.
“We’re thrilled because they had 2,100 participants sign up and register to be here,” said Mike Roebuck, chief sales officer for the Lafayette CVC. “That’s a great chunk of people for a week that typically is a very soft week. Our hotel partners are thrilled to have this. And then, really, we feel like an event like this puts Lafayette on the map.”
Hand-Delivering the Bid
The story of how the event came to Lafayette is a good example of perseverance by a destination and the needs of an event organizer that could see a bigger picture.
For Lafayette, the journey began in 2017 when the destination hosted the National Golden Gloves Championship at the Cajundome. “From that experience, we realized, hey, we can do some big events here,” Roebuck said. “We just need to work our way into it.”
That eventually led to a bid to host the USA Boxing National Championships, an effort that included sending the CVB’s director of sports business development, Carl Toups, to Colorado Springs to deliver the bid in person. “Carl going to Colorado Springs broke open the door to say, let’s look at Lafayette strongly. And we found that we needed some little tweaks in our proposal,” Roebuck said.
Among the tweaks were a move from the city’s convention center to the 13,000-seat arena, as well as a donation to the NGB’s foundation that allowed 28 local boxers to compete who might otherwise not have had the chance.
“We stayed in touch and they expressed the desire that the Cajundome would be the thing to make the deal happen,” Roebuck said. “We basically priced it out and looked at the economic impact and said, OK, you got it.”
From USA Boxing’s perspective, the deal also made sense for a rapidly growing membership. Lafayette’s location was a benefit, as well as its affordability. With 2,500 boxing gyms spread out across the country, a geographically central destination is appealing, McAtee said.
“We have a very diverse community and every dollar counts, so we can bring it to a city and get what our members want, which is that they want to come here, they want to compete, they want to have good prices, enjoy each other and then go home,” McAtee said. “So, this is a great area for us.”
Boxing Membership Way Up
While national championships were considered a success, for USA Boxing overall, business is booming. The 2023 membership year, which ended October 31, was the largest in the NGB’s history. The governing body recorded 59,800 members, up 17 percent from the year before.
And the NGB’s events are growing to serve those members as well, with 1,300 local events plus 10 regional events. The volume of events allows opportunities year-round and in different areas to meet that growth.
“Our members don’t have to travel far if they’re worried about gas, airline flights and stuff like that,” McAtee said. “So, by growing our base, it’s helping all of us.”
And at the elite level, USA Boxing is hoping to make the most of its experience in Paris at the 2024 Olympic Games. The U.S. team will have 13 boxers, five of which had already qualified before the Trials in Lafayette, with more positions on the line.
“We have a very strong team,” McAtee said. “And our goal every time we go to a tournament is podium performance. We put the bar as high as possible.”
Bread Pudding Seals the Deal
While the Olympic Trials were one component to the event in Lafayette, all those hundreds of youth competing also had their eyes on the future as well. Many of the boxers competing at the national championships component of the event were just starting their process for the journey to the following Olympic Summer Games, which will be held in Los Angeles in 2028.
“Literally, this is the first tournament leading to LA 2028 for our boxers who are 16, 17, and 18 years old,” McAtee said.
And that excited the host city in Lafayette as well. The impact of all those visitors to town was substantial, but so was the opportunity to highlight the high-performance end. The event’s closing day was broadcast nationally on Peacock.
“We weigh events like this on two categories,” Roebuck said. “One is hotel rooms and economic impact locally in the community. The other is how much earned media would it bring. And with the exposure you get with the Olympic Trials and with this organization, obviously what we might not see in hard earned dollars coming back, we’re exposing the world to Lafayette.”
That exposure is already paying off. USA Karate reached out and after a site visit that included the region’s renowned bourbon bread putting, the deal was done to bring that NGB’s national championships to Lafayette.
“We’re getting inquiries from USA Archery, USA Taekwondo, USA Powerlifting all the other sports that need facilities like this, that are budget friendly, easy drive-in, that sort of thing,” Roebuck said.
But that business comes down to the job the host city does and the experience that participants and visitors have a result. For USA Boxing, the destination was a perfect fit for its largest showcase.
“They’re a great host,” McAtee said. “The venue is excellent — it’s big. And the city is very welcoming. So, we’re excited to be down here.”