Call it a comeback. Sports events are rebounding, some at higher than pre-pandemic numbers. Sports tourism always has been big business in the United States. From tee ball to pro franchises, Americans love athletic competitions.
While 2020 saw a decrease in the number of sports travelers due to the pandemic, the sector quickly rebounded in 2021, increasing 82 percent year-over-year, according to a Sports Events & Tourism Association State of the Industry Report. Nearly 175 million people traveled for sports events in 2021, generating $12.9 billion in tax revenue and $91.8 billion in total economic impact, the report notes. That number of travelers represents a drop of less than 3 percent from the highest mark of 180 million set in 2019.
Already in 2022, numbers are increasing, with destinations fielding more teams than ever and hosting larger crowds.
More than 1,400 student-athletes from 164 colleges and universities turned out when the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) hosted the Men’s and Women’s Outdoor Track & Field Championships in May in Gulf Shores, Ala. It was the largest number of schools and athletes participating in the eight years Gulf Shores Orange Beach Sports & Events (GSOB Sports) has hosted the event, says Michelle Russ, vice president of sales, sports, and events for GSOB Sports.
Also in May, huge crowds in Gulf Shores watched the University of Southern California defeat Florida State University to win the women’s 2022 National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) Beach Volleyball National Championship. This year’s tournament featured a 16-team first round for the first time and saw 10,151 attendees over four days of competition—a nearly seven percent increase in attendance from 2019, Russ notes.
Volleyball numbers also spiked at the Orange County Convention Center (OCCC) in Orlando, Fla., with six events from April to June bringing in a total of about 226,312 attendees for an estimated economic impact of $290 million.
The largest volleyball event of the year was the 49th Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Junior National Volleyball Championship. Of all OCCC’s events, this major sporting event in June brought in the largest number—nearly 137,000 coaches, players, spectators, and parents—creating an economic impact of approximately $176 million.
The Florida Volleyball Challenge, hosted by the Florida Region of USA Volleyball on April 22-24, brought 20,356 attendees and a nearly $26 million economic impact.
“The volleyball community is excited to celebrate our comeback with our athletes, coaches, and parents at a safe venue,” says Steve Bishop, executive director and president of the Florida Region of USA Volleyball. “We have prioritized health and safety for our volleyball community and look forward to making a significant economic impact in the region.”
Kristy Cox, director of events for USA Volleyball, says tournaments organized in Orlando are “very well received” by its teams. “We have certainly grown a lot since we first started hosting tournaments at the convention center,” Cox says. “The customer service we receive in Orlando is unparalleled.”
Overall, the OCCC will host an estimated 426,000 attendees at sporting events in 2022. That translates to a projected $565 million in economic impact on the region during the 2021-2022 fiscal year.
“We are thrilled to welcome the strong sporting market back to Orange County and the OCCC because our partners are such a big part of our success,” OCCC executive director Mark Tester says.
Florida knocks it out of the park
The success in Orlando is more than just volleyball. In April, the OCCC hosted multiple cheer and dance events, including the Open Championship Series 2022, The ONE Cheer & Dance Finals 2022, and Fusion National Dance Competition 2022.
Other athletic events held at the OCCC so far in 2022 include the National Gymnastics Association National Gym Festival and AAU Wrestling 2022.
Jason Siegel, president and CEO of the Greater Orlando Sports Commission (GOSC NAIA), says his organization has enjoyed a relationship with the OCCC for more than 25 years—and its stronger than ever.
“The student-athletes, coaches, and families who travel to Orange County for these events are provided with such a positive experience while competing at the OCCC, and we look forward to welcoming them back to Orlando for many years to come,” Siegel says.
The GOSC, one of the largest regional sports commissions in the country, covers events in Orlando and in Orange, Seminole, Lake, and Osceola counties. Each of those communities is experiencing tremendous growth, according to Siegel. A main contributor is the fact that sporting events and tournaments can be played outdoors, especially in the amateur and youth sports space, he notes.
“In some cases, our partners have experienced incremental growth in 2021 and 2022, resulting in outcomes that exceed pre-COVID levels,” Siegel says. “In 2022, we are projected to host more than 50 events and drive nearly $500 million worth of impact in Sports Commission-related business.”
Florida never fully shut down during the pandemic, and Siegel notes that helped keep the ball rolling for its sports industry.
“During the pandemic, we were the beneficiary of remaining an open economy as event organizers looked to find new locations for their events that were shuttered in other parts of the country,” Siegel says. “We’d be remiss if we didn’t point to the tremendous success experienced in the summer of 2020 as ESPN Wide World of Sports hosted the MLS is Back Tournament and the restart of the NBA season in the ‘Orlando Bubble.’”
He also credits a collaborative tourism community for the successful return of sports events and competitions.
“It’s a pleasure to work in a community where your airport and transportation partners; hotel and lodging partners; restaurant, attraction, and theme park partners; healthcare providers; and DMO and sports venue partners can all work hand in hand for a common goal as we look to continue to drive visitation to our destination,” Siegel says. “Hosting major marquee events is in our community’s DNA.”
Alabama scores big
The same can be said of the Gulf Shores-Orange Beach region of coastal Alabama.
GSOB Sports has120 sports events on the calendar for 2022—comparable to 2019, Russ says. In 2021, the cities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach saw 136,056 room night bookings directly attributed to sports and event tourism.
“We expect to see similar numbers in 2022,” Russ says. “Tourism along Alabama’s beaches is back to pre-pandemic levels, and sports and events helped bring a sense of normalcy in 2021 and again in 2022.”
Sports and event tourism make up what Russ calls a “vital part of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach functioning as a year-round economy.” The sports arm of the area’s tourism division rebranded to Gulf Shores Orange Beach Sports & Events in March 2021, a play that brought major leisure events into the fold.
“This afforded us the opportunity to enhance existing event business through grant funding and marketing support and attracting one to two new major events per year that generate overnight stays, particularly outside the peak summer season to further extend the destination’s year-round business,” Russ says.
Alabama also scored big when Birmingham hosted The World Games 2022 in July. The first edition of the 40-year-old event to be held in the United States since 1981 had an estimated economic impact of $256 million for the city and brought in an estimated 13,000 foreign visitors from 40 countries. The international sports event occurs every four years and awards 600 medals. Featuring 3,600 of the world’s best athletes competing in more than 30 multidisciplinary sports, The World Games put Birmingham in the international spotlight for 11 days as athletes from more than 100 countries competed for gold.
Soccer reaches new goals
The pandemic didn’t sideline soccer. Zack Touchstone, operations manager of Snap Soccer, said they’ve experienced an increase in participation. The Pensacola, Fla.-based management company runs tournaments and soccer camps and provides resources to help grow the sport.
“We have seen a lot of growth in the past few years,” Touchstone says. “We believe things will continue to grow until 2026 when we have some World Cup games in the United States.”
Snap Soccer has 25 events scheduled for 2022, including the Publix SuperCup that will host more than 300 youth teams at the Foley Sports Complex in Foley, Ala., this month. The event also will hold games in Pensacola, Fla.
In 2021, Snap Soccer welcomed approximately 2,051 teams and hosted more than 3,600 games. About 1,000 athletes compete in each competition, with an average crowd of 2,000 to 3,000 spectators.
“We have surpassed pre-COVID numbers,” Touchstone says. “We have been seeing everything steadily grow since the fall of 2020.”
Little League is hosting its first full slate of regional and World Series tournaments in three years. All seven Little League World Series and their respective regional tournaments were canceled in 2020, and the 2021 series only included teams from the United States. Worldwide, about two million girls and boys ages four to 16 play Little League baseball.
This year, some pandemic health and safety precautions remained in place. Coaches, players, and team advocates were encouraged to self-test prior to arrival at each tournament. Those testing positive were not permitted to travel or participate and were required to clear five days of isolation and be asymptomatic to take the field. However, vaccinations were not required. Masks remained part of the landscape as staff, volunteers, and media were required to wear them in enclosed spaces such as dining hall and indoor stadium locations. Players and coaches were not required to wear masks on the field or in practice facilities or dugouts.
A winning season
While the number of participants varies by event and type, overall sports participation is back to pre-pandemic levels. And, as Gulf Shores witnessed in May with both the NAIA track and field and the NCAA beach volleyball championships, some 2022 events have higher participation levels than in 2019.
And despite some big hurdles presented by the pandemic, the sports market supported 635,000 full- and part-time jobs.
So let the games continue. This year looks to be a winning season for the sports events market segment