Sports tourism market continues to thrive

The Birmingham Crossplex is one of the many unique sports venues in the Alabama city.
The Birmingham Crossplex is one of the many unique sports venues in the Alabama city.

It is no secret that sports tourism is a major market which generates serious economic impact to a community.

The latest information from the National Association of Sports Commissions (NASC) reports sport tourism was an approximately $11.4 billion industry, an increase of nine percent from the $10.47 billion reported the previous year. The NASC also notes there has been a 37 percent increase in direct spending related to sports events and tourism since 2013, and a 27 percent increase in owned-and-operated events since 2016, as well as a 15 percent decrease in bid fees.

A report by Wintergreen Research Inc., goes further to estimate the sports youth market to be worth $15.5 billion in the United States. With numbers like these, the sports tourism market has been labeled as the fastest growing segment within the travel industry. It is no wonder, then, sports events of all types and sizes are sought-after by destinations across the country.

“Sports are actually a critical part of our visitation strategy and how we approach tourism,” said Florida’s Space Coast Office of Tourism executive director Peter Cranis. “We estimate tourism itself to be approximately a $2.5 billion industry here, and while we do not have the percentage sports represents of that, it is certainly a big piece of the pie in what we are trying to do across the board.”

Myrtle Beach, S.C., is another destination feeling the impact of sports tourism. In an average year, sports tourism represents about 60 percent of its group sales business, notes Visit Myrtle Beach executive director of sports tourism Jonathan Paris.

“Sports tourism is a critical market for us in Myrtle Beach,” he added. “The Myrtle Beach Sports Center, which recently celebrated its fifth anniversary, contributed more than $101 million in direct spending impact to the community in its first four years. The Myrtle Beach Invitational (college basketball tournament) alone has an economic impact of approximately $2 million.”

Cranis notes the sports tourism industry is so lucrative because sports tourism visitors do much more in a destination in addition to renting a facility and booking a hotel room. They often immerse themselves into the area to experience what it has to offer—perhaps even adding extra days before or after the event.

“We know sports groups spend a lot of money, not only on the travel itself but lunches, dinners, shopping, and other amenities and attractions while here,” added Cranis. “Families with sports groups do not just come in and play the event and then leave. They do other things while here.”

Panama City Beach opened the $37 million PCB Sports Complex in October 2019, welcoming 19 events and 30,000 visitors.
Panama City Beach opened the $37 million PCB Sports Complex in October 2019, welcoming 19 events and 30,000 visitors.

Be strategic with venues

With sports tourism being such a valuable market, destinations across the country are doing all they can to compete for these events. One way many communities are doing so is making sure to offer sought-after venues to meet the needs of travelers.

Panama City Beach did just this when it opened the $37 million PCB Sports Complex in October 2019. With 160 acres of amenities, the complex can host multiple sports and in 2019 alone welcomed 19 events and 30,000 visitors.

Florida’s Space Coast was thinking outside the box when it took advantage of an opportunity to turn an empty stadium into a sports mecca. When a professional baseball team happened to leave town—leaving the facility empty—the destination approached the United States Specialty Sports Association (USSSA) about taking over the stadium.

“Rather than seeking out another professional organization, we decided youth sports were a better way to go in terms of economic impact to our community,” Cranis explained. “We put a package together for USSSA where we refurbished the stadium and they would bring in athletes for events.”

The deal has worked in spades for both parties.

The CVB refurbished the stadium, now called USSSA Stadium, and events now held there through USSSA bring in approximately 100,000 athletes every year, generating approximately 60,000 to 75,000 room nights, Cranis added.

“That translates into so much more, including all kinds of spending,” he said. “It really has a huge impact across our county.”

Louisville, Ky., is another destination which focuses heavily on sports tourism—especially youth sports—and the Louisville Sports Commission knows full well the value of having the right infrastructure to attract those industries.

Looking to add to its core sports market, city officials strategically set out to construct a premier indoor track and field facility.

“There are not many indoor 200-meter banked tracks in the country that are not owned and operated by a college,” said Louisville Sports Commission vice president of sports development Greg Fante, CSEE.

Currently under construction and to be completed by January 2021, the Norton Sports Health Athletic and Learning Complex/Indoor Track Facility is what the sports commission is hoping will draw more track and field events to the city. The commission is purposely looking at the sport because of the time of year it is held.

“There is a defined season, which is early December through March,” Fante explained. “That is a soft season for us when there aren’t many convention and trade shows, so with this new facility, we are hoping it gives us an advantage in the market segment, especially with it being a time we need tourism.”

Sports tourism event attendance grew by 107 percent in Foley, Ala., in the two years after the city opened the Foley Event Center. The venue held its first event in 2017—welcoming 500 gymnasts to town for the Bounders Beach Bash—and the city has not slowed down in building upon that success.

Around the same time it opened, work began on adding 16 multipurpose fields, as well as multiple hotels near the space.

“Families like it because they could stay here, play here, and eat here,” explained Foley Sports Tourism marketing and sales director Shellie Kichler. “A lot of times families and spectators are at a complex all day, and it is hard if they have to drive across town to get to and from the facility. Having a variety of hotels within a five-mile radius of where they are playing is huge for parents so they can easily go back and forth if needed.”

In Greenville, N.C., baseball and softball are two of the biggest sports, but the Greenville-Pitt County NC Sports Commission has asserted itself with many niche sports, such as chess tournaments, spelling bees, and robotics.
In Greenville, N.C., baseball and softball are two of the biggest sports, but the Greenville-Pitt County NC Sports Commission has asserted itself with many niche sports, such as chess tournaments, spelling bees, and robotics.

Think outside the typical sports box

In addition to having the right facilities, destinations are realizing more than ever they have to think beyond the typical sports. There are a variety of up-and-coming niche sports that can create economic impact just as much as more traditional sports like baseball, softball, and volleyball.

In Greenville, N.C., baseball and softball are two of the biggest sports, but the Greenville-Pitt County NC Sports Commission has asserted itself with many niche sports, such as chess tournaments, spelling bees, and robotics.

In fact, Greenville hosts the First North Carolina State Robotics Tournament, one the largest such events in the U.S. The event rotates from the eastern portion of the state to the western part, and it attracts middle and high school students.

“We are the host when it is in the eastern portion of the state, and it brings with it an approximate $2 million economic impact to our area,” noted Greenville-Pitt County NC Sports Commission executive director Gray Williams. “It is a really cool event as the students are given a theme and they build a robot to go with the theme.”

Birmingham, Ala., is another destination that does well with many traditional sports, but it continues to seek out niche sports as well with unique venues such as Barber Motorsports Park—which hosts the Indy Grand Prix of Alabama, an event that has an economic impact of approximately $24 million—and the Birmingham CrossPlex, which hosts indoor track and field. The city has become a destination for e-sports thanks to the new ePLEX; a facility built in Birmingham just for the upcoming industry. The facility opened this year, and so far, it has been involved with the Alabama High School Athletic Association, hosting the e-sports Championships. In 2011, the city hosted the National Veterans Golden Age Games, and in 2017 it hosted the Senior Games. Birmingham will host The World Games in 2022, and it was just awarded the 2025 World Police & Fire Games.

“We have done really well with multisport events, and we are proud of that,” explained Greater Birmingham CVB vice president of sports sales and marketing David Galbaugh. “It is a space we will continue to focus on.”

Florida’s Space Coast Office of Tourism has been very proactive in attempting to attract new sports events to the area.
Florida’s Space Coast Office of Tourism has been very proactive in attempting to attract new sports events to the area.

Be proactive in seeking out new business

In addition to having the right facilities and the drive to go after new sports, destinations must also be proactive when it comes to finding ways to actually win the bid.

That is the vision for Florida’s Space Coast Office of Tourism, said Cranis, as they have a grant program allowing them to attract new business.

“By putting in seed money in terms of grant funding, we can help events looking for new venues or experiences,” Cranis said. “For example, we are talking with the organizers of a basketball tournament that was originally going to be held in Cancun this fall about hosting it here at Eastern Florida State College’s facilities. The grant will help them come here.”

Florida’s Space Coast also acted quick when it saw the AAU Junior Olympic Games needed a new destination—the event was supposed to be held in Virginia but had to be canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic—and the community stepped in to provide an alternative.

“They were scrambling to find a destination with enough facilities, so we stepped in and started working with the school board and some of our great indoor and outdoor facilities,” Cranis explained. “We all worked together as a destination to be able to offer it up, and it worked. We got the event, and they will be bringing in between 10,000 and 12,000 athletes and spectators. That will be quite significant for us. Normally we would not have the ability to go after something that big, but we made the best of a difficult situation.”

In hoping to grow its space in the wrestling world, Louisville wasted no time in seeking out potential ways to grow in that market.

“Our long-term goal is to host NCAA Division I championships in wrestling, and we had bid on them but did not get it,” Fante said. “They were impressed with our facility, but the feedback we got was we did not have a lot of wrestling taking place here. We knew we needed to build out portfolio in wrestling.”

To do so, the Louisville Sports Commission sought to make wrestling more of a core sport for the city. One way it is doing this is looking for other events to bring to Louisville, and the organization has partnered with NUWAYwrestling for one of its annual events

“It is a large annual event in January which attracts athletes from middle school and high school through college, including different college divisions such as junior college, Division I, II and III,” Fante explained. “It is a three-year agreement, and not only is it a great new relationship, but it is helping us build the sport in Louisville—not to mention attendees booking 5,000 hotel room nights in the city at a time when our hotels need it and want it.”

Looking to add to its core sports market, Louisville officials strategically set out to construct a premier indoor track and field facility.
Looking to add to its core sports market, Louisville officials strategically set out to construct a premier indoor track and field facility.

Experiences still matter

Though venues are certainly a top priority, event planners and rightsholders continue to look for destinations offering attractions and amenities outside of the game day venue.

“A lot of events today have time for their participants and spectators to spend time in the community,” said Paris. “Event owners we work with are very aware there is plenty for them to do in Myrtle Beach, which makes it easier for the event planner because they do not have to create an experience. So while we certainly try to work to have the best financial package we can, we know we are going to also provide a great experience for them in terms of destination with plenty of things to do.”

Having plenty to offer visitors off the field continues to attract many event owners to cities such as Foley—which offers a variety of amenities and attractions as well as being just 12 miles from the Gulf Coast—and Birmingham, which boast a variety of unique attractions.

“People naturally gravitate toward unique attractions, and we have a lot of them,” Galbaugh added. “There’s Vulcan Park & Museum, which tells the story of our mining heritage, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, which is incredibly powerful, and Barber Motorsports Park and Museum, which has the largest collection of motorcycles in the world.”

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