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Peaks and Valleys - Sports Tourism is Fueling Economic Growth in the Mountain Region of the U.S.

2 Mar, 2016

By: Andrew Cohen

To attract athletes and their families from across the United States, many western cities have successfully marketed sports facilities. The result: portfolios of profitable statewide, regional and national events that are filling hotel rooms, boosting tourism and creating economic impact. Amid the majestic Rockies or on sandy plateaus, these cities and their sports organizations are rounding up plenty of action.

New Facilities in Idaho

Major new facilities promise to make Pocatello, Idaho, an even more sought-after destination for residents and visitors. Portneuf Wellness Complex, which opened last summer, is a mix of active play and recreational activity areas on its 80 acres, including 11 multi-use sports fields and one designated championship field, as well as basketball courts, a sand volleyball pit, trails for mountain biking and walking, a playground, a pond and an amphitheater. The Portneuf Health Trust, an owner of Portneuf Medical Center, fully funded the complex as a gift to the community. And this October will bring a new multi-use indoor center with 1,600 seats into the mix, the Mountain View Event Center (or MEC).

“It’ll provide an opportunity to host a lot more sporting events, and will also be available for trade shows and other types of competitions,” says Birgitta Bright, tourism administrator for Visit Pocatello. “We already have facilities for larger events, such as those at Idaho State University, but this will be a super-nice facility that will fit the midrange and give us more flexibility.”

In Montana, an Open Road for Sports Tourism

Billings, Montana, is “a major running event destination” in the words of Alex Tyson, executive director of Visit Billings. Tyson points to the success of the Montana Women’s Run every May, which with 8,000 participants is the state’s largest race, and the Heart & Sole Run, which serves as an RRCA regional qualifier.

One discipline that has been lacking in the city was endurance racing, a void that will be filled by this June’s 406 Duathlon Challenge. “In Montana, there are a lot of extreme, ultras and mountain races, but we see a huge weakness in this part of the state for that type of event, so we’re excited to be going in that direction,” Tyson says.

The duathlon (running and cycling) will take place along the Yellowstone River and could serve as a stepping stone to a future triathlon. The city already hosts the annual Montana Marathon, a consequence of the city’s strong running clubs and business environment. “We have the rooms — 5,000 hotel rooms, the most of any city in Montana,” Tyson says. “And they’re great partners, offering great rates for sporting events.”

Features and Facilities in Wyoming

Regional collegiate and high school sporting events remain a major focus of Wyoming’s Campbell County Convention and Visitors Bureau, but then the organization has a little bit of everything in its sights.

“We’re really pushing hard on the sports end of things, everything from single-day events like extreme dirt biking, disc golf and cornhole to tournaments,” says Mary Silvernell, executive director of the Campbell County CVB. “We can do most every sport out there; now it’s just a matter of getting people to be aware of the facilities we have and knowing that we’re convenient to get to.”

A fantastic new addition in 2015 was the Energy Capital Sports Complex, a multi-purpose complex offering four softball and baseball fields designed for youth softball that can be converted for Little League Baseball use. An aquatic center is slated to begin construction there in the near future.

The Casper Area Convention & Visitors Bureau and the Casper Sports Alliance have launched Bike Casper (and the associated website, www.bikecasper.com) as the one web-resource for all things biking in Casper, Wyoming, including information on areas and trails where visitors can take their bicycles for day and weekend excursions.

The website was developed to promote Casper as a place with plenty of opportunities for cyclists of all types. While the focus is currently on mountain biking, as the site matures and information is made available, all cycling opportunities will be promoted.

“We wanted a single location where people who want to find out more about the fantastic mountain biking trails in Natrona County can get that information,” says John Giantonio, director of the Casper Sports Alliance. “On the Bike Casper website, they will find information on our local shops, overall riding areas, trail specific maps, events, weather and hotel information.”

In 2015, Natrona County hosted an American Mountain Bike Challenge, and this year they are hosting a four-hour and eight-hour endurance race on June 25 on Casper Mountain. The new racecourse is estimated to be a 10-mile loop.

Discovering New Destinations in Colorado

In Colorado, Justin Clark, the director of sales and marketing at Visit Aurora, calls the Aurora Sports Park “One of the best venues in the United States for hosting a variety of sports tournaments, but many sports organizations and tournament directors have not discovered it yet.”

That shouldn’t be a problem after 2016, during which Aurora will host the REAL Colorado Cup Tournament and Colorado Showcase, the Rocky Mountain Rugby Challenge, the Triple Crown Fireworks Softball Tournament, US Club Soccer’s National Premier League Finals and National Cup Finals, USA Ultimate’s Colorado Cup and Ultimate Masters National Championships, the Amateur Softball Association Halloween Blast, and many other local and regional tournaments. All of those tournaments will utilize Aurora Sports Park’s 27 full-size multi-purpose fields, including four brand-new synthetic, lighted, multipurpose fields and 12 baseball/softball fields, and will bring thousands of competitors and families to Aurora.

In Arizona, Big Events from A to Z

Phoenix, Arizona, has been known to host whimsical events such as the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon, a national running series, the trademark feature of which is music bands every half mile “to urge runners and walkers on,” in the words of Doug MacKenzie, director of media relations for Visit Phoenix, which brings the marathon to town in January.

But the city’s events tend toward the high-profile, with 15 Major League Baseball teams playing Spring Training games every day at 1 p.m. in March, and huge celebrations such as NASCAR races (two each year), the Super Bowl (in 2015), the NCAA football championship (in 2016) and the Final Four (in 2017). “We’re certainly experienced at mega events,” says MacKenzie. “It’s going to be nuts here in March 2017.”

Nevada: Bringing in the Athletes

Henderson, Nevada’s second-largest city, brings many athletes into the state. While tourism attractions include nearby Las Vegas, the Hoover Dam and Lake Mead , Henderson also boasts a variety of interesting sports events. One example is the Midnite Madness 1-Pitch Tournament. The most anticipated and unique tournament in the Las Vegas Valley, a tradition for almost three decades, it’s a 1-pitch, all-night tournament featuring the best adult softball teams from across the Southwest and West Coast (the 28th annual tournament takes place this July).

On the facilities front, the city’s newly renovated Whitney Mesa BMX track is downhill with asphalt turns, a wall ride and a pump track, which is one of the most popular and most sought-after BMX attractions in the industry. The USA BMX-sanctioned track also features a strider course and  is the only left-turn track of its kind in Southern Nevada.

“Henderson is a premier destination for sports enthusiasts of all ages and interests,” says the city’s mayor, Andy Hafen. “From softball to golf and BMX to triathlons, we are known for the national caliber of our facilities as well as our high-touch customer service.”

Welcoming the Tournaments to New Mexico

In New Mexico, Ed Carnathan, who handles sports sales for the Las Cruces Convention & Visitors Bureau, says that if he had his choice of events to bring to town, the winner would be any youth girls tournament, given the sheer number of people such events bring to town.

“Youth girls is king — or queen,” he says. But his city’s best-known tournament is actually an adult event that takes place annually during the first full weekend in October: The Whole Enchilada. A slow-pitch softball tournament sanctioned through USSSA that has been contested for more than 30 years, The Whole Enchilada brings around 265 teams and 5,000 visitors every year to compete in three men’s and three women’s divisions at Hadley Athletic Complex’s 11 fields. “It’s our biggest sporting event of the year, every year,” Carnathan says.

About the Author

Andrew Cohen

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