Columbia’s Winning Combination of Surprising Sports
19 Mar, 2017By: Michael Popke
A Mix of Popular, Nontraditional Offerings Gives This River City ‘A Leg Up’
Three rivers flow through Columbia, South Carolina, helping the city earn its status among the top 10 paddlesports destinations in the country.
One of those rivers — the 150-mile Broad River that runs north and south — has become renowned for its unobstructed surface, wooded protection from winds and year-round availability. And rowing teams are noticing.
“Rowing is one of the first unique sports we got into,” says Scott Powers, executive director of Columbia SC Sports (formerly known as the Columbia Regional Sports Council), which 12 years ago decided to pursue sporting events that leveraged this 231-year-old city’s diverse resources and promised large economic impacts. “Nontraditional sports give us a leg up on other communities.”
Today, Columbia is home to several college and university rowing teams from the Northeast and Midwest that spend winter or spring breaks practicing on a 4,000-meter stretch of the Broad River. The Columbia Rowing Club maintains a dock and boathouse that was built in 2001 and ensures a passionate local base for the sport.
Columbia SC Sports partners with teams to provide transportation, housing, dining and entertainment options. But rowing is not the only less-conventional sport offered by “ColumbiaSC” — as Powers and his team call the city. (“There are a lot of Columbias out there, and we need to separate ourselves,” he says.)
Last year, the city hosted the US Quidditch Cup 9 at the Fields at Saluda Shoals Park. Formerly known as the Quidditch World Cup, this event featured the top 60 quidditch teams from around the country and attracted 6,500 fans, Powers says. Columbia also hosted the US Quidditch 2017 South Regional Championship in February.
The co-ed contact sport mixes elements of rugby and dodgeball, and the University of South Carolina has a very active Quidditch club.
US Quidditch opted to make the Fields at Saluda Shoals Park the site for two major events in consecutive years before the venue was even complete, according to Powers. The athletic complex includes six soccer, lacrosse and multi-use fields, plus six clay and four hard-surface tennis courts, and it is located within Saluda Shoals Park — 400 acres of riverfront land with miles of paved and unpaved trails, as well as canoeing, kayaking, tubing, biking and other recreational opportunities.
Quidditch was the first major event to be held at the complex last year, and it generated plenty of local excitement. “The media did a good job of helping us get the word out,” Powers says.
Also last year, Columbia was one of four North American cities to host the Division 1 Women’s Flat Track Derby Association’s International Playoffs, featuring the top 40 teams from the WFTDA’s 400 or so members. Also known as roller derby, the sport skated into the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center, where crews constructed temporary risers from which fans watched the action. Powers says ticket sales exceeded WFTDA’s expectations by 15 percent, and he’s looking forward to promoting Columbia as an emerging roller derby destination.
“The players, many of whom are lawyers and doctors, were so excited, especially the ones from England,” Powers says. “A lot of times, roller derby tournaments are held out in the suburbs. The convention center is in the middle of five specialty shopping and dining districts.”
The WFTDA playoffs were another natural fit; Columbia boasts two(!) women’s roller derby teams. One of them, the Columbia QuadSquad Rollergirls, was ranked No. 30 in the world by WFTDA as of Jan. 31.
Early on in the evolution of The Color Run and Bubble Run, the city was among the first to open its streets with open arms. High-profile bowling tournaments are held at multiple bowling centers around the area, and the Cayce Tennis and Fitness Center at Otarre Pointe — featuring 30 lighted courts and a 2,000-seat stadium — hosted the United States Tennis Association’s Junior Team Tennis Championships from 2012 to 2016.
‘Passion for Sports’
Despite finding its niche in less-traditional sports, Columbia also is a destination for youth baseball, basketball and soccer tournaments.
“The passion for sports throughout the state of South Carolina grew out of college athletics, most importantly football,” Powers says. “Sports often leads TV newscasts down here, and that love of sports has carried over into youth sports. Football is still tops, but baseball isn’t too far behind.”
The Lexington Sports Complex, owned by the Lexington County Recreation and Aging Commission (Columbia occupies both Lexington and Richland counties), hosted Dixie Youth Baseball’s World Series in 1995, 2010, 2014 and 2015. The facility offers five youth baseball fields, one intermediate baseball field, one regulation-size baseball field and two tee-ball fields. The complex also houses four softball fields and four hard surface tennis courts.
“Most weekends, all the baseball fields here are filled with tournaments for travel teams,” Powers says. “You can’t find year-round baseball in a lot of places.”
The USC Gamecocks, a perennial powerhouse, play at Founders Park, where the team has ranked among the top three teams in the country in total attendance the past six seasons.
Spirit Communications Park opened in April 2016 as the $36 million home of the Columbia Fireflies, a Class A affiliate of the New York Mets that seats 9,000 spectators and operates year-round for baseball, football and soccer. Ballpark Digest named the venue its “2016 Ballpark of the Year,” citing it as “the centerpiece of serious economic development in Columbia” and predicting that “the combination of an outstanding ballpark anchoring economic development is a model for future [Minor League Baseball] and [Major League Baseball] facilities.”
Warm temperatures and plentiful fields also make Columbia a youth soccer destination, highlighted by two major tournaments hosted by South Carolina United FC: The St. Patrick’s Day Cup in March and the Carolina Cup in October. Each tourney attracts almost 200 teams from across the Southeast and generates 800 room nights, Powers says.
Games are played at five area complexes, some with bleacher seating and all with ample room to set up chairs and event tents. Other organizations also host soccer tournaments throughout the year, including Brookland Cayce High School in nearby Cayce, which boasts a 3,500-seat soccer stadium.
Additionally, “very good relationships” with cities within the Richland County Recreation Commission have helped Columbia SC Sports bring dozens of youth basketball tournaments (mostly AAU) to multiple facilities in the Columbia area. “Much like baseball, there are basketball tournaments throughout the region all year long,” Powers says.
In the wake of North Carolina’s House Bill 2 — the controversial law passed in March 2016 that prevents local governments from setting and implementing anti-discrimination policies — Columbia SC Sports officials have seen an uptick in inquiries to host events in Columbia.
Several major sports organizations, including the NCAA, pulled their championships and other high-profile events out of North Carolina to protest the law. Similarly, the NCAA for years prohibited South Carolina from bidding on preselected championships because of that state’s continued flying of the Confederate flag until then-Gov. Nikki Haley called for removal of the flag from the State House grounds in 2015.
So far, Columbia hasn’t secured any new business as a direct result of North Carolina’s HB2. “We feel for them,” Powers says of his neighbors to the north. “We probably understand what they’re going through more than most other states in the country. We don’t take any pleasure in taking away business from other states for political reasons.”
Regardless of what brings visitors to Columbia, Powers recommends they make time to check out the Riverbanks Zoo & Garden, which is the most-attended ticketed attraction in the state. More than 2,000 animals reside in natural-habitat exhibits, and a 70-acre botanical garden includes scenic views of wooded trails and historic ruins.
Other must-see spots include the Columbia Museum of Art, the EdVenture Children’s Museum and Congaree National Park, which preserves the largest tract of old-growth bottomland hardwood forest remaining in the United States and where trails are open seven days a week, 24 hours a day.