Welcome to the Heartland
1 Nov, 2021By: Michael Popke
These Destinations Are Eager to Introduce Athletes to ‘Midwestern Civility’
Grand Park — the 400-acre sports complex in Westfield, Indiana, that attracts more than one million people each year to its youth baseball, softball, soccer, volleyball, basketball and lacrosse facilities — is a great sports destination in Hamilton County. But it’s not the only one.
The Olympic-size competition pool at Forest Park Aquatic Center in Noblesville boasts one of the few remaining outdoor platform diving wells in the country, and it hosted the 2020 AAU Diving Nationals after health concerns forced the event to relocate first from Texas and then from Florida.
“States and hosting venues were in flux,” says Karen Radcliff, director of the Hamilton County Sports Authority. “AAU leadership was very brave and required masks at a time when people were fighting about whether or not to wear one. We had no idea, if we put a mask mandate on the event, if people would even show up. But they did.”
USA Diving noticed and brought the USA Diving Open Championships to Noblesville for the first time in August 2021.
“It’s all about Midwestern civility,” Radcliff says, adding that Hamilton County also is home to the Caramel Marathon, four fieldhouses with a combined 26 basketball/volleyball courts, five ice sheets and two large lakes for fishing and open-water competitions. “We’re not as sexy as other communities. That’s why site visits work so well for destinations in the Midwest. Once people travel here, they’re surprised at how affordable, accommodating and friendly it is. And a lot of times, they want to come back.”
Here are six additional Midwestern destinations that are worth a site visit.
Pleasant Prairie, Wisconsin
Head northwest from Hamilton County and you’ll wind up in Pleasant Prairie, a village in southern Wisconsin that is home to the largest municipal recreation facility in the United States.
The Pleasant Prairie RecPlex (located between Milwaukee and Chicago) spans more than 300,000 square feet, contains two NHL-size ice rinks, a fieldhouse that can accommodate 12 volleyball courts or eight full-size basketball courts and a geothermally heated Olympic-size pool. Outside are six lighted ballfields, a 110-acre lake and a trail system — which explains why the RecPlex has welcomed everything from basketball’s Take the Title National Showcase and Game Day USA Baseball tournaments to Speedo Elite swim meets and the Pleasant Prairie Triathlon.
“The RecPlex typically hosts more than 100 events per year, yielding more than two million visitors to the area,” says Michelle Williamson, executive director of the Pleasant Prairie Convention & Visitors Bureau, adding that dozens of events were canceled in 2020 and early 2021 because of the pandemic. “On the upside, the RecPlex took advantage of this downtime by updating many elements within the facility. The timing was right for the six lighted, newly renovated ballfields, as they were the site of the first return of youth sports to this area, [and] the RecPlex is back to securing events as usual.”
Effingham and Springfield, Illinois
South of Pleasant Prairie, a pair of cities in central Illinois — Effingham and Springfield — offers several sports tourism opportunities.
Springfield is the state’s capital and located along historic Route 66, which provides plenty of attractions for visitors participating in wrestling, cheer and gymnastics events at the BOS (Bank of Springfield) Center; field sports at the SASA (Springfield Area Soccer Association) Soccer Complex; and softball events at the Land of Lincoln Junior Olympic Softball Complex.
The BOS Center, previously known as the Prairie Capital Convention Center, will host the 2022 AAU Gymnastics National Championship next summer, and the softball complex has welcomed the NCAA Division II Midwest Regionals.
“We are interested in more wrestling and cheer events,” says Terry Truman, account executive at Visit Springfield. “Along with being great fits, they tend to hold their events during slower times of the year in Springfield.”
Effingham, less than two hours from Springfield, boasts the five-year-old Richard E. Workman Sports and Wellness Complex. The municipal facility includes hardwood basketball, volleyball and pickleball courts, as well as an eight-lane competition pool. The city also offers several lighted baseball and softball fields, outdoor tennis and pickleball courts, soccer fields, disc golf courses and cross-country courses.
Effingham hosts the annual Southern Illinois Basketball Circuit girls’ basketball tournament, a three-day event in June with 40 teams from the Midwest that participate in venues throughout the city. Additionally, the Crossroads Classic Volleyball Tournament is held each September with 25 volleyball teams from Illinois, Missouri and Indiana.
“Effingham is a great venue for any sporting event,” says Jodi Thoele, director of tourism for the City of Effingham Convention & Visitors Bureau. “But we really shine when it comes to baseball, softball, basketball, volleyball, swimming and pickleball.”
Depending on your perspective, Nebraska is either part of the Great Midwest or the Great Plains — or maybe both. This much is certain, though: Lincoln has a lot going on.
The city hosted the 2021 National High School Rodeo in July, attracting almost 1,600 competitors from 43 states (plus Mexico and Canada) to the Lancaster Event Center, and the USA Wrestling 2021 Senior World Team Trials took place at Pinnacle Bank Arena in September.
Other venues in Nebraska’s capital city include the 7,900-seat Bob Devaney Sports Center, Speedway Sports Complex (a privately owned indoor and outdoor sports facility previously known as Speedway Village that offers several outdoor sports fields, a 100,000-square-foot indoor turf facility and indoor space that can accommodate eight basketball courts or 12 volleyball courts) and Kinetic Sports Complex (with eight basketball courts or 12 volleyball courts, along with 3,500 square feet of turf space).
“Initially, like everyone else, we struggled to keep events from canceling,” Derek Bombeck, sales development manager for the Lincoln Convention & Visitors Bureau, says about pandemic challenges. “We encouraged the idea of ‘postpone, don’t cancel.’ Once we got over that initial hump, things have been going very well. [We are almost] back to pre-pandemic numbers in the sports industry.”
Kansas City and Cape Girardeau, Missouri
Located in the heart of the heartland, Missouri is home to several sports tourism destinations.
“We are a day’s drive from most major U.S. cities in the Midwest, and families love coming here due to the ease [with] which they can move around the community,” says Alyssa Phares-Fee, senior director of sales and strategy for Visit Cape. “You can get everywhere in Cape Girardeau in five to 15 minutes.”
“Everywhere” includes the Shawnee Park Sports Complex, a regional outdoor facility with eight baseball/softball fields, six lighted and eight unlighted soccer fields and two regulation-size football fields; the Cape Girardeau SportsPlex, with two regulation indoor turf fields and six high school hardwood basketball courts that convert to 12 volleyball courts; and the Dalhousie Golf Club, which has hosted PGA and USGA events.
“Our most popular sports are volleyball, basketball, baseball and softball,” Phares says. “Since we tend to fill up on those sports, we would love to start integrating pickleball, wrestling and gymnastics. We have had several successful years of a catfishing tournament in the summer, too, and would love to have another one of those.”
Kansas City, situated about five hours northwest of Cape Girardeau, also boasts several indoor venues suited to high-profile basketball, volleyball, gymnastics and wrestling competitions — including the Kansas City Convention & Entertainment Facilities, Hy-Vee Arena and the T-Mobile Center. The city has hosted the USA Gymnastics Championships and National Congress/Trade Show, the Big 12 Men’s & Women’s Basketball Tournaments, and the NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships and Division I Women’s Volleyball Championships over the years. And the NFL Draft will take place in downtown Kansas City in 2023.
Tourism officials in Kansas City tout their destination as the “New Midwest” — a term they say fits the spirit of the city.
“The energy in Kansas City has been building for a long time, and the ‘New Midwest’ captures the spirit of this forward-thinking city,” says Becky Harsch, national account manager for VISIT KC. “From champion sports teams to innovative independent businesses and creative artisans, Kansas City is always in the heart of the action while staying true to our down-home hospitality.”
After all, that’s the Midwestern way. SDM