One small step? More like one big tournament. AAU’s recent Junior Volleyball Nationals at the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando were a clarion call to the sports economy that it is possible to host and to do it in a big way.
The event, which ran from July 14-22, surmounted its share of obstacles, including a date change, to get to the starting whistle, and still became not just an enormous success on its own, but an inspiration to other event owners.
Florida: Launch Point for Success
Orlando has historically been a hotbed for sports and that has been especially pronounced in 2020. It is the home of the restarts of League Soccer (MLS) and the Women’s National Basketball Association (WNBA), as well as others. And those “others” include age group tournaments, all of which have been running there for weeks, such as baseball, basketball, softball and golf, active since Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis lifted most restrictions on youth play.
“Add the 47th Annual AAU Junior National Volleyball Championships to that list,” proudly noted The Orlando Sentinel.
The tournament, billed in past years as the world’s largest volleyball event, includes girls and boys age divisions ranging from 12-and-under to 18U. It has been a repeat winner in SDM’s Champions of Economic Impact in Sports Tourism awards program; in 2019, the event brought in a record $91,000,000 and took up 117,000 hotel room nights during its 12-day run. And while its 2020 numbers were necessarily lower because of health regulations (but then again, in 2019, the event had a mind-blowing high of 2,805 teams and45,000 athletes), the tournament's return was significant in multiple ways.
SwimSwam noted,” The event is still expected to have a $15 million economic impact on the region. (In fact, SwimSwam added, with 326 boys' and girls' teams, it was by far the largest in-person event to be held since March).
It was also a win for the facility and received tremendous support from the local area. The tournament was the first major event for the convention center since the coronavirus pandemic shut down Orlando tourism. Orange County Convention Center executive director Mark Tester told The Orlando Sentinel there was “a pent-up demand” for activities in Orlando and the sports world. Orange County cut the rental fee for its convention center by more than 90% and agreed to refund more than $60,000 worth of deposits, according to the event contract obtained by the Orlando Sentinel. Additionally, Orange County and the state of Florida combined committed $150,000 toward the event’s organization.
The AAU also instituted smart measures to safeguard health, using, in its words, “numerous mitigation and containment measures enacted to keep athletes and coaches safe.” Precautions included rigorous sanitation measures and a convention center check-in process that includes temperature checks and the use of ultraviolet light devices to kill bacteria, germs and viruses. Volleyballs were cleaned after every match. Masks were required, even for players, unless were warming up for a match or playing.
And the AAU knew how to add value for those who could not be present to see the competition in person. College coaches, parents, friends and family members back home could see matches that were live streamed by BallerTV. Additionally, AAU has a subscription with recruiting platform CaptainU to help athletes gain additional exposure.
Florida has been fertile ground for AAU; the organization is presently putting on its Junior Olympics on Florida’s Space Coast. That event is expected to have an economic impact between $3 million and $3.5 million, with upwards of 10,000 hotels room nights, and business for restaurants and other local businesses. The Junior Olympics bring between 2,000 and 3,000 athletes, coaches, parents and their families to the area from in-state and out-of-state.
“This will be a tremendous lift for Brevard’s tourism industry,” said Rusty Buchanan, First Vice President of the AAU.
On Another Court…
AAU continues to move from strength to strength. The Women’s Basketball Hall of Fame in Knoxville, Tennessee, announced that next year, it would open a special exhibit, highlighting AAU’s vital role in advancing the development of women’s and girls’ basketball in the United States.
Early renderings of the display show the exhibit area modeled after the outside of a locker room, with the AAU’s motto, “Sports for All, Forever” and the AAU Athlete’s Creed proudly emblazoned on the walls. The exhibit will also feature actual championship trophies of past winners of AAU Girls’ Basketball events, donated for viewing by the teams who won them. In addition, an interactive touchscreen in the AAU’s display area will permanently list past AAU National Champions.
"Thanks to the new exhibit, those who have participated and enjoyed success at previous AAU Girls’ Basketball World Championships will soon be able to consider themselves part of the Hall of Fame," noted the WBHOF in its announcement of the upcoming exhibit.
“The Hall showcases all levels of women’s basketball; youth to professional,” stated Dana Hart, President of the WBHOF, “and AAU has historically been a large part of the game.”
To the Beach
AAU volleyball continues its march forward with its Beach Volleyball events. The 27th AAU Girls' Junior National Beach Volleyball Championships will run from August 7-22, followed by the Boys’ Junior Nationals and then the Co-Ed Junior Nationals. All events will be held in Chula Vista, California.