The Rantoul Family Sports Complex, a 60-plus-acre outdoor sports facility located in east central Illinois, is a real-life “Field of Dreams.” Conceived as a way to stimulate a local economy that had fallen on hard times, the complex welcomed nearly a million visitors in its second year of operation and has become an economic driver for the region.
The story behind this amazing facility is one of thoughtful planning, quality workmanship, good fiscal management, and smart marketing.
From boom to bust
For decades, the Village of Rantoul relied on the Chanute Air Force Base to drive much of its economy. Opening in 1917, the base was used to train airmen, thousands of whom were stationed there at a time. When the base closed in 1993, Rantoul’s economy went into decline and remained that way for nearly two decades. According to census data, the population of Rantoul decreased by more than 28 percent between 1990 and 2020, and about 20 percent of Rantoul’s residents live below the poverty line.
A new village administrator, Scott Eisenhauer, along with village trustees and staff adopted the mantra of “stop mourning the loss of the base” and encouraged each other to come up with ideas to stimulate the local economy.
The village recreation department floated the idea of sports tourism to take advantage of Rantoul’s unique location about 20 minutes north of Champaign on I-57. Since Rantoul is a two-hour drive from three major metro areas (Chicago, St. Louis and Indianapolis) planners thought they could draw regional and national tournaments with teams from those cities, as well as from Milwaukee, Cincinnati, and Louisville.
Organizers enlisted the help of Visit Champaign County, the local visitor’s bureau, and started looking at available land. The village settled on a 60-acre tract located in a TIF district and then arranged for a municipal bond to pay for the project. The bond will be paid back with hotel and tourism taxes, so no taxpayer dollars will be spent on the project.
If you build it well, they will come
The village took great care to build a quality facility that would serve the needs of the local community first. The complex includes eight baseball/softball fields, two Little League/Challenger fields, and eight multi-purpose fields that can be used for soccer, football, rugby, lacrosse, and non-sport activities.
The Rantoul Family Sports Complex today is home to local baseball and softball teams and provides area athletes of all ages a quality facility to learn sports fundamentals. The complex serves as the home field for the University of Illinois "Fighting Illini" men's lacrosse team. It also has two fields designed specifically for athletes with special needs.
“There was a lot of thought put into planning the facility so it would primarily meet the needs of our residents, and secondarily act as a midwestern hub for sports teams,” said Ryan Reid, director of sports operations at Rantoul Family Sports Complex.
Planners considered how and when the fields would be used, and included thoughtful furnishings including synthetic turf that extends the playing season, and a quad of baseball fields that are built to high school specifications at a minimum.
Key to providing a quality sports atmosphere, planners specified the installation of state-of-the-art digital scoreboards and selected Watchfire as the manufacturer. In total, 15 Watchfire digital scoreboards were installed at the complex, including a 20’x26' video scoreboard located on the baseball championship field, a 15’x21' video scoreboard on the softball championship field, eight baseball/softball fixed digital scoreboards, four 2'x3' portable fixed digit scoreboards, and a 10’x17' portable video scoreboard that can be moved between the multi-purpose fields, and can be used at other events around Rantoul, such as Movies in the Park.
There’s also a high-resolution Watchfire digital sign at the entrance to the complex that welcomes players and provides branding opportunities for tournaments and schools.
The video scoreboards on the championship fields create professional-level playing experiences for athletes and also allow the complex to sell advertising to raise revenue and benefit regional businesses. Using Watchfire Ignite Sports software, officials can display scores, create player profiles, build advertising zones and showcase customized branding for teams and tournaments.
As a result of the high-quality facilities, the Rantoul complex is the only sports venue in the state that can host high school or college tournaments and has even been used by Game Day USA to host Olympic baseball tryouts.
In the spirit of creating a sports complex for the entire community, the gates at the Rantoul Family Sports Complex are never locked. Residents can use the fields, playground, and splash pad whenever they are free.
Out of the park
Despite opening in the middle of a pandemic, the Rantoul Family Sports Complex has found demand surpassing estimates. From March through October, the venue is booked with tournaments drawing between 70 and 80 teams and more than 800,000 to 1 million visitors.
A Visit Champaign County marketing study conducted before construction estimated that a 60-team youth baseball tournament would generate overnight attendance of 2,534, plus another 600 one-day attendees, creating a weekend attendance of more than 3,000. More than 1,400 hotel rooms would be required for the weekend.
While the area site plan has designated space for the development of hotels, restaurants, and retail, the labor shortages and supply chain issues associated with the pandemic have made construction costs out of reach right now.
Airbnb accommodations have sprung up in the area and there are plenty of hotels and restaurants within a 20-minute drive of the complex, so this hasn’t impacted tournaments, according to Reid.
What planners didn’t count on was how the facility would impact the growth of local youth sports teams. Since the complex opened, Rantoul Rush boy’s baseball has grown from six to 12 to 14 teams a season, and girl’s softball has expanded from two teams to nine. Rantoul Falcons youth football tripled its teams.
“We are bringing more opportunity for teams to play competitively and closer to home,” said Reid.