Big Skies and High Hopes
29 Mar, 2018By: Michael Popke
With Beautiful Backdrops and Plenty of Facilities, the Mountain Region has a Passion for Competition
The Mountain Region of the United States covers a wide swath of land — some of it arid, some of it snowy and all of it ideal for hosting a variety of indoor and outdoor athletic competitions.
Not only does the region provide diverse and plentiful opportunities for event organizers, but one of the cities in this region (Grand Junction, Colorado) also prides itself on being a little bit different from anyplace else.
“We’re very unique in both our structure and our approach, compared to other sports tourism organizations,” says Jennifer Stoll, executive director of the Greater Grand Junction Sports Commission, which was established by Colorado Mesa University in 2013, is headquartered on campus and operates as a collaborative effort between CMU, Mesa County, the City of Grand Junction, the City of Fruita and the Town of Palisade. “I’m not aware of any other arrangement like this.”
In recent years, Grand Junction has welcomed the Special Olympics Colorado Summer Games, the USA Cycling Collegiate Road National Championships, the River City Rumble functional fitness competition and archery’s Train to Hunt Regional and National Championships.
“Bringing people on campus and into the community is not only good for the economy of the county, but it also promotes the university,” Stoll says. “The university’s president wanted to open up on-campus facilities to more uses.”
Following are short profiles of seven additional locations in this region that deserve your attention.
Colorado Springs, Colorado
“Holding an event in a mountain destination provides many advantages, whether you are planning an extreme cycling,
running or climbing event,” says Cheryl McCullough, director of sports and special events for the Colorado Springs Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Indeed, the destination officially recognized as “Olympic City USA” (more than 20 national governing bodies are headquartered there) also boasts a multitude of outdoor sports opportunities at an altitude of more than 6,000 feet.
Pikes Peak is the second most visited mountain in the world, after Japan’s Mt. Fuji, and it is the setting for the annual Broadmoor Pikes Peak International Hill Climb, also known as “The Race to the Clouds,” which began in 1916 and is the second-oldest motorsport event in the United States. Another annual event there is the Pikes Peak Ascent and Marathon, dating back to 1956. It is known for the grueling conditions runners face, including heat, rain, wind and even snow.
Bismarck-Mandan, North Dakota
The metropolitan area of Bismarck-Mandan likes to welcome its visitors, according to Sheri J. Grossman, chief executive officer of the Bismarck-Mandan Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“People here get really excited to show off our community and help others have a great experience while they are here,” she says. “The airport, all hotels, restaurants, shopping and sporting facilities are within a 15-minute drive. No big city traffic to deal with, so you can sleep in or have a little extra time to do something fun while you are here.”
The 84,000-square-foot Starion Sports Complex offers hockey, gymnastics, football, and track and field opportunities, while the MDU Resources Community Bowl on the Bismarck State College campus has a synthetic turf field for both football and soccer; natural grass fields and a nine-lane track with field event facilities.
Together, the cities and surrounding areas boast three aquatic complexes, three ice rinks, almost 60 baseball/softball fields, 40 basketball courts, 38 tennis courts, 25 basketball courts and more than 100 miles of recreation and interpretive trails. No wonder Sports Illustrated named Bismarck one of the country’s best “Sportstowns.”
Vermillion, South Dakota
Located about seven hours south of Bismarck, Vermillion is home to the Annual South Dakota High School All-Star Football Game, presented by Sanford Health. Long a fixture in Aberdeen, the event for senior players moved to the University of South Dakota’s DakotaDome in 2016.
Nate Welch, president and chief executive officer of the Vermillion Area Chamber and Development Company, says he and his team reinvigorated the event by waiving a pricey participation fee, housing players on the USD campus and elevating the game to “wow experience” with special activities unique to South Dakota.
“We turned some heads when we won that bid,” Welch says.
Additionally, USD’s Sanford Coyote Sports Center hosted the Coyote VEX IQ Challenge in January, a robotics competition featuring 100 elementary and middle school students on 20 teams from three states. “That facility, and this kind of competition, has allowed us to attract the next generation of events,” Welch says.
“You can ski and golf in the same day in Ogden,” says Anissa Brown, director of sales for Visit Ogden. “And every sidewalk in Downtown Ogden leads to a trailhead. We pride ourselves on that fact.”
The Ogden area hosts everything from snowshoeing championships and triathlons to USA Cycling and World Archery Federation championships. And Ogden’s Snowbasin Resort, site of the 2002 Winter Olympics alpine skiing races and a popular site for collegiate ski races, is located on the back side of the Wasatch Mountain Range.
Meanwhile, North Fork Park, a premier cross-country skiing destination in northern Utah likely will be the new home of the popular Sweaty Yeti Fat Bike Race, part of the city’s annual Wasatch Yeti Bash that took a natural turn this year when it added a popular (and, according to Brown, hilarious) best-beard competition.
“Utah is a cycling state with a love of beards,” she laughs.
When asked what sets the Reno-Sparks area apart from other Mountain Region destinations, Shelli Fine cites the “Tahoe Allure.”
“Lake Tahoe is 30 miles away, and it’s what we consider one of the most beautiful places in the world,” says the director of sports development for the Reno-Sparks Convention & Visitor’s Authority. “Tourism runs deep in our blood, and when teams and parents come here, they know there is plenty to do.”
Rancho San Rafael Regional Park hosted USA Cycling’s Cyclocross Nationals in January and will be the site of USA Track & Field’s 2018 National Junior Olympic Cross Country Championships. The Reno-Sparks Convention Center hosts major youth volleyball and basketball events and it’s also gaining stature for its ability to accommodate national martial arts and fencing championships. The Reno Events Center, meanwhile, serves as a neutral site for the Big Sky Conference Men’s and Women’s Basketball Championships.
Southern Idaho offers several recreation-focused sports tourism opportunities, including marathons, bicycle races and rock climbing. Among the area’s most famous events is the Spudman Triathlon in Burley, in which all 2,000 participants receive a wrapped potato as part of their entry packet. The region also hosts traditional sports such as soccer and basketball.
“When people think of Idaho, they think of Boise — and that’s not a bad thing,” says Melissa Barry, executive director of Southern Idaho Tourism, located in Twin Falls. “But we’re the more affordable and centralized option.”
In 2017, Southern Idaho Tourism helped host the first Great Snake Shootout at Twin Falls’ Sunway Soccer Complex, positioned along the edge of the famous mile-wide Snake River Canyon — which daredevil Evel Knievel unsuccessfully attempted to cross in 1974 inside a steam-powered rocket. (Almost 45 years later, Barry says she’s still asked questions about that fateful day.)
In Billings, Amend Park will host the NCAA Division II West Regional in 2018 and 2020, the Montana Marathon is a Boston Marathon qualifier and the new Trailhead Trifecta Challenge incorporates the 406 Duathlon Challenge, the Big Sky State Games and the Yellowstone Kelly Mountain Man Triathlon.
Among the most exciting developments was the arrival of the Wells Fargo NAIA Division I Women’s Basketball National Championship in March 2017 at Rimrock Auto Arena at MetraPark. Billings took over the event on short notice last year. Impressed by the facility and community involvement, the NAIA awarded the 2018 and 2019 championships to the city, too.
“For young people to be exposed to this caliber of play is very important to us,” says Alex Tyson, executive director of Visit Billings, which organized Scheel’s Youth Impact Day this year, inviting hundreds of students from schools in southeast and south-central Montana to attend early-round action.
The 8,000-seat Rimrock Auto Arena also hosts the Montana High School Association’s All-Class Wrestling Tournament, and local leaders are wrapping up a sports feasibility study to determine the city’s needs in court, water and ice sports venues. SDM