The Midwest's reputation as football country masks a much larger slate of options. Yes, Canton, Ohio, is pro football's Mesopotamia, but then, Chicago is known as the geographic center for softball, Indiana is basketball's epicenter and so on. And, as the following shows, there's a lot of activity in some unlikely sports Meccas throughout the region:
With the National Football League planning to develop a selection process for future locations of its annual draft, Chicago is strengthening its case for future winning bids. Hosting the draft in April 2015 for the first time since 1964, Chicago drew 200,000 people to "Draft Town" in Grant Park and other related fan activities over the course of the three-day event, and will expand Draft Town for 2016. In the meantime, however, the Illinois Office of Tourism "is extremely excited to enter the second year of our partnership with the Big Ten," says Greg Mihalich, the organization's program manager.
January 2016 marks the opening of Effingham, Illinois’ Richard E. Workman Sports and Wellness Complex, an 80,000-square-foot, $15.5 million "centerpiece for sports," in the words of tourism director Jodi Thoele of the Effingham Convention and Visitors Bureau. The bureau has been limited in its ability to hold sports tournaments until now, and is counting on the complex's multiple indoor courts, aquatic center and fitness center to raise the city's profile significantly. The new facility will sit next to a park with baseball and softball diamonds, soccer fields and tennis courts.
"We think it will transform what we’re able to do," Thoele says. "We are three hours from Chicago, an hour and a half east of St. Louis and two hours west of Indianapolis, in the middle of everything. Our location is a big asset for us, and we have 18 hotels, more than 65 restaurants and a lot of really great attractions here. We feel that by 2017 Effingham will be a sports Mecca."
Wichita is in the process of increasing its investment in sports facilities, with two indoor soccer fields added to the YMCA Farha Sport Center; the construction of the Wichita Sports Center last year, giving the city a site for bubble soccer and volleyball; and the completion in 2016 of the Wichita Sports Forum, which will feature six basketball courts, 10 volleyball courts, six indoor beach volleyball courts, a turf soccer field and an extreme trampoline park.
Wichita also has a long tradition of hosting sporting events of all sizes, from youth sports to the annual National Baseball Congress World Series to professional events. In 2018, INTRUST Bank Arena will be an NCAA Division I men’s basketball first and second round site.
“Our number of basketball and volleyball courts is growing exponentially,” says Drew Hays, destination sales sports manager for Visit Wichita. “With the completion of the Wichita Sports Forum and expansion of the Fast Forward Premier Athletic Facility, we will increase from six to 18 hardwood basketball courts under just two roofs. Both facilities are near many restaurants, hotels and located only four miles apart. Both will be completed by early 2016, which gives Wichita a competitive edge to host large sporting events.“
St. Charles County, west of St. Louis, has its share of busy venues including Family Arena (the 2015 and 2016 Great Lakes Valley Conference Men’s & Women’s Basketball Championships), St. Peters Rec-Plex (the 2015 State Wars Roller Hockey Championships), St. Charles Soccer Complex Park (the Dick’s Sporting Goods Midwest Cup Lacrosse Tournament) and T. R. Hughes Ballpark (the Missouri State High School Activities Association Boy’s Baseball Championships, which the region has hosted with the help of the Greater Saint Charles Convention & Visitors Bureau since 2013).
New this year is the Lamborghini Athletic Centre, which has 60,000 square feet of indoor training space, including synthetic turf for soccer, baseball, softball and lacrosse, and an acrylic sports surface for futsal, volleyball and basketball). The facility, developed by Panathinaikos Soccer Schools, will in the future include 3.5 acres of lighted bermuda grass and synthetic turf fields for training and games. “We are beyond excited to offer this complete training centre to our members,” says PAO vice president and COO Aaron Wagner. “We no longer have to rely on Mother Nature to determine if we will train or not.”
Canton, which is best known as the home of the Pro Football Hall of Fame, is doubling down on the attraction through the development of Hall of Fame Village. With the first phase set to open in 2019, the multiphased project will see the renovation of the pro Football Hall of Fame field and the development of the Pro Football Hall of Fame Museum, the Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium Hotel & Conference Center, the Hall of Fame NFL Experience, up to 12 youth fields on site, and a training and educational complex comprising a Center for Athletic Performance & Safety, the Academy of Corporate Excellence, Character Camps, Coaches University, and the Institute of Integrity for Officiating. The complex also will provide retail, restaurant and office space.
“It’ll be a game changer for the entire region,” says Tonja Marshall, director of sports tourism for Canton/Stark County Tourism. “It will be a year-round attraction, and a magnet for events such as the NFL draft. In 2020, the facility will host of the NFL Centennial celebration, one of many events being prepared in anticipation of the excitement of that 100th anniversary season.”
The outdoor fun continues along the shores of Lake Erie well into autumn, with the annual Color Run 5K in Sandusky in October and the Santa Hustle in December providing exclamation points on a calendar listing a variety of fishing tournaments as well as the area’s marquee event, the Challenge Cedar Point Triathlon. The latter starts and finishes at the Cedar Point amusement park/resort, a premier family vacation destination that Lake Erie Shores & Islands’ group sales manager, Amanda Smith-Rasnick, says her group does their best to leverage throughout the year.
“Most of our events take place in natural venues, and often have something to do with the lake,” says Smith-Rasnick. “But we also take advantage of our location on the Ohio Turnpike and our proximity to Cedar Point. We offer discounted tickets to Cedar Point at most of our events, and since we go toward family-friendly sporting and corporate events, a lot of people bring their families along and make a vacation out of it.”
Coming to Grove City, Ohio, this spring is the USFGA-certified KickMaster FootGolf Course, which is the first dedicated footgolf course in the world. The 8-acre course will include nine holes and a 13,000-square-foot indoor facility for soccer, football and baseball training.
“It’s a very exciting development for Grove City, and will definitely strengthen our reputation as a sports destination,” says Sarah Lilly, the Grove City CVB’s group tour and marketing manager. The new facility is four miles from the city’s other marquee venue, Lou Berliner Park, the nation’s largest softball complex at 209 acres. Thirty-one diamonds with bleacher seating comprise the park, which this year served as host of the 2015 Gay Softball World Series.
Utilizing supporting data from the Sioux Falls Sports Authority, the Sioux Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau estimated last spring that the 2015 Summit League Basketball Championships had contributed $11.45 million in total business sales to the city’s economy. That’s just the beginning, however: Sioux Falls is set to host eight NCAA Division II national championships (basketball, volleyball, wrestling and track and field) through 2018, an NCAA Division I Women’s Basketball Regional in 2016 and two premier youth/amateur sports events — the 2016 ASA/USA Girls 14U Fast Pitch National Championships and the 2017 US Youth Soccer Region II Championships.
“The national events we have coming to Sioux Falls over the next three years will generate tens of millions of dollars in economic impact," says Krista Orsack, director of marketing for the Sioux Falls CVB. “Sioux Falls has a proven record of hosting successful elite events and is honored and ready to welcome the participants, families and fans. Our new sports venues, in particular the 3,250-seat Sanford Pentagon arena, which opened in September 2013, will provide a first-class and memorable experience.”