The Southeast is characterized by a subtropical climate yet still features wintry mountainous regions. Its sports offerings are similarly varied, from baseball, football and tennis to water and bicycle sports.
The Great Outdoors
A homegrown event that exceeded everyone’s expectations, The Wildwood Games in three years has become a powerhouse attraction for the Columbia County (Georgia) Convention & Visitors Bureau. A multi-sport event comprising a trail run, the USA Cycling Marathon Mountain Bike National Championships, BMX races, a skateboarding competition and disc golf, The Wildwood Games also draws interest from non-competitors who enjoy its outdoor vibe.
“When we created the Wildwood Games, we had two distinct goals in mind,” says Randy DuTeau, executive director of the Columbia County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “The first was to host an event that would generate economic impact through athletes coming to the area to train and, ultimately, to participate in the Games. The other was to create a unique and high-profile platform to promote our abundant natural resources.”
Bentonville, Arkansas, is becoming a hub for cycling, whether the Natural State Criterium or the Slaughter Pen Jam, a three-day festival for riders of all ages and skill levels. Slaughter Pen Jam’s festivities begin on Friday evening on the Downtown Square in Bentonville. The festival hosts an official Arkansas NICA race on Saturday morning and Arkansas Mountain Bike Championship Series Races on Sunday. In November, Bentonville hosts the International Mountain Bike Association’s World Summit, a quadrennial event, and more than 8,000 people representing 43 countries are expected to attend. “Our trail network has grown very large,” says Luke Charpentier, sports sales manager at Visit Bentonville. “It’s definitely something that has made people want to come to Bentonville.”
Chattanooga, Tennessee, is making itself the home of the Ironman. The Sunbelt Bakery Ironman 70.3 Chattanooga took place in May, while the Little Debbie Ironman Chattanooga presented by McKee Foods is scheduled for September. In 2017, Chattanooga will again host both events, along with the Ironman 70.3 World Championship.
“First and foremost, our community embraces it,” says Tim Morgan, president of the Chattanooga Sports Committee, in explaining the fit with his city. “Second, we provide a very compact package: You can stay downtown, where you can walk to restaurants, attractions and entertainment, as well as to the transition area. We shuttle people to our swim start, but in essence you can spend the entire weekend here and never visit your car.”
North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, seems to specialize in non-traditional sports, from beach volleyball to Ultimate to the International Quidditch Festival. “We’ve had a signature of getting kind of quirky events,” concedes George DuRant, vice president of tourism development for the North Myrtle Beach Convention & Visitors Bureau, but there’s nothing quirky about the “highly organized hospitality and accommodations services we provide. We make sure, with the 15,000 rental units we have in North Myrtle Beach, and another 80,000 in the greater grand strand area, that we’re able to help with arrangements for lodging when people choose this as their destination.”
This spring, Columbia, South Carolina, opened a Minor League Baseball stadium that serves as the home of the relocated Savannah (Georgia) Sand Gnats. The $37 million Spirit Communications Park hosts the Class-A Columbia Fireflies, but was designed with a deeper right field so that soccer and football games can play on a regulation field along the first-base line.
“The park is just fantastic,” says Scott Powers, executive director of the Columbia Regional Sports Council. “We’re talking to the NCAA and other conferences about opportunities for many different sports we can bring into that facility.” The baseball stadium is the area’s fourth, after Capital City Stadium, renovated in 1991; Founders Park, built for the University of South Carolina’s baseball program in 2009; and Lexington County Baseball Stadium, home of the Lexington County Blowfish, an amateur baseball team in the collegiate Coastal Plain League.
Winston-Salem, North Carolina, meanwhile, is a tennis hotbed, annually hosting the Winston-Salem Open. The Winston-Salem Open typically gets 30 to 40 of the top 80 men’s tennis players, who come every year to the Wake Forest Tennis Complex to gear up for the last grand slam tournament on the schedule. “It gives us fantastic exposure, not only nationally but on an international level,” says Bonny Bernat, sports events sales manager at Visit Winston-Salem. “To be able to have an event of that stature with the city in the name, it’s just great exposure for us as a destination.”
Tried and True
Parker Medley, sports sales director for Visit Knoxville, says his city’s brand-new sports commission has a lot of potential events in the pipeline along with a small number of established events, from Battle at Rocky Top, one of the biggest youth football tournaments in the country, to the Ozone Invitational, a gymnastics event that for 14 years has helped kick off the new year. But a group that has successfully held the World Championships of Cornhole sees itself as able to do pretty much anything.
“With all the facilities that we have to offer, and our geographical location — we’re a day’s drive from half the U.S. population — we can pull people from all sorts of regions to meet here and play,” Medley says.
Continued improvements to the Dalton (Georgia) Convention Center and the Mashburn Arena in particular have gotten attention, but there’s a lot going on outside, too. Dalton’s Heritage Point Park, a 10-field complex, has hosted the men’s and women’s world championships of the Softball Players Association, an organization devoted to senior softball, ages 55 and up. “It’s a tournament that we’re really proud to be a part of,” says Brett Huske, director of tourism for the Dalton Visitors Bureau, “and actually, the tournament is the most entertaining thing to watch. Sporting events love coming to Dalton, because it is the perfect size.”
Huntsville, Alabama, will host The Forrest Wood Cup (the world championship of bass fishing) in August, but meanwhile, the Huntsville Aquatics Center is in the midst of an exciting expansion (including spectator seating for 1,200) to be completed in summer of 2017.
“Our parks and recreation department believes the project will make Huntsville the only city in the South with two Olympic-sized pools in the same complex,” says Don Dukemineer, convention sales manager for the Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Once construction is complete and the facility is ready to go, we will work to bring more regional and national swim meets to Huntsville. Having two pools will allow more swimmers to compete, which in turn offers us the chance to host larger events.”
With 21 soccer fields, 12 lighted baseball diamonds, two football fields and a gymnasium, Chappapeela Sports Complex offers the chance to host major sports tournaments in Tangipahoa Parish.
“Although local teams play throughout the week, more family, friends and supporters come on the weekends for bigger tournaments,” says Carla Tate, executive director of the Tangipahoa Parish Convention and Visitors Bureau. “In fact, we are fortunate to host the Louisiana Allstate Sugar Bowl Lacrosse Classic for 2016 and 2017. When these major tournaments come to our area, we see a large surge in hotel rooms and restaurant visits.”
On schedule for its July 29 grand opening, the Rome Tennis Center at Berry College recently added eight USTA 36-foot courts for beginner players, bringing the total number of courts to 60. (The tennis center and downtown courts combine to create one of the South’s largest public tennis facilities, with 76 courts.) The new facility is fully accessible and will first host the award-winning, USTA Georgia-sanctioned Clocktower Classic Wheelchair Tennis Tournament July 29-31. USTA Southern Junior Team Tennis Sectional Championships will be at the facility August 12-14.
“Rome is geographically in the center of the USTA Southern section, which makes the Rome Tennis Center ideal to host sectional championships” says Ann Hortman, director of the Greater Rome Convention & Visitors Bureau’s Rome Sports Commission. “Other facilities in the south may be similar in size, but the game changer is location, location, location. Adaptive sports is a niche market we pride ourselves on, and the fact that our new tennis facility has no barriers for wheelchair tennis is an attribute that also sets us apart.”