For fans of college football, the Southeast is synonymous with championships, the 2015 playoff notwithstanding. But there’s plenty else going on in the region all year long. Summertime in particular is hot in the Southeast — temperature-wise, yes, but the region is also home to plenty of popular events, from the familiar to the cutting-edge.
In its third year in Conway, the Arkansas High School Coaches Association’s All-Star games bring together hundreds of standout high school athletes and their families, as well as even more hundreds of coaches, to the campus of the University of Central Arkansas in late June. Featuring football, baseball, softball, boys’ and girls’ soccer, boys’ and girls’ basketball and volleyball competitions, the weeklong gives each sport the spotlight for one day.
“The athletes stay on campus in the dormitories, but the coaches and families book up a lot of our hotels,” says Rachel Shaw, director of destination marketing for the Conway Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“Incredible growth” is the way George Linley, executive director of the Palm Beach County Sports Commission, sums up the current state of affairs in his jurisdiction. “We’re getting better at identifying fits for the county, and the marketplace has just grown over the past 10 years,” Linley says. “You look back at 2006 or 2007, we were averaging 50 to 60 events a year, and now we’re averaging more than 50 just during the summer. We’re supporting 60 sporting events this summer, representing 26 different sports, and we think they’ll generate 30,000 to 40,000 hotel room nights.”
Aiding the group’s continued efforts to grow sports tourism is a wide array of sports facilities that include a 30,000-seat football stadium that has been home to bowl games, international soccer events and Major League Lacrosse; a Major League Baseball spring training complex; a parks and recreation system that boasts more than 8,000 acres of rec space with an array of venues including some of the county’s 160 golf courses and 1,600 tennis courts; and impressive venues that play host to equestrian events and the International Polo Club. “We’re very fortunate,” Linley says. “We have so many different platforms to offer to so many types of people. The summer season is one of our top priorities, as hotel occupancy levels are running in the 60 percent range, versus the 90s during the season. The summer is a time when the hotel and hospitality industry needs the boost the most.”
Up the coast in Gainesville, Champions Park has been making it easy to attract top-level youth baseball and fast-pitch softball events. Completed two and a half years ago, Champions Park of Newberry, Florida, features 16 lighted fields with synthetic turf infields and grass outfields, and 200-foot perimeter fencing. Most events average between 60 and 70 teams, but the largest events have comfortably accommodated more than 100 teams. “Local management is operating the park now, and they’ve been doing a great job,” says the Gainesville Sports Commission’s executive director, Joleen Cacciatore.
Cacciatore describes the park as a “huge property,” big enough that an impressively large water slide was brought in to keep non-athlete siblings happy during a recent event
The Ocean Center in Daytona Beach was the site of the first official AAU Southern Regional Women's Gymnastics Championships over Memorial Day weekend. The “GYMermaids Splashtacular” attracted 500 gymnasts age 6 to 18 from throughout the South, competing for top honors in individual and team competition in vault, uneven bars, balance beam and floor exercise. "Competitive sporting events are a great fit for the Ocean Center,” says Angela Daniels, sales and marketing director for the Ocean Center. “We have a great arena that's perfect for competitive sports, we have the beautiful beach right across the street, and athletes and their families really love the Daytona Beach destination."
It has been five years now since Rome, Georgia, was an honorable mention as the USTA sought to name the country’s “Best Tennis Towns” — and that was before ground was broken on Rome Tennis Center of Georgia. The new tennis center, funded by a special-purpose local-option sales tax (SPLOST), will open early next summer and include 51 USTA standard courts, including six NCAA regulation courts, three center courts for tournament and collegiate play, and one exhibition court with seating for 2,000 spectators. The clubhouse’s viewing deck will overlook the terraced courts, all lighted and outfitted with shade structures. “We host a lot of USTA youth tournaments, and we’re also home to the USTA Georgia State League Championships,” says Ann Hortman, director of the Greater Rome Convention & Visitors Bureau’s Rome Sports Commission. “The new facility will give us access to even more tournaments, and allow us to broaden our spectrum.”
Ordinarily, the talk in Dalton is of the many turf fields for football, baseball and softball, as befits the “Carpet Capital of the World.” But the improvements made recently to Mashburn Arena, inside the Dalton Convention Center — including a new portable hardwood floor for basketball and new bleacher seating for 4,000 spectators — has attracted the attention of hoops fans from around the state and beyond. Of the arena, and the Dalton Convention Center in general, Grant Shell, sports sales manager at the Dalton Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, says it’s “almost a hidden gem in north Georgia. But we have a lot of people coming north from Atlanta, and they see it right on I-75, one of the most convenient locations for any kind of event in the Southeast. When they see how up-to-date and new it is, it blows their mind.”
Funded by a property tax increase four years ago, the two-year-old Chappapeela Sports Complex brings major baseball, softball and soccer tournaments to Hammond and the wider Tangipahoa Parish. Its 21 soccer fields and 12 lighted ball diamonds (it also boasts two football fields and a gymnasium) can accommodate tournaments of various sizes, including two recent soccer events (the Louisiana State Soccer Association state recreation tournament and the Strawberry Cups invitational boys’ and girls’ tournament) that each attracted more than 110 teams. While league play dominates the weekday schedule, the weekend tournaments “fill a lot of rooms Fridays and Saturday nights,” says Carla Tate, director of public relations and tourism for the Tangipahoa Parish Convention and Visitor's Bureau.
Centrally located High Point gets its share of baseball, soccer, swimming and track events, such as the Furniture City Classic soccer tournament, which brings in 8,000 attendees, and the Tarheel State swim meet, which brings in 1,200.
Nancy Bowman, marketing & communications manager of the High Point Convention and Visitors Bureau, credits the city’s range of sports facilities and its “great park
s and rec department” with making the city a longtime regional player (the CVB was incorporated in 1983). The event she’s proudest of hosting is the North Carolina Special Olympics, which has called High Point home for 10 years and brings 3,000 attendees, including athletes and families, every year.
Bowman says, “We have one of only two Miracle League fields in North Carolina, which provides children with special needs the opportunity to play America’s pastime.”
Windrock Park, an off-highway vehicle (OHV) area in Anderson County and a magnet for all things outdoors, recently completed a new events venue, Windrock Hollow, which includes a mud bog, drag strip and obstacle course, permanent lighting and a PA system, an area for event vendors, and space for a future outdoor concert venue.
Stephanie Wells, director of the Anderson County Tourism Council, says Windrock Hollow is just one of many potential permanent venues that she hopes to bring to Windrock Park, which she describes as “a 72,000-acre blank slate. It’s privately owned, not state or federally managed, and we can do anything with the property that the customer wants to do.”
The park is crisscrossed with 350 miles of off-road trails for ATVs and other vehicles and mountain bikes, and includes on-site camping, although it is also served by three adjacent campgrounds and eight nearby hotels. “We’re promoting it for endurance races such as Tough Mudder, touring events, marathons, BMX,” Wells says.