The Midwest is building quite a reputation for its capacity to host a wide variety of sporting events for diverse participants and organizations. Basketball, baseball and volleyball traditions run deep in the region, but less-conventional sports such as kayaking, synchronized swimming, curling and broomball are gaining strength as cities and counties look for ways to distinguish themselves from larger areas on the coasts.
A central location, heartland hospitality and seasonal weather all have helped communities in six key Midwestern states attract some of the world’s most talented athletes.
Several slices of Midwestern life can be found in Central Wisconsin, where small and mid-sized cities are surrounded by acres of farmland. “You’ll find a lot of world-class facilities, both indoors and outdoors,” says Dawn Zanoni, sports marketing manager for the Wisconsin Department of Tourism. “The service and warm hospitality that the region is able to provide help make events memorable. There is a sense of community at events, and your event isn’t one among many.”
The newest facility to open in the region is the 245-acre Woodside Sports Complex in Mauston, a western-themed area heralded as the Midwest’s largest all-turf sports complex; it also includes a resort and conference center. With eight all-synthetic baseball fields (yes, even the dirt), Woodside plans to add six more baseball fields and eight soccer fields.
Head 30 miles southeast and find JustAgame Fieldhouse in Wisconsin Dells, which accommodates six full-length basketball courts and 10 full-length volleyball courts to host local, state and regional events for youth, high school and college players. Plenty of hotel rooms are available in the waterpark Mecca.
Meanwhile, the Wausau Curling Center recently opened and is considered the largest curling facility in North America, with eight Olympic-size ice sheets and spectator seating for 300. The facility will host the 2014 United States Senior Men's National Bonspiel in February 2014. Wausau’s Whitewater Park also hosted the 2012 International Canoe Federation Junior and U23 Canoe Slalom World Championships, which attracted participants from 27 countries.
Crawford County, Kansas
With its population of just 40,000, you might look right past Crawford County on a U.S. map, its location in the southeast corner of Kansas competing for attention with the likes of Wichita; Kansas City, Missouri; Tulsa, Oklahoma; and even St. Louis, Missouri. Think again.
“It’s harder to get people in Kansas to think about us, because we sit in the southeast corner of the state,” says B.J. Harris, director of the Crawford County Convention & Visitors Bureau. “But when we talk to people located outside of the state, it’s easier, because they know Kansas is centrally located.”
Nestled in the county’s largest city is Pittsburg, home to Pittsburg State University and some of the area’s finest athletic facilities. There’s what Harris calls the “crown jewel” of NCAA Division II football, Carnie Smith Stadium, a facility built in the 1920s that has undergone numerous renovations (including the addition of synthetic turf) and has hosted two National Junior College Athletic Association National Championships. University officials and city leaders recently partnered to construct a $17 million indoor event center slated to open in late 2014 or early 2015 with stadium-style seating for approximately 1,500. The primary focus will be on attracting large-scale track events such as the NCAA Division II national championships.
Butler County, Ohio
Another county that takes advantage of all that a local university has to offer is Butler County, Ohio — home of Miami University. “From a sports perspective, it’s been great,” says Stephanie Gigliotti, senior sales manager for sports and events at the Butler County Visitors Bureau. “There really aren’t any other pool and ice venues in the county.”
In addition to high school hockey teams competing at Goggin Ice Center, the facility was the site of the 2013 USA Broomball National Championships and Figure Skating-sanctioned synchronized skating events. High school swimming teams use the university’s Corwin M. Nixon Aquatic Center, which boasts an eight-lane, 50-meter pool and a separate 25-meter well with four diving platforms. The facility also hosts national age group and collegiate synchronized swimming championships.
Butler County is boldly welcoming new events to the area, too — including an Orienteering USA event in 2014 and a CrossFit event this fall. The latter will be held at Voice of America park in Westchester, a 450-acre site that in addition to 22 multipurpose grass fields features multiple paths and bodies of water for events hosted by USA Water Ski, the International Waterski & Wakeboard Federation, and USA Triathlon.
Lincoln County, Nebraska
Nebraska makes up for its lack of professional sports teams, particularly America’s pastime, by focusing on amateur baseball and softball. Bill Wood Field, originally built in the mid-1950s and one-time home to a Cleveland Indians farm team, has undergone multiple renovations. Rife with nostalgia — old wooden fences still line the outfield — the venue now welcomes several American Legion state and regional baseball tournaments and is open to all leagues.
Wayne Dowhower Softball Complex boasts seven fields, all with warning tracks, and hosted the 2012 Amateur Softball Association of America’s Northern Nationals. “Some coaches told us that their girls had never played on a softball field that had a warning track,” says Lisa Burke, executive director of the North Platte/Lincoln County Convention & Visitors Bureau. The complex also draws players from five states for the annual NEBRASKAland DAYS softball tournament.
Among North Platte’s other offerings are 800 acres of mountain biking courses, equestrian arenas with seating for up to 10,000, and 15 basketball/volleyball courts.
As the most metropolitan area featured in this regional focus, Bloomington — which boasts more hotel rooms than Minneapolis and St. Paul combined — is best known as the location of old Metropolitan Stadium and the current home of the Mall of America. The latter has served the area extremely well in helping attract prime sporting events. “We’re seen as a value destination that has a lot to offer,” says Todd Lehrke, associate director of sports development for the Bloomington Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Most people come up here and stay for a few extra days after their tournament and go to the Mall of America.”
Bloomington’s sports specialties include figure skating, ice hockey and basketball, and plenty of venues cater to those activities — including national figure skating championships and word-class hockey tourneys at some of the 12 ice rinks located within a five-mile radius.
Additionally, Bloomington (along with the nearby Twin Cities) will host the National Senior Games in 2015, with expectations of 15,000 athletes, and Hyland Ski and Snowboard area will welcome an international ski jumping event in January that is expected to draw participants from several European countries. Considered one of the largest in the country, Hyland’s 70-meter jump may soon be fitted with a plastic surface that would keep the facility open all year, Lehrke says.
With five colleges and universities in the area, it might come as a surprise to learn that the newest multipurpose sports facility in Springfield, Missouri, is a privately owned venue. The 46,000-square-foot Fieldhouse Sportscenter opened in May 2013 and offers multiple basketball and volleyball courts. The Courts houses three additional courts. No wonder Springfield is a regular host of the National Christian HomeSchool Basketball Championships.
But the city is branching out, too, welcoming for the first time in November a CrossFit competition inside Mediacom Ice Park. Two sheets of ice will be replaced with a fitness surface, says Lance Kettering, executive director of the Springfield Sports Commission and sports sales manger for the Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau. He adds that all 120 team slots filled up within seconds of registration opening.
“We look for everything from traditional sports to BMX and CrossFit,” he says. “We’re driven by what venues we have and what venues our competition has. It’s a matter of playing to our strengths.”