Say the word, “champion,” to an athlete or fan, and they immediately think about the competitor on the field, the victor in a tournament, the player or team that comes out on top and holds the trophy.
But in the economics of sport, and specifically in the field of sports travel and tourism, champions are those players in this industry that are making big gains when it comes to driving revenue, particularly for host cities.
Across the U.S. today, the number of these local sports tourism champions continues to increase, as the industry itself continues to grow and thrive. Every day, it seems, we hear of plans for a major new sports complex or extensive renovations to existing facilities — all in an attempt to capture more of the ever-growing sports travel market.
While individual markets clearly have a handle on how much sports events bring into their own areas, it’s hard to get a firm fix on overall sports tourism spending in the U.S. But all signs seem to be pointing up.
The latest report from the National Association of Sports Commissions (NASC), for instance, estimates visitor spending associated with sports events at $10.47 billion in 2016, which is an increase of 10 percent from 2015.
“Visitor spending has continued to increase for sports events over the past four years, signaling the health and strength of the sports tourism industry,” the NASC says in its most recent “State of the Industry Report” (which was compiled by a research team from Ohio University Sports Administration working with the NASC).
Important for continued success for CVBs and sports commissions is steady sports sponsorship revenue streams. According to the NASC, 36 percent of survey respondents noted an increase in sponsorship revenues in 2016, while 61 percent say their revenue from sponsorships is “consistent,” and only three percent noted a sponsorship revenue decline.
Rise of Youth Sports
The NASC’s estimate of a total sports tourism impact of $10.47 billion may actually be rather conservative, when you consider some other research out there.
In a Time magazine cover story in September, for instance, just the youth sports economy — which includes everything from travel to coaching to tournament fees and much more for youngsters — was estimated to be a $15.3 billion market, according to WinterGreen Research, a private firm that tracks the sports tourism industry. WinterGreen also told Time that since 2010, the youth sports industry in the U.S. has grown 55 percent.
Dev Pathik, a consultant who develops youth sports facilities, told HBO’s “Real Sports” in August that travel alone for youth sports is a $9 billion a year business, and that it has been growing about 20 percent a year, “with massive ripple effects for the rest of our society.”
“We call it a ‘tourna-cation’ — it’s a tournament vacation, and it’s replaced the time off the families may have had for other activities,” Pathik adds. Many consultants are saying that sports travel is the fastest-growing segment of the travel industry.
To boost local economies, municipalities that once may have wanted a minor league team to call their city home are now turning to sports tourism, and particularly to youth sports. One reason is that, rather than simply bringing in a fan of a minor-league team for a night, a youth sports event brings in parents, siblings, grandparents and friends for a number of nights.
But make no mistake: as dedicated as parents are to making sure their children are playing on travel teams, the sports travel market isn’t just for kids. Adult tournaments and events for all ages are thriving around the country, as adults, too, enjoy the team atmosphere, socialization and travel associated with being active in sports.
Sports Facility ‘Arms Race’
Municipalities that deal with sports tourism constantly hear the “build it and they will come” refrain, and for at least the last 10 years, that has been true. Even through the recession, families increased their travel to youth sports events — and communities responded by reinventing themselves as sports destinations, by building or renovating state-of-the-art, well-maintained facilities, adding ample nearby hotels and introducing restaurants to fit all budgets for travelers.
This sort of sports facilities ‘arms race’ among communities has not only provided athletes of all ages with top-notch facilities, but it has also been a boon to municipalities, which used tax money to build or incentivize complexes that are now bringing in travel teams and their entourages, which are lifting the local economy. Everywhere families go, they spend.
For instance, the small city of Westfield, Indiana, about 20 miles north of Indianapolis, issued $70 million in bonds to build a massive sports complex, betting that they could create an industry around families traveling for sports. The result, opened in 2014, is the 400-acre Grand Park Sports Campus, with 31 grass and synthetic fields, 26 baseball/softball diamonds and a 370,000-square-foot indoor facility. According to Mayor Andy Cook, the complex is a mile and a half long and half a mile wide and is one of the largest youth sports facilities in the world.
But more importantly, money is pouring into the community. Cook told HBO’s “Real Sports” recently that in 2016, Grand Park attracted 1.2 million visitors, resulting in $145 million in tourism spending. During one week this past July, the complex hosted 400 teams, comprising 7,000 athletes.
Positives of Playing Sports
What are the reasons for all the growth in sports travel? For many parents, a driving factor is the chance of their child receiving an athletic scholarship to college, so they’ll do whatever it takes, travel to whatever key tournaments they need to, to make sure their kids are getting the experience and the exposure in their chosen sport.
For parents who may not be as focused on a college scholarship for their kids, the inducement to being active includes all the positive things that come from both the exercise and playing on a team with and against others. For adults, too, traveling and competing as a team is a bonding experience, different from their usual lives. Plus, there’s the health and fitness aspect of regular activity and sports for adults as well.
Trends in Sports Events
In fact, older adults continue to make their presence known, and raise their profiles, in the sports travel market. The Minto US OPEN of Pickleball, for instance, which is again being honored as one of our Champions, drew more than 1,000 players and thousands of visitors. In just its second year of existence, it had an economic impact of $4.9 million to the Naples, Florida, area, a 35 percent increase over its inaugural year.
Thousands of older athletes and their families and friends descended on Birmingham, Alabama, this summer for the National Senior Games, another of our award winners this year for its $36 million in economic impact to the area. And the International Senior Softball Association, a previous honoree, returns to our list for the multi-million-dollar impact it has had.
The National Senior Games points to another interesting trend for our Champions, which is the multi-sport aspect of a number of our honorees. The State Games of America in Grand Rapids, Michigan, are another example, as are the AAU Junior Olympic Games in Detroit.
The IRONMAN event in Chattanooga, Tennessee, brought with it $22 million in economic impact. The IRONMAN event in Panama City Beach, Florida, added $10.5 million to the local economy, but maybe more importantly, the city decided this year to leave behind its spring break crowd and focus on sports tourism. It seems they’ve made the right decision. (Expect more growth in the triathlon market, too, as it is now an “emerging sport” for women under NCAA, guided forward by USA Triathlon.)
On the whole, endurance sports are becoming bigger contributors to local sports economies. This year, two marathons — Ohio’s Akron Children’s Hospital Akron Marathon Race Series and the Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon — were selected for Champion honors based on the impact they had in their smaller markets.
Challenges and Opportunities
While the influx of youth sports events and youth sports travel has been a boon to local economies nationwide, there are some reasons to be concerned for the future.
It often costs thousands of dollars a year to travel to youth sports events, and that appears to be cutting out lower income families from having their kids participate. As far as sports travel goes, this isn’t stopping the youth sports gravy train; however, the issue is that in some areas and among some demographics, it appears to be causing a decline in youth sports participation as travel teams become more “elite.”
Also, health and fitness organizations often warn against sports specialization at too early an age. The commitments kids need to make to be on a travel team (not to mention the potential dangers of overtraining for elite young athletes) may not, in the long run, be in the child’s best interests.
Also, there is some indication that, with the exception of events held at destinations that include large theme parks, families may not have as much downtime to spend being tourists as CVBs and sports commissions would like. However, with event owners often balancing the need to provide a minimum number of games to teams, to avoid the ‘one-and-done’ phenomenon, free time can become an endangered species.
In this case, grandparents could be a key to increasing travel tourism revenue, since they are not only happy to see their grandkids play, but most likely are looking for nice amenities, such as a hotel with a pool and restaurant, and they have the time to tour the local area.
For event organizers, sports commissions and CVBs, it might be worth it to consider a ‘tournament concierge’ who can help in planning dinners and events not just for teams, but their entourages, too, including group or solo activities. In fact, CVBs and sports commissions continue to improve their customer service and the menu of services they offer to tournament and event owners, coaches, players, fans and families.
Important, too, is something as seemingly commonplace as having readily accessible Wi-Fi at tournament sites. This isn’t just for live-streaming events so relatives at home can see the action, but also because decisions are made at all times about where to eat or what hotel to go to or what attraction to see when the game is over — and very often, those decisions are made on the spot by parents in the bleachers pecking at their mobile phones.
As large sports complexes continue to be built or renovated, we’ll most likely see an evolution of tournament owners and directors wanting to cut down on transportation, meaning more hotels located close by sports venues — within walking distance, if not attached to the sports location itself.
Overall, the sports travel landscape continues to flourish — powered by markets that understand the appeal and allure that top-quality facilities, events and customer service provide and often supported by a community that clearly understands all that sports can bring to the area — not just in terms of visitors, but also as far as facilities for local use, too.
We urge you to look through our 2017 Champions of Economic Impact in Sports Tourism to see how some of the best of the best are making things happen for their communities and for athletes of all ages.
We congratulate all of SDM’s winners, and the sports market as a whole, for being a positive force in this country’s economy, its health and its outlook. SDM