Sports are part of the fabric of our lives, as the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics demonstrated. The Olympic and Paralympic Games also show the resiliency of sport, even in a global pandemic. Admittedly, athletes were subjected to restrictions and lockdowns like never before. But the games went on – and they are a bellwether that sports tourism is leading the tourism industry’s recovery.
We see that play out in West Michigan, as many of you probably are in your regions. In 2021, the West Michigan Sports Commission (WMSC) generated $55.49 million in direct visitor spending through 100 sporting events – a 309 percent increase from 2020 and a 1 percent increase from 2019 in spending. That’s a quick recovery, especially noting that from March to December 2020, we had 76 cancelled and four postponed events, 32,3227 cancelled hotel room nights and $57.8 million in lost direct spending due to COVID-19.
Why is the rebound in sporting events happening so quickly? Here are a few reasons.
- Leisure travel (led by sports) rebounds first – Historically, business travel is more volatile and slower to recover than leisure travel after economic downturns and other disruptions to travel patterns. Most businesses put strict restrictions on travel due to the pandemic – with many conferences cancelled or switched to virtual formats. Leisure travel also dropped off with uncertainty in air travel and differing restrictions by country. But sports travel was one area where families hung on, particularly because most sports travel is regional in nature and allows participants (families, adult athletes) to drive to the event. As an example, our baseball/softball travel teams increased 176 percent in 2021 from 2020 though they are still slightly down from pre-pandemic levels.
- Sporting events are a natural for the outdoors – Unlike business events held in convention centers and hotels, many sporting events are meant for the outdoors – and thus, safer to host during a pandemic. The Meijer State Games of Michigan, which we offer in both summer and winter, featured 37 events in 2021 – of which 21 were outdoors. This year, we ventured even further into the great outdoors with a second Winter Games location in the Upper Peninsula city of Marquette, in addition to West Michigan. The rescheduled USA Masters Games in Grand Rapids in 2021 featured 24 events in 20 sports that were almost all outdoors (e.g., 5K, archery, cycling, disc golf, golf, pickleball, rowing, rugby, shooting sports, tennis, track & field and waterskiing). This year, we’re holding some major outdoor tournaments like the NCAA Division II Outdoor Track and Field National Championship in May and the Beer City Open APP Pickleball Tourin July, which are ideal for the outdoors.
- Some sports lend themselves to social distancing – Even in 2020 when so many events were postponed, some sports didn’t miss a beat during the pandemic – especially if they allowed for distancing. For example, 33 percent of our 2020 events were baseball and softball tournaments. Similarly in 2021, we held 20-plus baseball-softball tournaments. Other West Michigan events last year that naturally provided distancing and outdoor safety included the Meijer LPGA Classic, Midwest United Cupboys and girls soccer tournament, NCAA DII Outdoor Track and Field National Championshipand running events.
- Event organizers adapted practices for safety – The Olympics showcased this fact on a global scale – sports can continue, even in a pandemic, if safety protocols are put in place. We implemented safety protocols at our events like providing protective PPE for staff, sanitizing public spaces and bleachers, expanding seating for dugouts, and adding signage to remind about social distancing and staying home if not feeling well. In other cases where social distancing wasn’t possible, we converted events to virtual. For the 2021 Meijer Winter Games, 14 sporting events were offered virtually.
As we look to the rest of 2022 and beyond, many of us will be focused on continuing to build our calendar of sporting events, including rebooking cancelled events from COVID and bidding on new events for future years. The good news is that with nine in ten Americans planning to travel during the next six months, we also should see an increase in the number of traveling athletes and visitors – and their related spending.
The pandemic has affected every industry and household these past few years, but we see positive signs of recovery all around us – and in sports, that is especially true. As a $45.1 billion U.S. industry, sports tourism will continue to bolster economies across the country for years to come.