The Allure of College Towns | Sports Destination Management

The Allure of College Towns

Where Higher Education and Great Competitions Come Together
Apr 25, 2019 | By: Mary Helen Sprecher

There’s something about a college town. The energy, the youthful vibe and the sense of limitless potential create a great backdrop for sports – and always have. Event owners who are looking for quality venues, easy-to-navigate campuses and great connectivity need to school themselves on some of the great options available to them. SDM has compiled a listing to serve as a launchpad. From A to Z (actually, it’s from Alabama to West Virginia), there’s plenty here that is worth exploring.

Alabama: Auburn-Opelika
Auburn-Opelika is the proud home of Auburn University, Alabama’s biggest, and the Robert Trent Jones Trail, the world’s finest. Enthusiasts claim it’s the coolest college town in the South, and Forbes has named it one of the top 10 cities in the US for small businesses. Centrally located near Atlanta, Birmingham, and Montgomery, Auburn-Opelika is easy to get to and easy to love. It offers lodging and meeting facilities to suit any taste.

Enthusiasts claim that if hosting tournaments were a sport, Auburn-Opelika would be the world champion. It features the cutting-edge sporting facilities of Auburn University as well as state-of-the-art accommodations for amateur and youth tournament play in tennis, baseball, softball, soccer and more. It’s also the home of Alabama’s threepeat high school mountain biking champs whose practice site is 30 miles of the most beautiful and gnarly trails the state has to offer.

Organizers invite event owners to experience the clean, safe and vibrant community, where it’s possible to get toilet paper,
lemonade, fine art and fresh fish all on the same block, and where it’s still okay to walk downtown after dark.

Alabama: Tuscaloosa
Tuscaloosa has deep roots in the athletic community, producing and supporting the top athletes from across the U.S. In Tuscaloosa, athletics are more than a game; they are a lifestyle that the community wholeheartedly supports. To further the athletic spirit of the city, Tuscaloosa Tourism and Sports partners with the city of Tuscaloosa to host upwards of 40 events annually including the AHSAA “Super Seven” state football championships, the Blue Angels Air Show, the National Pro Fastpitch Championship Series, USA Cycling, Tour de Tuscaloosa, UA rowing regattas, ASA regional softball tournaments, Tuscaloosa Half Marathon and the Tuscaloosa Kids’ Triathlon to name a few. In addition, Tuscaloosa has successfully hosted the USA Triathlon Collegiate National Championships in 2007, 2011, 2012, 2017 and 2018.

Tuscaloosa’s revitalized downtown area boasts a dynamic art and music scene along with award-winning restaurants and diverse shopping. Having opened in the heart of downtown in early 2015, the Embassy Suites includes a 6,000-square-foot event space and 154 suite style rooms. In April 2015, Home2 Suites by Hilton opened down the street, offering 154 more rooms with many extended-stay options. Most recently, Hotel Indigo opened the newest hotel property with close to 100 hotel rooms and a rooftop terrace that overlooks the Riverwalk and the Black Warrior River. Adjacent to the hotel is the Tuscaloosa Amphitheater that provides the ideal space for opening and closing events, music and entertainment. The Riverwalk runs along the Black Warrior River starting at Manderson Landing and ending just beyond the amphitheater at Capitol Park. The Riverwalk provides a paved trail that has beautiful scenic views of the river and the University of Alabama’s campus.

Arkansas: Conway
More than 125 years ago, business leaders in Conway, Arkansas, wanted to grow the local economy, so they created a strategy to attract institutions of higher learning to the central Arkansas town. Now, Conway is home to the University of Central Arkansas, Hendrix College and Central Baptist College, earning the nickname the “City of Colleges — as well as countless dividends from that century-old decision.
Today, Conway’s population of about 65,000 is young (with a median age of 27.3) and educated (nearly 40 percent of residents have at least a bachelor’s degree). And for many of the city’s residents, the role of sports and sports facilities continues to be important because, at its heart, Conway is a sports town.

Not only do all three colleges have their own athletic facilities, but the city and its residents realize the need for top-notch sports amenities for all ages, and those facilities continue to attract organizers who are looking to find a welcoming home for their tournaments and events.

Conway also has dozens of hotels to suit all budgets, and most were built within the last eight years. Restaurants abound, with more than 200 in the area, offering all types of cuisine at all price points.

Arizona: Tempe
Tempe, Arizona, is located in the heart of the vibrant Metropolitan Phoenix/Scottsdale area, just minutes from the airport. Tempe has world-class venues to accommodate a variety of indoor and outdoor sporting events, including stadiums, gymnasiums, fields, pools and Tempe Town Lake, an ideal home for triathlons, such as IRONMAN Arizona, rowing regattas and other events.
Home to Arizona State University, Tempe is a fun college town with activities for athletes and their friends and families to enjoy before and after their events. Tempe is known for lively special events on the weekends, Broadway shows and other arts and culture, water recreation, Sonoran Desert hikes and trails, affordable shopping, globally influenced dining experiences, craft breweries, an energetic nightlife scene and more than 330 days of sunshine each year.

Idaho: Boise
When people think of Boise, the first thing that often comes to mind is the famous blue turf at Albertsons Stadium, and while the blue turf has become iconic, it’s just the tip of the iceberg. Boise is a thriving city that embraces its university and events.

There is a distinct “college town” vibe in Boise but it also has all the amenities visitors would expect in a big city. With over 1,800 hotel rooms downtown, James Beard-nominated restaurants and over 100 parks, Boise has and continues to develop a reputation as one of the best destinations in the country. Boise State might have put the town on the map, but now people are experiencing the rest of what makes Boise special.

Boise understands the importance of having separate branding but also encourages event owners to collaborate with BSU as often as possible. The professionals at Boise work with the university on events like the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, NCAA March Madness tournament games and a litany of intramural and club sports events and tournaments. Working together, they have created a tremendous impact for the city and host exciting events for visitors and locals.

Indiana: Bloomington
Bloomington is many things to many people, and the staff strives to connect those who make the city unique with the visitors they are so eager to welcome. Visit Bloomington is the destination marketing organization for Bloomington and Monroe County, Indiana, and its professionals work alongside local partners such as Indiana University to bring all levels of sporting events to the city. Event owners such as USA Swimming, USA Track and Field, and USA Water Polo have found success in Bloomington stemming from partnerships with the athletics department at Indiana University.

The past two years, Bloomington has hosted USA Water Polo’s Champions Cup at the Councilman Billingsley Aquatics Center at IU in association with IU Water Polo. The town has also hosted the USA Track and Field Junior Outdoor National Championships in partnership with the IU athletic department and track and field coaching staff at the Robert C. Haugh Complex for outdoor track and field. Lastly, Visit Bloomington is working with nationally recognized Indiana University Swimming to host the 2019 USA Swimming TYR Pro Swim Series in May at the Councilman Billingsley Aquatics Center at Indiana University. The organization’s partnership with Indiana University has opened opportunities to bring world-class events to world-class facilities in Bloomington, Indiana.

Indiana: Lafayette-West Lafayette
Two great cities, one great university. Lafayette-West Lafayette and Purdue University encompass greatness through partnership, hospitality and engagement. The university is as much part of the community as the community is part of the university. The cities work together to welcome visitors, locals, students and sports fans to celebrate all the offerings of a Big Ten community.

Purdue University takes an active role in the area through a variety of initiatives including Read to Succeed, Purdue Civic Engagement and Leadership Development, Good to Great, and the Purdue Half-Marathon. Visit Lafayette-West Lafayette takes initiative by providing local information to Purdue students arriving to town for the first time and conducting in-class presentations to new, international students.

This strong partnership also yields unique opportunities to promote the area as a sports destination. Together, the cities and university have launched a new sports package this year where fans can go to a Purdue home football game, play golf on Purdue’s Pete Dye golf courses and book a hotel room. Lafayette-West Lafayette boasts an abundance of other sports opportunities including Mike Aulby’s Arrowhead Bowling Center, The Crosser Sports Complex and, coming soon, a new 105,000-square-foot coliseum at the Tippecanoe County Fairgrounds.

Indiana: South Bend
Sports often serve as an introduction to South Bend Mishawaka through its most iconic attraction: The University of Notre Dame. Images of the Golden Dome and the historic football program resonate with many, especially during fall Saturdays when they appear on national television.

Visiting campus, however, isn’t just for spectators. Notre Dame regularly opens its doors to youth sports events. Compton Family Ice Arena bustles with activity during hockey season. Swimming routinely takes over Rolfs Aquatic Center. Melissa Cook Stadium (softball) and Frank Eck Stadium (baseball) often host tournaments.

There’s nothing quite like bringing an event to elite facilities on one of the world’s most beautiful and well-known campuses. It makes for an experience that competitors won’t soon forget.

Yet it’s just one piece in a larger picture.

Notre Dame anchors a collegiate community that includes Saint Mary’s College, Indiana University South Bend, Holy Cross College and Bethel College. All these local institutions offer access to top-notch facilities on campus settings – whether it’s for gymnastics, basketball, pickleball or table tennis.

South Bend Mishawaka’s uncommon relationship with Notre Dame and other area colleges and universities makes it an exceptional sports destination. They invite event owners to add themselves to the tradition.

Kansas: Lawrence
More than 100 years ago, Dr. James Naismith brought basketball to the University of Kansas and Lawrence. Throughout this century, Lawrence has experienced athletic excellence at all levels and in all arenas including a storied college basketball tradition that includes five national championships and 25 All-Americans.

Recently, Lawrence has hosted numerous sporting events including various Big XII and NCAA events, the USATF National Junior Olympics, Hardwood Classic AAU Basketball, Kansas Open Golf Tournament and Gravel Grinder Nationals.

Lawrence’s newest sports district, Rock Chalk Park, is a unique partnership between the City of Lawrence and Kansas Athletics. Within Rock Chalk Park is Sports Pavilion Lawrence, a recreation center including eight full-size courts and an indoor turf area. Outside the facility are eight lighted tennis courts and more than five miles of trails. Kansas Athletics operates the IAAF Class I Certified Track, Soccer Stadium, Arocha Ballpark and Kansas Tennis Center at Rock Chalk Park.

Lawrence is a quick 45-minute trip to and from Kansas City International Airport. Lawrence is also known for its cultural ambiance, lively downtown district, museums and nightlife.

Lawrence is where the traditions of the past link with the athletes of today.

Louisiana: Baton Rouge
Louisiana’s Capital City of Baton Rouge is home to Louisiana State University and is frequently recognized as one of the top college towns, top college tailgates and LSU’s Tiger Stadium has even been ranked #1 out of the 50 best college football stadiums.

Sports are a way of life and no one does athletic pride like Baton Rouge and the Fighting Tigers. The city works with the university to elevate the area as a global destination for sports and spirit, coming together to host large-scale athletic events at one of the many premier facilities. From indoor to outdoor needs, for track and field to bowling and every sport in between, Baton Rouge has successfully hosted it all. With more than 13,000 hotel rooms in the area at various sizes and price points, the city’s hotel partners join the city in welcoming teams. Off the field, athletes enjoy an abundance of vibrant music, cuisine, outdoor recreation, history and culture. Those interested in learning more about sporting events in Baton Rouge should explore

Louisiana: Ruston
Located along I-20 in North Louisiana is one of the South’s emerging sports destinations – Ruston & Lincoln Parish. Known for its college-town atmosphere and thriving downtown district, Ruston is great for sporting events, but also offers a variety of family-friendly attractions and activities.

The area is home to two universities, Louisiana Tech University and Grambling State University. Education is highly valued along with opportunities for students to enjoy the city. Ruston also promotes healthy living to locals and visitors alike. There are many opportunities to stay active with the Rock Island Greenway, a five-mile linear park, and Lincoln Parish Park, one of Ruston’s premier outdoor attractions. Lincoln Parish Park features world-renowned mountain biking trails, a beautiful lake for boating and fishing, beach area for swimming, walking trails, numerous picnic areas and deluxe RV camping grounds.

Ruston also offers cultural events throughout the year. Locals and visitors mark their calendars for theatrical performances at the Dixie Theatre in the historic downtown district, arts and music celebrations like Railroad Festival and Ruston Makers Fair, Louisiana Peach Festival each summer, and Loyal Blue Weekends during football season.

Event planners wishing to learn more should visit

Michigan: Ann Arbor
Ann Arbor is an innovative university town that is appealing to sports teams and fans alike. Coaches, managers and sporting event planners love Ann Arbor not only for its world-class athletic and recreational facilities but also for its walkable downtown packed with diverse dining and entertainment options. But that’s really only the beginning. The Ann Arbor Sports Commission is on hand to ensure each athletic event runs smoothly – from the initial bidding stage to the final buzzer.

The Ann Arbor Sports Commission was formed to attract amateur sporting events to the Ann Arbor region for economic impact, positive national exposure and quality of life enhancement for all residents of Washtenaw County. The commission acts as a conduit on behalf of the region in bidding efforts for all major and participant-driven sporting events that meet its mission. They assist with facilities rental – athletic and otherwise – on various campuses, including University of Michigan and Eastern Michigan University, and provide a warm welcome to the area for visiting teams and their fans. Additionally, the sports commission works with college and university sports management programs to assist with internships and volunteer opportunities.

Mississippi: Hattiesburg
With thousands of hotel rooms, more than 200 locally-owned restaurants, award-winning attractions, two universities who call it home and spacious meeting venues, Hattiesburg, Mississippi, is a premier destination in the Gulf South. In addition, Hattiesburg offers world-class facilities to tens of thousands of youth and collegiate baseball, soccer, track, tennis, softball and football players, coaches, visitors and fans each year.

Tatum Park is one of the largest sports complexes in the South and Mississippi’s choice youth facility. The multi-sport park offers 18 soccer fields, three softball fields, five baseball fields, two tennis courts, a disc golf course and multiple practice fields. Other amenities at Tatum Park include brand-new way-finding signage throughout the complex, ample parking, concessions, two playgrounds, batting cages and a pavilion for events. Additionally, the University of Southern Mississippi and William Carey University often partner with organizations coming to Hattiesburg by opening their collegiate-level facilities to sporting events, making Hattiesburg a prime destination for youth athletes and their families each year.

Organizations that bring their sports tournament to Hattiesburg will also have access to VisitHATTIESBURG’s Red Carpet Services, which include hotel and accommodation bids, site inspections, media coverage, an on-site information booth, welcome bags for coaches and more. Youth and collegiate sports are a perfect fit for HBURG.

Mississippi: Oxford
Planners who are visiting Oxford, Mississippi, for any sporting activity will find small-town charm with big-town facilities and amenities. The collaboration between the University of Mississippi and Visit Oxford is key in making each visitor’s experience a success.

Ole Miss has also worked with Visit Oxford and the Oxford Park Commission in hosting the Mississippi High School Activities Association State football and volleyball championships. These championships draw crowds from all over the state of Mississippi, with some coming to Oxford for the very first time.

Ole Miss Athletics is actively involved in the community as well by serving as the presenting sponsor of the Double Decker Arts Festival for the past three years. April of 2019 marked the 24th year and showcases Oxford as a town that supports the arts. The event is centered around the historic square and boasts a crowd of more than 60,000 people.

The collaboration between the University of Mississippi, Visit Oxford and the City of Oxford is continually growing. They are looking to work together on more promotional events throughout the year as well as recruit events to take place in Oxford on the University of Mississippi campus.

Missouri: Saint Charles
Lindenwood University, located in Saint Charles, Missouri is a historic gem, founded in 1827. Saint Charles, founded in 1769, is rooted in American History. In 2018, Money magazine listed Saint Charles as the 18th best city to live in the United States.

Lindenwood boasts one of the largest, most successful athletic programs in the country; claiming numerous NCAA championships and churning out world-class athletes, including 2018 Olympic Gold Medalist Nicole Hensley from USA Women’s Hockey and Pierre Desir of the Indianapolis Colts.

In 2018, the organizations partnered and submitted the winning the bid for the 2018 Missouri Cheerleading Coaches Association State Championship. The event generated 400+ room nights, producing a $250,000 economic impact. In 2020, Lindenwood plays host to the NCAA Spring Festival.

“Lindenwood is a tremendous community partner,” said Chris Wilson, Saint Charles CVB sports sales manager.
Joe Ward, Saint Charles CVB director, agreed, “Lindenwood athletics simply gets it; administrators, coaches and student-athletes contribute daily to our city’s success.”

Brad Wachler, Lindenwood’s Vice President of Athletics, added, “We look forward to building upon our current partnership with the St. Charles Convention and Visitor’s Bureau in an effort to secure first-rate events that add great value to the St. Charles community, the region and our university.”

North Carolina: Durham
Durham is proudly the home of two competitive and storied Division I institutions, Duke University and North Carolina Central University, as well as the world-famous Durham Bulls Minor League Baseball team and competitive teams at all levels. A sports destination brimming with sports fanatics and spectators alike, the Bull City is a city of champions and the Durham Sports Commission is in the middle of it all.

As far as college towns go, Durham made a splash as the only city in NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament with two teams making the bracket in 2019. These athletic programs aren’t just starting to make history; Durham’s college athletic history and roots are deep and rich. This year marked the 75th anniversary of “The Secret Game,” the South’s first interracial college basketball game.

Durham’s been named one of the best college sports towns in America but the staff likes to say it is much more than that. Events that come to Durham find facilities that are affordable, accessible and available, and visitors who stay in Durham will enjoy the Southern hospitality, passionate community and all-star amenities. Durham’s fans are all in and ready to welcome visitors.

New York: Buffalo
Buffalo’s nearly one dozen colleges and universities and their tens of thousands of students are an essential piece of the city’s economy – and its personality. This spirited city on the shores of Lake Erie owes much of its fun-loving reputation to its college-town atmosphere, from its bars and neighborhood pubs filled with college pennants and students to the host of cultural and athletic events hosted by these institutions that locals can enjoy as well.

The Buffalo Niagara Sports Commission, which works to develop Buffalo as a signature destination for college and amateur athletic events, has forged strong relationships with these colleges and universities over the last 25 years; Commission Chair Bill Maher is the athletic director of Canisius College and Vice-Chair Kathy Twist is the University at Buffalo’s senior associate athletic director for sports administration and senior woman administration.

The sports commission has leveraged these long-standing relationships to attract signature college and amateur athletic events to Buffalo. The tournaments brought to Buffalo as a result of these relationships include the NCAA Men’s Division I Ice Hockey Championship (The Frozen Four), the NCAA Men’s Division I Basketball Championship Rounds I and II and the NCAA Northeast Regional Championships. Just as Buffalo wings and blue cheese are better together, so are the city of Buffalo and its colleges and universities: combining forces to elevate Buffalo’s reputation as a top-tier destination for amateur athletics.

Ohio: Bowling Green
Bowling Green, Ohio, and Bowling Green State University invites owners to host their next sporting event in town. From the state-of-the-art facilities like the Stroh Center to the Doyt Perry Stadium and Perry Fieldhouse, Slater Family Ice Arena and Recreation Center, all venue needs can be covered.

Additionally, the area has an extensive amount of green space for many outdoor sports, from soccer to rugby, and can fit many needs. The new BG Curling Center is an excellent addition to the curling opportunities in Northwest Ohio, perfect for hosting bonspiels.

Carter Park Baseball Fields can host an adult or youth baseball tournament. The BG Community Center has multiple basketball courts as well with an indoor walking track and workout facilities. There are 500 hotel rooms and several new resident halls to accommodate teams, staff, fans and families.

Visitors who want to get more information can go to or call 1-800-866-0046 today.

Photo courtesy of Mid-American Conference
Ohio: Butler County
Nationally recognized as one of the most outstanding undergraduate institutions, Miami University is a public university located in Oxford, Ohio. With a student body of nearly 19,000, and eight men’s teams and 10 women’s teams, Miami University Athletics has a proud athletic tradition. The RedHawks compete in the NCAA Division I Mid-American Conference, the National Collegiate Hockey Conference and the U.S. Figure Skating Association.

Miami University and the Butler County Visitors Bureau work together on creating professional hosting proposals and bid presentations. While also offering a wide variety of complimentary services, both entities work side by side with area hotels to secure room blocks, circulate press releases and compile comprehensive visitor information for participants and their families.

Many diverse events have been hosted in collaboration with Miami University and the Butler County Visitors Bureau. A brief sample of these events include the 2015 ISI Synchro Championships, 2016 National Junior Hockey Prospect League, 2018 US Junior Olympic Synchro Championships, 2018 MAC Women’s Field Hockey Championships and the 2019 NIRCA Spring National Championships.

South Carolina: Columbia
As Columbia SC is home to the University of South Carolina and having just collaborated in hosting the first and second rounds of the 2019 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, the close relationship between Experience Columbia SC Sports and the university is a natural partnership. But the sports scene in Columbia certainly extends beyond college athletics. From the Minor League baseball team, the Columbia Fireflies, gearing up for their fourth season this year, to welcoming unconventional sporting events like lacrosse, quidditch, boomerang, roller derby and more, Columbia is a year-round sports destination.

The region is flush with parks and lies at the confluence of the Saluda and Broad Rivers, which merge right in town to form the Congaree, allowing plenty of options for outdoor adventure. These attributes, paired with a temperate climate, are conducive for hosting rowing events, as well as various fun runs/ races. Columbia also boasts a diverse array of both indoor and outdoor venues, such as Segra Park, The Palmetto Health Fields at Saluda Shoals Park and the Cayce Tennis and Fitness Center at Otarre Point, to name a few. Attendees and athletes of all ages can look forward to the opportunities that await in Columbia SC apart from the university’s campus.

Texas: Bryan College Station
Bryan College Station is more than just a college community. Sometimes overshadowed by Texas A&M University, the community of Bryan College Station goes far beyond the boundaries of Texas A&M’s campus. Located at the center of the Texas Triangle, Bryan College Station is positioned within a three-hour drive of over 24 million people and just a connection away from over 300 domestic locations.

The community’s centralized location coupled with world-renowned sports facilities, amazing eats and drinks (locals suggest a visit to the Dixie Chicken), a massive selection of hotel properties and famous hospitality makes BCS a dream destination for event owners of any sport.

Offering event owners extensive entertainment options, a supportive grant program and a unique access agreement with Texas A&M athletic facilities, Bryan College Station provides all the amenities of a major city without the expenses or hassles associated with a large community.

Bryan College Station Sports + Events is confident that if event owners visit, it can change the way they think of this “small” college town. Information is available at the website,

Texas: Waco
Baylor University (chartered in 1845) moved to Waco, Texas, in 1886 and ever since, the city and the school have been intertwined. Baylor, with its current enrollment standing at 16,550, makes up a significant part of Waco’s overall population of 135,000 – in fact, students are 12 percent of the Waco population.

As the official destination marketing organization for the City of Waco, the Waco Convention & Visitors Bureau works closely with Baylor athletics and sporting events in many areas. Providing thousands of city maps and visitors guides for prospective and incoming athletes and families each year is an important basic service. The CVB advertises with Baylor through IMG to reach those attending football, basketball and other events. The CVB also works with individual coaches to obtain hotel room blocks, check venue availability and other standard services.

Keeping in close contact is an important aspect of any relationship. Baylor’s Office of External Affairs engages with various parts of the Waco community with the goal to be a “solid gold neighbor.” Staff attend meetings with the CVB and other entities to keep abreast of the growth in tourism, new hotel projects, and ways they can better work together to further Waco’s growth.

West Virginia: Morgantown
As the mountain home to West Virginia University (WVU), with its tranquil green lawns and historical brick buildings, Morgantown, West Virginia, checks all the boxes for lovers of athletics, art and adventure.

Sports take a front-row seat on and off the WVU campus. The Big 12 Conference member shares the Monongalia County Ballpark with the West Virginia Black Bears of the New York-Penn League. However, the recreational crown jewel is Mylan Park – 350 acres that accommodate sports fields, festivals and a 53,000-square-foot indoor events center. The park’s 400 meter, nine-lane outdoor track is state-of-the-art, but it’s the new Aquatic Center, scheduled to open in fall of 2019 that is creating the buzz in the local community: a fully-accessible 75,000-square-foot facility with a 50m Olympic pool, a six-lane, zero-depth entry recreational pool, and outdoor splash pad.

The University’s stage facilities attract Broadway musicals in the summer while WVU’s art galleries and museums engage visitors all year long. Plus, WVU is the only university to own and operate a zip-line canopy tour: 2,000 feet of lines at 35 mph through the trees. And just down the road: rollercoaster whitewater rapids and some of the best rock climbing in the East.

Dining in Mountaineer Country has evolved into a culinary adventure; timeless eateries with sidewalk chalkboards boast menus using old-world family recipes. The compact downtown pulses with the beat of countless live performances. Event planners can visit SDM

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