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The Great Northeast

27 Dec, 2018

By: Michael Popke
Destinations Worth Your Consideration

Quick: Try finding Connecticut on a U.S. map. It’s not as easy as you might think. “Being a smaller state, a lot of people don’t know where Connecticut is,” says Bob Murdock, director of national accounts and sports marketing for the Connecticut Convention & Sports Bureau. “We’ve found that once we get people to New England, though, it’s easy to keep them here.”

Indeed, an increasing number of sports event organizers and participants are recognizing the Northeast’s charm, which includes breathtaking four-season scenery and local residents who warmly embrace a variety of sports. Here are eight destinations worthy of your attention.

Maine
In the Northeast’s northernmost state, a year-round slate of sports tourism opportunities include the Maine Pond Hockey Classic in Sidney, the East Coast Snocross Series in Bangor and the first-ever Toyota U.S. Alpine Speed Championships in Sugarloaf happening in March 2019.
Meanwhile, the Millinocket Marathon is a free event that takes place in early December and attracts runners from all over North America (an estimated 2,600 in 2018) to the tiny paper mill town devastated by the loss of its primary employer. Participants are asked to support the local economy via lodging and dining. Additionally, the Maine Sports Commission is working closely with the athletic administration at the University of Maine in Orono to bring in Ultimate and track and field events.

“Our state is so much more accessible and welcoming than people realize,” says Sheila Brennan Nee, director of the Maine Sports Commission.

Vermont
Vermont is another state outsiders think is hard to reach, according to Tom Carton, sales manager for the Vermont Convention Bureau. “We’re not a large-scale destination with a lot of conference centers, lodging and sports facility,” he admits. “But we fill niches.”

Perhaps the biggest niche is quidditch, made famous by the Harry Potter books and now played by muggles. The sport originated at Middlebury College and it’s a major selling point in any Vermont community with soccer fields, including Jay Peak Resort in Jay.

Three other Vermont cities also provide major sports opportunities. Manchester Center boasts the Riley Rink at Hunter Park ice facility, which converts to indoor turf in the summer, and Applejack Stadium for youth soccer and baseball. Stowe offers soccer fields, ski areas and ice rinks. Burlington is home to Champlain Valley Exposition, featuring 250,000 square feet of space that can be equipped with onsite synthetic turf and also is capable of hosting everything from wrestling tournaments to dance competitions.

Long Island, New York
Long Island stretches 118 miles eastward into the Atlantic Ocean and has established itself as a destination for everything from golf to horse racing. “We refer to Long Island as New York City’s beachfront backyard,” says Jennifer Rothman, sports development manager for Discover Long Island.

Bethpage State Park is home to five 18-hole golf courses, including the world-famous Black Course — site of several U.S. Opens and the Barclays events, as well as host of the 2019 PGA Championship, the 2021 and 2027 Northern Trust, and the 2024 Ryder Cup. Other courses in Nassau and Suffolk counties attract high-profile competition, too. All told, Long Island has about a dozen courses designated for tournaments.

Despite not having a convention center, Long Island boasts the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum, which reopened in 2017 after extensive renovations, and the tentatively named Belmont Park Arena (future home of the NHL’s New York Islanders) is expected to open in 2021 in Elmont.

Also in Elmont is Belmont Park, which hosts the Belmont Stakes. In addition to that famous Triple Crown race, the track hosts events throughout much of the spring, summer and fall. Plus, the island can accommodate baseball and lacrosse tournaments, and is increasingly hosting events such as the Tough Mudder and Spartan Race.

Massachusetts
Massachusetts boasts some of the finest medical, educational and tech institutions in the world. As a result, “our sports scene may not be the first thing one thinks of when they hear ‘Massachusetts,’” says Ricardo Guillaume, marketing manager for the Massachusetts Sports Marketing Office. “Nevertheless, the sports tourism scene in Massachusetts is booming.”

Indeed, the state’s facilities include Boston’s TD Garden (nearing completion of a 50,000-square-foot, $100 million renovation), Marlborough’s New England Sports Center (the country’s largest ice skating arena, according to Guillaume), Worcester’s DCU Center and Springfield’s Mass Mutual Center (multi-purpose arena and convention complexes), Fitchburg’s Game On (a new sports and training center with indoor courts and outdoor fields) and Foxborough’s Gillette Stadium (home of the NFL’s New England Patriots and host of Major League Soccer and NCAA lacrosse events).

Additionally, the Pawtucket Red Sox, a Triple-A affiliate of the Boston Red Sox, will leave Rhode Island for Worcester, moving into a new 10,000-seat ballpark in 2021.

Connecticut
Located about 130 miles southwest of Boston, Connecticut is a scenic and compact state promoted as an affordable alternative to big-city destinations. That approach seems to be working.

Hartford’s XL Center will host the first and second rounds of the 2019 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament, and the 2019 NCAA Women’s Frozen Four will be held at TD Bank Sports Center at Quinnipiac University in Hamden. Pratt & Whitney Stadium at Rentschler Field in East Hartford will welcome the NCAA Men’s Lacrosse National Championships in 2021 and 2022, and Keney Park Golf Course in Hartford will host the Boys and Girls Junior PGA Championships this summer.

Additionally, Oxford Pickleball opened in July 2018 with four courts (and already plans to expand), and the 11-field Fastpitch Nation Park is expected to be the Northeast’s largest dedicated fastpitch softball complex when it opens in Windsor in 2019.

Pennsylvania
In Erie, a nonprofit organization known as G.R.E.A.T.T. (Greater Regional Erie Athletic Team Training Inc.) recently purchased Family First Sports Park and rebranded it as ERIEBANK Sports Park. A $9 million renovation includes converting underutilized indoor turf fields into two ice sheets and renovating four basketball courts. Outside, 10 grass fields and an inflatable dome provide more competition space.

The revitalization brings the total number of ice sheets in the community to five. “That will give us more ice than we’ve had in the past 15 years,” says Mark Jeanneret, executive director of the Erie Sports Commission.

Erie also will welcome the 80th Annual Pennsylvania State United States Bowling Congress Open Championship, which will be held over 10 consecutive weekends from April to June. Jeanneret estimates the tournament’s economic impact will exceed $3.5 million.

Meanwhile, 100 miles due south of Erie is Butler County, home of a new ice rink and abundant green space.

The UPMC Lemieux Sports Complex in Cranberry Township boasts two ice sheets and shares space with a sports medicine clinic that provides onsite care to event participants. It’s the first joint facility of its kind, according to Amy Pack, director of tourism development for the Butler County Sports Commission, a division of the Butler County Tourism & Convention Bureau. 

The facility also hosts figure skating competitions and events sanctioned by Pittsburgh’s Hockey Sticks Together Foundation (including sled hockey, blind hockey and a program for veterans). Similarly, Dick’s Sporting Goods Complex at Graham Park in Cranberry Township boasts 13 lighted grass fields, including a popular Miracle League field for players with special needs.

Archery, axe-throwing, BMX racing, triathlons and open-water swimming also are activities county tourism officials are seeking to expand. “One of our strongest traits is our diversity,” Pack says. “Some of our facilities and green spaces are blank slates that can handle new opportunities.”

Rhode Island
With 20 percent of the United States population within a day’s drive of Providence, Rhode Island offers everything from high-profile tennis, baseball and lacrosse tournaments to gymnastics and cheerleading competitions.

But it is volleyball that John Gibbons, executive director of the Rhode Island Sports Commission, says has really taken off in recent years, thanks to assistance from St. Petersburg-based JVC Tournaments, which provides up to 18 courts at the Rhode Island Convention Center in Providence.

Additionally, Providence will host the 2019 NCAA Men’s Hockey East Regional Championship, the 2020 U.S. Synchronized Skating Championships, and the first and second rounds of the 2021 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament.

“The way we sell Rhode Island is by selling the Northeast,” Gibbons says. “Everybody wants to be in the Northeast because we have a dense population. Boston is often the first choice, but we’re happy to take events that can’t afford Boston. We’ve built our market that way.” SDM

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