The Heartland: The New Go-To for Sports
22 Oct, 2014By: Jenny Wierschem
With a Growing Array of Venues, CVBs and Sports Commissions, the Midwest is Moving Front and Center
The Midwest, the heartland of the United States, is a convenient travel location for sports tournament attendees. Its often less-congested highways can be a lure for the drive market, and the region’s international and local airports pull easily from markets that are further afield.
But the Midwest isn’t just a practical solution—the region’s natural and cultural resources offer plenty to enrich the experience of sports tournament attendees.
“We are centrally located within Illinois, the Midwest, and the nation,” says Matt Hawkins, sports marketing manager for the Bloomington-Normal Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We have two universities in our communities, minor league facilities, and an overall great hospitality service industry here. I think the people who host their events here are happy, and they return year after year.”
The Bloomington-Normal area has been home for more than 30 years to the State Farm Holiday Classic, which the CVB believes is the largest co-ed high school basketball tournament in the United States.
The 10-diamond Champion Fields facility is a mainstay of softball tournaments and will be hosting the 2015 Amateur Softball Association/USA Softball National Championships Girls’ 10-Under Class A Fast Pitch tournament.
The Midwest Open Indoor Archery Tournament will be at the Interstate Center in December. Bloomington also recently hosted the second Bloomington Criterium bike race through downtown, which grew from the first year to the second year.
“That event has a lot of potential to grow with our location,” says Hawkins. “I understand that the participants really like the atmosphere of the event.”
McHenry County, Illinois
McHenry County is the best of both worlds when it comes to sports event site logistics: rural ease and urban amenities.
“We are only about 50 miles from downtown Chicago, so we are close to the city, but yet we still have that Mid-America, heart of America feeling and hospitality,” says Jaki Berggren, executive director of Visit McHenry County.
The county’s 310-acre Lippold Park in Crystal frequently hosts field-based sports. The park has eight baseball fields, four softball fields with synthetic turf infields, nine irrigated soccer fields, three football fields and more.
Some of the biggest sports event opportunities in McHenry County don’t take place on developed fields.
“One of the things we have found success in recently are events that utilize our wide-open spaces,” says Berggren. “Mudding events; we also have space where we can have triathlons.”
This year marked the second year of the area hosting the Tour de Crystal Lake, a criterium-style bicycle race.
“It’s kind of like NASCAR meets bicycle racing,” says Berggren. “Those are really fun.”
Traverse City, Michigan
Traverse City sits adjacent to Grand Traverse Bay and is near the Vasa trail in the Pere Marquette State Forest, making it a destination for year-round outdoor sports events from sailing to mountain biking to skiing.
“Traverse City is just such a paradise for outdoor activity,” says Brad Van Dommelen, president and CEO of Traverse City Tourism.
The Bells’ Beer Iceman Cometh Challenge mountain bike race makes use of the Vasa trail and other roadways and trails in the area.
“That’s a huge race,” says Van Dommelen. “It fills up every year within a few hours. You never know what the conditions will be—it’s in the first week of November.”
While Traverse City’s natural resources are a huge asset, the area is also a frequent host of facilities-based tournaments. The NHL Prospects Tournament was recently held at Centre Ice Arena.
Jefferson City, Missouri
Jefferson City, the capital of Missouri, sits along the Missouri River and is about a two-hour drive from St. Louis. The city is home to Lincoln University and several high schools that, along with privately owned venues, all contribute to the area’s mix of sports facilities offerings.
The 63 Diamonds softball/baseball complex in Jefferson City is one of the area’s premier sports facilities. The owner of the four-field complex has converted the infields to agri-lime.
“From a planner’s perspective, that is a huge advantage,” says Chris Wilson, sports and film sales manager for the Jefferson City Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The agri-lime fields make it very difficult for a tournament to get rained out.”
Jefferson City has been awarded a four-year bid to host the Special Olympics Missouri Outdoor State Games.
“We are so, so excited to be the host city for this particular event,” says Wilson. Special Olympics Missouri has some great athletes and some great outdoor games: flag football, tennis, softball, bocce ball, and golf. We are providing venues for each one of those particular sports.”
Butler County, Ohio
Butler County, located between Cincinnati and Dayton, benefits strongly from its drive-market appeal.
“A nice thing about our location is that we are in a one-day drive of 60–65 percent of the population,” says Tracy Kocher, director of marketing for the Butler County Visitors Bureau.
Butler County’s Joyce Park was recently the site of the 130th U.S. National Target Championships, which brought in a little over 900 competitors. The new, 22-field Voice of America Athletic Complex welcomed its first tournament in September, the USA Ultimate Great Lakes Regional Championship.
Butler County is home to Miami University, which expands the facilities offerings of the area. The university’s Corwin M. Nixon Aquatics Center has hosted synchronized swimming competitions and other events, and the Goggin Ice Center has a track record of hosting broomball and synchronized skating tournaments.
Tourism is big business in Wisconsin, in part because of the state’s abundant natural resources in the form of lakes, trails, and other outdoor features. Across the state, towns leverage these abundant resources for events ranging from sport bass fishing in Sturgeon Bay, to triathlons in Kenosha, to pond hockey in Eagle River. Field-based sport tournaments also abound, with Appleton being particularly well known for softball and baseball.
“We have as many strong, awesome athletic events in the winter as we do any other time of year,” says Dawn Zanoni, who works with meetings, events, and sports for the Wisconsin Department of Tourism.
Eau Claire, Wisconsin
A trip to Eau Claire, located about 90 miles east of the Twin Cities, may make you a fan of a lesser-known sport: kubb, a Nordic sport with growing popularity.
“We are the North American kubb capital,” says Michael Strubel, director of sales and events for Visit Eau Claire. “We host the U.S. National Kubb Championship here every year in July. It’s the largest tournament outside of Europe.”
Eau Claire is home to a campus of the University of Wisconsin, which will host the 2015 College Table Tennis National Championships in the McPhee Physical Education Center. The university will soon have even greater athletic-hosting capabilities, having announced construction of a new events center. Additionally, Eau Claire’s Indoor Sports Center has 32,000-square feet of open space divided between two arenas, one with courts and the other with artificial turf.
Outdoor sports are a big part of life in Eau Claire, even in the winter. The city will host the 2015 U.S. National Snowshoe Championship at Lowes Creek County Park.
“They are anticipating that this will be the largest crowd they have had because of our location,” says Strubel.
Cable, Wisconsin is rural with about 70 percent of the land held in public trust. This translates into some unique outdoor sports tournament opportunities.
“You have huge tracts of public land and forest and just an incredible trail system,” says James Bolen, executive director of the Cable Area Chamber of Commerce.
Each year, Cable and the surrounding area host the prestigious Chequamegon Fat Tire Festival, a mountain bike race that brings in a little over 3,000 competitors. Cable is also home to the American Birkebeiner cross-country ski race.
In January, Cable will host the International Paralympic Committee’s Nordic Skiing World Championships.
“I’m really excited about that,” says Bolen. “It will be the third time the event will be held in the United States. It may also be the largest Nordic Paralympics championships.”