Sports, and sports travel, are huge in the heartland. The Midwest consists of 12 states—from Ohio on the east side, northwest to North Dakota, and down to Kansas—and is home to more than 65 million Americans.
Not only are there venues of extraordinary quality and size to suit all types of events, but also, most areas have top facilities available at universities and colleges. And communities in the Midwest are crazy about sports—so there’s a built-in fan base.
Overland Park, Kansas
A few hours east of the geographic midpoint of the country is the city of Overland Park. “Sports participants and event organizers always tell us our location right in the middle of the country can’t be beat,” says Liron BenDor of the Overland Park Convention & Visitors Bureau. About 60 million Americans live within a day’s drive.
One of the venues that helps put Overland Park on the sports tourism map is the three-year-old Overland Park Soccer Complex, with 12 synthetic turf fields, each with an in-ground cooling system and tournament-quality lighting. There’s also a 16,000-square-foot field house with offices, meetings rooms, and a fully-stocked first aid room. Overland Park is a multi-sport destination that can handle virtually any sport of any size.
About 165 miles southeast of Overland Park is another hotbed. “We think of Springfield as a hub for a multitude of sports,” says Lance Kettering of the Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau and also the executive director of the Springfield Sports Commission.
Among the more than 120 sporting event venues in Springfield is the exceptional Cooper Sports Complex, which includes five lighted baseball fields, 14 outdoor soccer fields, an indoor soccer field and futsol field, and more. There’s also the 28-court (12 indoor) Cooper Tennis Complex, including a stadium court with seats for 2,500. The city also has Mediacom Ice Park, with two sheets of ice. The O’Reilly Family Event Center is a 3,100-seat arena that can host martial arts, volleyball, gymnastics, basketball, wrestling, cheerleading and more.
Helping to smooth the way for sports event rights holders to bring their events to the center of the country is Sports Illinois. “When Sports Illinois was formed in the 1990s, it was the first of its kind,” says Pete Garlock, chairman. Sports Illinois has a network to all the CVBs. “We’re a one-stop shop for anyone looking to book an event in Illinois. There are a lot of great sports venues all over the state. We can accommodate almost every sport that’s out there.
“Parents make sports participation possible any way they can for their kids,” Garlock says. “Sports is something that will always be there. That’s what makes it such an important market to focus on.”
Rockford is about 90 miles northwest of Chicago and is home to world-class sports facilities with a solid record for hosting regional, national and international events. Two top outdoor venues are SportsCore 1, with nine soccer fields and eight lighted baseball diamonds, and SportsCore 2, with 32 soccer fields, along with five sand volleyball courts. Adjacent to SportsCore 2 is the 50,000-square-foot Indoor Sports Center, with three multi-sport indoor fields, four volleyball courts and more. Also indoors is the 60,000-square-foot Hononegah Dome.
“One of the reasons tournament directors choose Rockford is the outstanding customer service,” says Bridget French of the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. The CVB can help with facility selection and site inspections, group accommodations, on-site visitor information booths, promotional material, and more.
Butler County, Ohio
Just 20 miles north of Cincinnati, Butler County can boast it is less than a day’s drive from 65 percent of the U.S. population. It also can boast about its excellent sports venues, which include some of the best high school facilities in the state. Butler County has hosted many prestigious events, including for swimming, archery, waterskiing, wakeboarding, Little League, and basketball.
Other sports venues include Joyce Park in Hamilton, with about 20 fields, along with baseball and softball diamonds. Voice of America Park in West Chester also can hold many types of sporting events, including field sports, triathlons, wakeboarding and other water sports.
Off the field, there are plenty of things to do, too. “We’re a very family-oriented community,” says Stephanie Gigliotti of the Butler County Visitors Bureau.
Great Lakes Bay Region, Michigan
Michigan’s Great Lakes Bay Region, about an hour and a half north of Detroit, includes the communities of Saginaw, Midland and Bay City. “Five rivers come together here, and we have a lot of fishing tournaments,” says Wendy Scott, the sports manager of the Great Lakes Bay Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau. In the summer, there are boating events in the bay.
But it’s not all about water sports. The area has major soccer facilities, such as the Midland Soccer Complex, with 11 full-size and 12 smaller fields, and the Saginaw Township Soccer Complex, with 21 full-size fields. For softball, there’s the 50-acre Emerson Park in Midland, which also includes Currie Stadium, along with Redcoat Softball Complex with 10 diamonds. For tennis events, it’s hard to beat the 32-court (16 indoor) Midland Community Tennis Center.
On the west side of the Lower Peninsula, three hours from both Chicago and Detroit on Lake Michigan, is the popular vacation destination of Holland. It’s also a popular sports destination. “We run the gamut in sports,” says Wendy Link of the Holland CVB, hosting everything from ice events, to swimming and diving, to softball, baseball, soccer, volleyball, basketball, and more.
The Holland Aquatic Center hosts the boys and girls state swimming finals every year, in addition to college events. Helder Park has several softball, Little League and soccer fields, as does Quincy Park. The excellent facilities at Hope College are also available, including a new tennis complex and the state-of-the-art DeVos Fieldhouse.
Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin
Wisconsin Dells is a popular, scenic tourist destination that is extremely family friendly, with more than 8,000 hotel rooms, 90 restaurants and 75 attractions. For athletic events, the area has great facilities and venues that can cater to dozens of sports.
“Events rights holders tell us our community provides them with a great value due to the local amenities and the opportunity to apply for local grants,” says Sarah Hudzinski of the Wisconsin Dells Visitor & Convention Bureau. Basketball, volleyball, baseball, hockey, football, triathlons and endurance events are big, and Hudzinski says they’re reaching out for other sports that work well in convention centers, such as martial arts, dance and cheer.
North Platte/Lincoln County, Nebraska
The North Platte area is attracting a lot of attention lately for its facilities. The city recently upgraded its Dowhower Softball Complex, which has seven lighted diamonds, and Cody Park has four adult softball fields, says Lisa Burke, the executive director of the Lincoln County Convention and Visitors Bureau.
The area has hosted several baseball tournaments, and there are 10 fields for soccer and other sports. Cody Park also has the Horseshoes Complex with 30 lighted pits. The area has several equestrian arenas and the outdoor Wild West Arena, which hosts the PRCA Buffalo Bill Rodeo annually. About 20 miles from downtown is the 800-acre Potters Pasture, site of biking and running events.
Every August, Des Moines is home to one of the largest state fairs in the country. But the facilities at the Iowa State Fairgrounds—including 14 different venues—are available for events year-round. The newest multipurpose arena is the Jacobson Center, capable of hosting all types of events, including equestrian, with seating for 3,500.
Des Moines has become a top destination for sporting events of all sizes. The city has a long history as a track and field destination, led by the Drake Relays every April, and hosts many events for all ages. There are indoor ice arenas, soccer venues, golf courses and other sports complexes, too.
Council Bluffs, in the west, boasts many new facilities for multiple sports. The area features an arena for hockey, basketball, volleyball and other indoor activities; an eight-field soccer complex; and state-of-the-art baseball/softball diamonds.
“We certainly value sports here,” says Jessica O’Riley of the Iowa Tourism Office.