Courts Are Back In Session | Sports Destination Management

Courts Are Back In Session

Nov 01, 2021 | By: Michael Popke
Gainesville, Fl | Photo Courtesy of the Stephen C. O’Connell Center, Gainesville, Florida

These days, most things in life seem to fall into two categories: pre-2020 and now. That’s certainly the case with volleyball participation numbers, which in 2019 saw increased participation among core participants between the ages of 13 and 17, according to the Sports & Fitness Industry Association.

After a down year in 2020, when most volleyball events (indoor ones, at least) were canceled, volleyball is spiking again. And there are plenty of indicators that growth will continue.

In indoor action, the U.S. Women’s National Team captured gold at the Summer Olympics in Tokyo — punctuated by a three-game sweep of longtime rival Brazil in the final match. The USWNT also won gold on the beach. It was the first time in 12 Olympic appearances that Team USA won it all.

With volleyball as a sports tourism anchor in many destinations, facility operators and convention and visitors bureau officials are noticing a particular uptick in beach volleyball.

“The beach is a natural venue and our number-one attraction, which is the perfect combination for beach volleyball-related travel,” says Michelle Russ, vice president of sales, sports and events for Gulf Shores | Orange Beach Sports & Events in Alabama, which hosted the 2021 NCAA Beach Volleyball National Championship in May with limited capacity, pod seating and universal masking. “We have seen an upward trend in sports tourism growth in general along Alabama’s Gulf Coast, given the majority of our venues are outdoors.” 

Gulf Shores is one of eight destinations Sports Destination Management recently checked in with that are eager to host volleyball tournaments. 

Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, Alabama

The three-day 2021 NCAA Beach Volleyball National Championship generated an economic impact of more than $650,000 for Gulf Shores, according to Russ, and it was one of several college and high school beach volleyball events the city has hosted this year. 

“Having hosted the [American Volleyball Coaches Association] Women’s National Collegiate Sand Volleyball Championships for a number of years prior to beach volleyball being NCAA-sanctioned and now being the home of the NCAA Beach Volleyball Championship through 2024,  the sport has grown exponentially along Alabama’s beaches,” Russ says. “We are now hosting all age groups and have added several new events this year, including the Shake Beach Bash Adult Volleyball Tournament and the Gulf Coast Region USA Volleyball Boys Beach Combines.”

The region offers 32 miles of natural beachfront, which Russ says makes the sport “plug and play” and an ideal way to combine competition with a vacation. 

Warren County, New York

Volleyball, both outdoor and indoor, is one of the sports that officials at Warren County Tourism/Visit Lake George Area feel most optimistic about heading into 2022. 

“This area has a strong volleyball following, is home to several local championship high school teams and hosts one of the largest beach amateur volleyball tournaments in the Northeast, drawing well over 800 players each summer,” says Kristen Hanifin, the organization’s tourism development and events coordinator. 

She’s referring to the annual Million Dollar Beach Volleyball Tournament, which takes place in August at the south end of Lake George and benefits the Prospect Center, a regional nonprofit that works with individuals with disabilities and their families. The Lake George venue can accommodate up to 16 courts and parking for more than 300 vehicles, along with restrooms, showers, concessions and seating. 

Warren County also offers several indoor volleyball options, including the Cool Insuring Arena, Adirondack Sports Complex, SUNY Adirondack College and Chase Sports Complex. The region has hosted the Iroquois-Empire Volleyball Association’s junior championships for boys and girls, as well as the annual New York State Public High School Athletic Association’s Girls’ Championships.

“While we faced many challenges with our indoor facilities being closed due to COVID-19 earlier this year, [they] have reopened and have committed to delivering the highest standards of care and sanitizing to ensure the health and safety of all visitors and athletes,” Hanifin says. 

The Wildwoods, New Jersey 

The Wildwoods Convention Center offers indoor and outdoor volleyball. In addition to the 75,000-square-foot facility with 30-foot ceilings (which can accommodate up to 12 volleyball courts), there’s plenty of tournament space on the world-famous Wildwoods beach right outside the convention center’s doors. 

Positioned between two amusement park piers, the beach volleyball setting is on what Ben Rose, director of marketing and public relations for the Greater Wildwoods Tourism Authority, calls the largest beach on the East Coast. That leaves plenty of flexibility when it comes to the number of courts required. 

“The only beach volleyball tournament we hosted this season was the PigDog Beach Volleyball Classic in June, which was a huge success,” Rose says, referring to the Great American Volleyball event, which was new to The Wildwoods this year. “Our large flat beaches are the perfect venue for beach volleyball, and we are looking to host more tournaments in the future.”

Oshkosh, Wisconsin

Oshkosh, Wisconsin, is home to one of the most famous outdoor volleyball events in the country. The Waupaca Boatride/US Open Grass Volleyball Tournament is an annual men’s and women’s triples event that takes place on grass every July at Brighton Acres in Oshkosh and is dubbed “the world’s largest outdoor volleyball tournament.” It moved from the Wisconsin Dells to Oshkosh in 2010 and attracted a record number of participants in 2021.

“What we found as we navigated the past one-and-a-half years through COVID-19 is that outdoor events were able to thrive,” says Jodi Jensema, sports, sales and service manager for the Oshkosh Convention & Visitors Bureau. “The organizers of the Waupaca Boatride Tournament worked diligently to produce an event that was memorable and somewhat normal.” 

Oshkosh also is home to two indoor volleyball venues. The Kolf Sports Center on the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh campus has hosted the NCAA Division III Women’s Volleyball Tournament and the Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference’s women’s volleyball championship, and the Menominee Nation Arena also can host volleyball events. 

Lancaster, Pennsylvania

For indoor volleyball tournaments, Lancaster, Pennsylvania boasts the largest indoor sports complex in the United States, according to Chris Ackerman, director of sales for Discover Lancaster. Spooky Nook Sports is a privately operated 700,000-square-foot multi-purpose facility that accommodates 10 hardwood volleyball courts and enough modular court space to fit an additional 36 volleyball courts. The complex is housed in a former flooring materials warehouse. 

Among the larger annual events Spooky Nook hosts are January’s MLK Kickoff Classic, which utilizes all courts plus those at other facilities in the area, and March’s Irish Rumble, which also was the first tournament the facility hosted when it opened in 2013. 

“Events weren’t necessarily canceled this year,” Ackerman says, referencing the pandemic. “But more health and safety protocols were put into place. Besides required social distancing, some events put more time in between games to lessen crowding as attendees came and went.” 

Spooky Nook also offers onsite lodging (The Warehouse Hotel) and in-house athletic training services. 

Gainesville, Florida 

A new 120,000-square-foot multi-purpose sports facility in Gainesville, Florida is expected to open in 2023. According to local news reports, the $30 million complex will house not only 26 volleyball courts but 13 basketball courts, a track suitable for hosting NCAA events, 5,000 square feet of spring floor for cheer and gymnastics events, athletic trainer and sports medicine areas, sports tourism offices and more.

“These will be the most courts that will be available in Alachua County,” says Joleen Cacciatore, executive director of the Gainesville Sports Commission. “We have used other smaller venues, but this opens [us] up [to host] larger state, regional and national tournaments.”

Ground was scheduled to break on the Alachua County Sports Complex at Celebration Pointe in September, with the first events planned for January 2023. It will be part of Gainesville’s Celebration Pointe — a new neighborhood development with residential, lodging, retail and dining spaces. 

Additionally, Cacciatore says, one-court showcase events such as Junior Olympics, University of Florida women’s volleyball matches and NCAA regionals are held at the Stephen C. O’Connell Center on the University of Florida campus. A smaller venue, the Legacy Multipurpose Center in Alachua, is used for high school volleyball tournaments. 

Ocean City, Maryland 

Ocean City, Maryland is no stranger to volleyball, with the Ocean City Convention Center, two local recreation department gymnasiums and the beach all hosting regional and national events over the years. And another indoor volleyball venue could be on the way.

“Ocean City is primed to establish itself as the east coast’s best sports and event destination,” says Tom Perlozza, director of tourism and business development for the Ocean City Convention & Visitors Bureau. “The City Council has indicated it plans to expand this effort with a new sports complex. The opportunity exists for a potential partnership with Worcester County. The county would develop the outdoor portion and the town would develop an indoor facility.”

The project was in the discussion phase prior to the pandemic but then paused, he adds. For now, Ocean City expects to host at least four volleyball events in 2022 produced by We Build | You Play, a grassroots sports program on the East Coast. Other events, including some sanctioned by AAU, are pending, according to Perlozza. 

“We are actively pursuing indoor and outdoor beach events,” he says. “Future beach events will be national and/or international events. No dates or commitments have been established, but discussions are occurring.” 

Orlando, Florida 

Some of the biggest volleyball stories of the year — beyond the Summer Olympics — have taken place in Orlando, Florida, where the Orange County Convention Center offers more than two million square feet of exhibit space, much of which can be converted to volleyball courts.

In June, the venue hosted the AUU Junior National Volleyball Championships, which attracted more than 135,000 attendees over two weeks — breaking previous attendance records for the event and generating an estimated economic impact of more than $173 million. It was the largest event ever held at the 38-year-old facility. 

Then, in September, USA Volleyball announced that the OCCC will host the Sunshine Classic Girls Qualifier, one of 12 qualifiers that feed into the USA Volleyball Girls Junior National Championship, from 2022 through 2025. In 2021, more than 1,100 teams competed in the Sunshine Classic, with USA Volleyball awarding 36 bids to the national championship. 

The AAU tournament has been coming to Orlando for years, says Nadia Vanderhoof, marketing and communications manager for the convention center. “This year, the massive 12-day volleyball event implemented a series of modified health protocols to ensure the safety of all attendees,” she says. “Face masks were encouraged to be worn; no handshakes or gift exchanges were done between teams; spectators, coaches and athletes were encouraged to socially distance; courts were spaced apart to increase walkways and the event spread across both OCCC buildings, the North-South Building and the West Building.”

It’s no surprise that volleyball serves up a “tremendous” economic impact in Orlando. One event that has been held at the convention center since 2005 is the ASICS Florida Volleyball Challenge, which typically brings in between 16,600 and 23,000 attendees with an average economic impact pushing $30 million. The 2021 event raised the bar, with an estimated record 25,000 attendees and a projected economic impact of $32 million. 

“Everyone is so glad to be back on the courts and doing everything to keep each other safe,” Vanderhoof says. “People understand that to play safely, there’s a new set of health and safety policies we all have to follow.” SDM


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