We all know that physical activity can increase overall well-being, and active communities are both happy places and great places to host sports events. But when you take sports and add water, that effect is multiplied and has long-lasting positive impacts. Perhaps that’s why water sports are constantly growing and diversifying, with both recreational and competitive athletes finding new ways to enjoy their waterfronts all across the country.
Blue Minds in Blue Communities
Bestselling author and psychologist Dr. Wallace J. Nichols coined a new scientific term, “Blue Mind,” which draws a connection between increased access to water and enhanced well-being, both in individuals and communities as a whole. That’s the science behind what Wade Blackwood, executive director the American Canoe Association (ACA) and CEO of USA Canoe/Kayak, the national governing body for paddlesports, has learned during his many years helping communities increase their access to waterways.
“When people have more access to their local waterways, we’ve noticed that they are also more likely to take care of them,” says Blackwood. “But what waterways also do is boost the economy. More access means people coming to use that access, buying locally to prepare for their events and trips.”
The benefits of increasing and promoting water access in a community extend beyond just visitors, too.
“There is a direct link between the monetary value of providing water access and making a community feel better about living there,” says Blackwood. “When [communities] put together events to celebrate their rivers, people come out. People need to be reminded that they live in a great place with great resources.”
Another key strategy for enhancing a community’s support for water sports, as well as draw the economic benefits associated with being a “Blue Community,” is to take a look at the many ways other communities are celebrating and leveraging their local water venues.
Water sports vary so greatly that it can be difficult to define them, but in general, they can be divided into two categories: motor-powered and human-powered. This is an important distinction since some waterways allow the use of motor-powered vehicles and others do not.
For communities that have waterways open to power sports, a range of thrilling and profitable motor-powered water sports events are taking center stage. While many of these sports are experiencing an explosion of popularity, some of them, such as personal watercraft racing, have been thrilling audiences and building fan bases for years.
“We’ve been around for the last 30 years,” says Scott Frazier, managing director, International Jet Sports Boating Association (IJSBA), the international governing body for personal watercraft competitive racing. “We’re one of those hidden secrets, and once people have one of our events, they want us to come back.”
Currently, IJSBA sanctions 43 national championships worldwide, and the organization’s world finals take place in the location that has hosted them for more than three decades: Arizona’s Lake Havasu.
Lewisville, Texas, home of the largest lake in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, is getting in on the personal watercraft wave of popularity, welcoming the Pro Watercross Tour to North Texas for the first time in 2016. The event, called “The Liberty Cup,” will be held at Lewisville Lake Park and includes an opening-day Corporate Challenge followed by two days of professional racing. The event is operated by UWP, a professional and amateur watercross organization that formed an official Pro Watercross membership in 2015 to help develop, shape and promote the sport as its popularity continues to soar.
Why do these events create such a dedicated following among fans, competitors and host destinations?
“When one of our events comes to town, you get a nice group of people who get together to do something they love, and they take over the town and spend money,” says Frazier. “We get inquiries from places with waterfront areas that are looking to remind people that they have a special place to visit and who want to bring multiple generations back to visit year after year.”
Jet ski events are gaining such popularity, both for competitors and fans, that new events are emerging in new locations all the time. In June 2015, St. George, Utah, also welcomed one of the national stops for the Pro Watercross Tour. The event took place over one weekend at St. George’s Sand Hollow Reservoir, a 1000-plus acre warm water reservoir surrounded by Utah’s famous red rock formations, as well as event-friendly amenities in Sand Hollow State Park.
“Jet ski watercross tournaments are growing everywhere. They’re already very popular in places like Florida, Arizona and California, and we’re excited to be a new stop on their tour,” says Joe Newman, marketing specialist and communications, St. George Convention & Tourism Office. “We got a pretty good showing from the local community, and we were able to deliver a number of corporate sponsorships, which helped build awareness of the event.”
One of St. George’s key strategies for building awareness was to partner with local corporations to include in the weekend of events a corporate challenge, a time trial event for local businesses, allowing them to test their own personal watercraft skills.
“One of the surprising things we learned is that jet ski racing is a multigenerational event,” says Newman. “Many of the riders were in their 30s to 50s, with their kids, a new generation, competing in the youth events.”
As an adventure-oriented destination, St. George already has deep water sports experience, with events like stand-up paddleboarding (SUP), cable wake boarding, fishing and one of water sports’ fastest-growing sports, wake surfing.
Another event generating increasing attention and economic impact for destinations nationwide is power boat racing. Both offshore and inland power boat races have been creating big buzz in the sports world, despite some of the myths that can sometimes hinder new participants. Among those myths is that power boat racing has an unattainably high cost of entry.
“It actually depends on what you want to race,” says Mark Wheeler, president, American Power Boat Association (APBA). “We have classes that cost only about $5,000 to get started in all the way up to $100,000.”
The APBA’s typical competitor races as a hobby, and Wheeler notes that while their members are spread throughout the country, their numbers are strongest in the Midwest and Washington State. Water access is one of the biggest characteristics of their most active regions, as well as economies like Illinois that have been longtime homes of the outboard factories that create the vessels used in the sport.
Since 2000, Knoxville, Tennessee, has been one of the destinations to embrace the excitement of power boat racing, bringing the Power Boat Superleague, the nation’s oldest league for Formula Two and Three Boats, to the city’s downtown for a thrilling spectacle. The event is such a crowd pleaser that, this year, it’s being added to another of the city’s favorite events, Boomsday Festival, a weekend packed with events that takes place at Volunteer Landing on the Tennessee River, the host venue for the Knoxville Powerboat Classic.
“Power boat racing is something we’re seeing a lot of growth in that maybe some other areas haven’t seen yet,” says Steve Winfree, director of sports sales and services, Visit Knoxville. “Being able to offer a race like this in a downtown venue is really exciting and unique.”
Downtown Knoxville has transformed itself in recent years, taking advantage of its unusual combination of downtown and natural areas and promoting what is dubbed the “urban wilderness.” The Knoxville Adventure Center, located along the downtown shores of the Tennessee River, is central to helping visitors and citizens get on the water.
“The Knoxville Adventure Center hosts SUP training, facilitates the rentals of kayaks and canoes, and has been instrumental in helping build interest in water events in the city,” says Winfree. “SUP has been increasing in popularity for a while now and definitely continues to grow.”
Human-Powered Water Sports
Actually an ancient sport, SUP, or stand-up paddleboarding, has been gaining an almost fanatical following since a surfer brought one of the extra-wide and –long paddleboards back from Hawaii in the early 2000s, kicking off a new craze in water sports. One of several paddlesports governed by USA Canoe/Kayak, SUP isn’t an Olympic sport … yet. But another Olympic year gets closer, it’s a subject likely to get attention.
“Paddlesports in general are actually a great opportunity for athletes,” says Blackwood. “There are 22 medal events that we represent, which is a lot when you consider that soccer, a hugely popular sport, only offers one opportunity to medal for women and one for men.”
Blackwood and team hope that opportunity will inspire a whole new generation of Olympic viewers and potential athletes, but they are equally dedicated to ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to enjoy their waterways and take ownership of their waterways’ ongoing viability.
Clemson, South Carolina, is doing its part to help out, providing numerous opportunities to paddle and watch paddlesports in action.
“Probably the biggest [sport] that’s growing in popularity is SUP,” says Kade Herrick, tourism director, Clemson Chamber of Commerce “But as far as a team sport, rowing is really growing here. We just brought in 25 college teams for a spring break training camp on Lake Hartwell, and that was a big success.”
Fishing is, of course, another wildly popular water sport in this area, which hosted the Bassmaster Classic in 2015. Known for its top-notch fishing, the Clemson area is home to a huge number of weekend tournaments and the Collegiate Bass Fishing Championship.
Sailing is one of the most classic of non-motorized water sports, and Rhode Island is a state with a long and storied history as a sailing destination. The state was a natural go-to for a unique corporate event, the Volvo Ocean Race, a 10-day event that serves as both a marketing event and competition opportunity for the company’s biggest customers.
“We just finished hosting the Intercollegiate Sailing Championships as well,” says John Gibbons, executive director, Rhode Island Sports Commissions.
We had 80 sailing racing teams here in Newport and a series of men’s, women’s and team events.”
Sail Newport, the state’s public sailing center, serves as local experts and organizers for many of the state’s sailing events and also provides award-winning sailing instruction that is developing the state’s next generation of sailors.
Man-made water venues
Even some of America’s areas richest in water resources are taking advantage of a whole other form of water sports venues, the natatorium.
“In our area, swimming, water polo and synchronized swimming are all very popular,” says Nicole Warner, marketing and communications specialist, Discover Prince William & Manassas, Virginia, Convention and Visitors Bureau “Our Central Park Swimming Center & Freedom and Aquatic Center have hosted competitions for all three of these sports. The other pool facilities in our region are also consistently busy with events as well.”
Puerto Rico certainly has ample water and water sports opportunities, with surfing ruling the island’s west coast, kayaking throughout its many rivers and streams and paddleboarding on every available waterway. But this sports-minded island is also home to a world-class natatorium, site of the 2007 Pan American Masters Swimming Championships among other high-profile events.
“Because we’re located just off the Puerto Rico Trench, we have a unique kind of water with extraordinary characteristics,” says Oscar Santiago, national sales manager, Meet Puerto Rico. “International kayak fishing and spear fishing are particularly unique sports that we’re lucky to be able to offer.”