Popularity Waves | Sports Destination Management

Popularity Waves

Sep 25, 2017 | By: Michael Popke
Plenty of Venues in the U.S. Can Host Just About Any Splash-Worthy Sporting Event You Can Imagine

Photo courtesy of Butler County Visitors Bureau
Scientists say water covers 71 percent of the earth’s surface. No surprise, then, that so many destinations have built tourism and sports industries in, on and around the natural bodies of water that grace their locales.

Events as diverse as fishing and cliff diving have made a splash in places like Redding, California, and an unincorporated community in Texas called Possum Kingdom. Oklahoma City replicates natural whitewater in a man-made facility, while a pair of cities in northern Illinois use major rivers to host memorable, one-of-a-kind boat races. 

Whatever type of water your organization seeks, you’re likely to find it at one of the following featured destinations. So, hop aboard as Sports Destination Management gives you a sport-by-sport tour from coast to coast.

Fortunately, the late-1970s term “skurfing” evolved into the much more user-friendly “wakeboarding,” and today the sport is a popular event at the annual Summer X Games.  Wake Nation Cincinnati, a wakeboard school that’s open to the public and now under new ownership, boasts a 10-acre lake and a full-size cable system with six towers that allow wakeboarders to shred some water without a boat.

“The new ownership also runs Mile High Wakeboarding in Denver and has lots of experience in the wakeboarding world,” says Tracy Kocher, director of marketing for the Butler County Visitors Bureau in Ohio. “I would imagine that bringing events to Wake Nation would be top-of-mind moving forward. We’re very fortunate to have it as part of our county. There’s nothing else of its nature in this part of the Midwest.”

Butler County further established its wakeboarding prowess in August, when the Supra Boats Pro Wakeboard Tour wrapped its 25th anniversary season in West Chester, at Voice of America MetroPark. This was the first time the industry’s largest and longest-running competition circuit visited Voice of America, located within a half-day’s drive of 60 percent of the U.S. population, according to Butler County officials.

Voice of America, with a history dating back to World War II when the site was used to transmit U.S. radio programming to troops abroad, also has hosted the International Waterski & Wakeboard Federation’s Disabled Water Ski World Championships.

Photo courtesy of Butler County Visitors Bureau
Waterskiing and Watercross
The faster people can move on the water — and get wet doing it — the better, which explains the popularity of both waterskiing and watercross.

In July, Atlantic City, New Jersey, ats 2017 Pro Watercross Tour, with 134 athletes competing and an estimated 3,000 spectators lining the boardwalk, shoreline and piers. “We have the oldest and most iconic boardwalk in the country,” says Daniel Gallagher, national sales manager for Meet AC, which oversees the two-year-old Atlantic City Sports Commission. “The Pro Watercross Tour is a great fit for us.”
Atlantic City offers free beaches and three hotels with more than 2,000 rooms each, and two of these hotels are within walking distance of the boardwalk.

Waterskiing is a big deal in the Midwest, and one of the sport’s strongest cities is Rockford, Illinois, home of the Ski Broncs Water Ski Show Team. The city and the team hosted the 2017 Indmar Marine Engines Division I National Show Ski Championships at Shorewood Park on the Rock River in August. (Rockford also hosted the Central Region Championships in July, and will host Division 2 Nationals in 2018.)

Of the 14 teams that competed in the three-day event, 12 of them stayed in area hotels, according to Nick Povaltis, sports destination and sales manager for the Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau. Temporary viewing areas housed officials, and an estimated 2,000 spectators took advantage of a permanent grandstand.

Photo courtesy of Rockford Area Convention & Visitors Bureau
One-of-a-Kind Boat Races
Rockford also resurrected the long-dormant Rock River Anything That Floats Race in 2016. True to its name, the 1.6-mile race features any homemade vessel that floats — including a bathroom-themed raft and raft featuring the leg lamp from the movie, “A Christmas Story.”

After an 18-year hiatus, city officials revived the RRATFR last year, attracting an estimated 20,000 participants, spectators, volunteers and coordinators. The all-day event raised $9,000 for local charities, and officials now plan to market the race outside the Rockford area.

“It’s like a tailgating party before the race begins,” says Andrea Mandala, marketing and communications manager for the Rockford Area CVB. “It is a community-minded event, as well as a nostalgic event with a history going back to 1976. But now we’d like to focus on building it.”

Travel a little further south into Illinois and you’ll reach Lake Arlington, about an hour north of downtown Chicago. The lake is the site of the annual Chicago International Dragon Boat Festival, which blends ancient culture with sport and competition every July. According to Dave Parulo, president of Meet Chicago Northwest, this year’s event, the sixth, attracted 30 teams that race boats supplied by organizer GWN Dragon Boat, North America’s largest full-service dragon boat event production company.

Consistently drawing 1,500 spectators annually, the festival supports Adaptive Adventures, a charity dedicated to improving quality of life for individuals with disabilities via year-round adaptive sports and recreation programs. 

The culture and spirit of dragon boat racing dates back 2,500 years to ancient China, and large teams of boat crews keep the tradition alive. Additionally, an Asian Cultural Village features multi-cultural performances, musical acts, workshops and demonstrations, and proceeds benefit Adaptive Adventures, which serves wounded and injured veterans by providing outdoor sports opportunities, including, of course, dragon boat racing.

Whitewater Rafting
The RIVERSPORTS Rapids whitewater rafting and kayaking center, part of the Oklahoma City Boathouse District, opened in 2016 — just in time for the USA Canoe/Kayak Olympic Trials for whitewater slalom and the USRowing Central District Youth Championships.

This year, the United States Rafting Association held its 2017 National Championships and 2018 World Qualifier at RIVERSPORTS Rapids. That was the first time the event took place on a man-made course, according to Sue Hollenbeck, director of sports business for the Oklahoma City Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“Most rafters are going to make the assumption that natural is better than man-made,” Hollenbeck says. “And I think that was true until our course opened.” Additionally, a man-made course allows race officials to control water speeds and the number of pumps servicing the course.

Designed for whitewater rafting and kayaking at all levels (and located “literally” two minutes from downtown Oklahoma City, Hollenbeck says), RIVERSPORT Rapids is at the crossroads of the United States at the intersection of Interstates 35 and 40 on the Oklahoma River. Although used primarily for recreational kayaking, rafting and tubing, the center can hold at least 25,000 spectators and will host more competitions.

Whitewater rafting has been added as a new component to the annual Oklahoma Regatta Festival this October, Hollenbeck says. The majority of activities, including the USA Rowing World Challenge, will happen on the Oklahoma River and attract participants from all over the United States. But the rafting component will provide an opportunity “to introduce this really cool sport to more people,” she adds. “It’s about continually educating people.”

Photo courtesy of Possum Kingdom Chamber of Commerce
Red Bull Events
Red Bull has moved far beyond the energy drink market and created its own circuit of thrill-seeking sporting events. Among the most popular (and exotic) is the Red Bull Cliff Diving World Series, which began in 2009.

“Free-falling from up to 27 meters combined with awe-inducing acrobatics — that’s the essence of cliff diving,” reads a blurb on Red Bull’s cliff diving website.

And one of the tour’s most popular destinations over the past four years is Hell’s Gate, defined by two giant cliffs that stand as gates to a cove on the south end of Possum Kingdom Lake, which is nestled in the foothills of the Palo Pinto mountains, less than 90 miles west of Fort Worth. The remote location is only accessible via boat, the water is 120 feet deep and the unincorporated community doesn’t have a single traffic light.

“We are off the beaten path,” admits Gayla Chambers, the longtime executive director of the Possum Kingdom Chamber of Commerce, who retired at the end of August. “There’s one two-lane highway in and out of the peninsula. We have a couple of hardware stores and a lot of churches.”

Another Red Bull-sponsored event, the Surf + Rescue lifeguard competition, pits 50 beach patrol teams against each other in four elimination rounds at the Atlantic City Boardwalk to win the title of Champion Patrol of the Mid-Atlantic Region. With the Atlantic Ocean as the backdrop, Gallagher says this is the largest lifeguard competition in the country.

There’s no shortage of decent fishing spots in California, but Redding, located in the northern part of the state and dissected by the Sacramento River, is known as one of the best fisheries in the United States. It’s also the second-sunniest city in the country, with 300 days of sunshine annually.

The trout waters of the Lower and Upper Sacramento River make Redding the only West Coast city on Forbes.com’s list of “North America’s Top 10 Trout Fishing Towns.” The city also is surrounded by other bodies of water that offer even more locations to cast. Reports of catching up to 40 fish in one day are common.

That’s no doubt why more than 200 anglers from 11 western states were on Shasta Lake in April for the Bassmaster Academy Sports + Outdoors B.A.S.S. Nation Western Regional Tournament. It was the first time the lake hosted this particular event.

Sabrina Charlson, sports commissioner for the Redding Convention and Visitors Bureau, hopes to bring rowing, standup paddleboarding and other water sports events to Shasta Lake and nearby Whiskeytown Lake, too. “We’re not at capacity yet,” she says. “There’s always room for other tournaments.”

Photo courtesy of Experience Columbia SC Sports
Rowing Sports
Rockford gets another nod here. The Rock River is a 300-mile tributary of the Mississippi River and a huge presence in the Illinois-Wisconsin border city. And the Head of the Rock Regatta, hosted by the Rock River Valley YMCA, recognizes that significance.

The 3.2-mile race, sanctioned by USRowing and held every October, brings in more than 2,000 rowers from across the country and more than 5,000 spectators. It began in 1985 as a race between the University of Wisconsin and Northwestern University rowing teams and is now the highlight of a festival weekend. “We’d love to host a USRowing national event,” Povaltis says.

In Columbia, South Carolina, three rivers flow through the city, helping it earn status among the top 10 paddlesports destinations in the country. One of those rivers, the 150-mile Broad River that runs north and south, has become renowned for its unobstructed surface, wooded protection from winds and year-round availability.

The Richland County Rowing Center has helped Columbia tourism officials recruit collegiate rowing teams from the Northeast and Midwest for spring break training sessions, and they stay an average of seven nights. “That’s a lot longer than for any other sporting event,” says Scott Powers, executive director of Experience Columbia SC Sports (formerly known as the Columbia Regional Sports Council).

Several years ago, Columbia hosted the International Canoe Federation’s Junior Wildwater Championships, the first time the association brought that event to North America, and Powers would like to bid on it again. He thinks the metropolitan location of the rivers combined with the city’s scenic beauty will pay dividends for rowing-event organizers.

“What we have is not going to rival the Colorado River,” Powers admits. “But you’ll think you’re in the middle of nowhere when you’re actually right downtown.”   SDM

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