Swimming pools are awesome and you can host a lot of sporting events in them. But with so much water out there — in rivers, lakes and oceans — you can do even more. Fishing. Hydroflighting. Watercross. Canoeing and kayaking. Open-water swimming. Stand-up paddleboard racing (also known as SUPcross). Even dragon boat racing.
“There’s a lot of competition out there now to bring in sports tourism,” says Mark Jeanneret, executive director of the Erie (Pennsylvania) Sports Commission, which has access to a coveted protective bay that is part of Lake Erie. “Everybody has a soccer complex or sports fields. We’re looking for events that can’t go to other places like that, which is why the bay is certainly one of our greatest assets.”
If you’re seeking water, Erie and seven other destinations can lead you to it. The rest, of course, is up to you as an event owner.
Presque Isle Bay, a 5.8-square-mile natural bay off Erie’s coast, protects against choppy waters from Lake Erie and makes for an ideal site to host events, according to Jeanneret.
“There’s no place else in Pennsylvania that has a protected bay,” he says, adding that the waterfront area has evolved significantly over the past 10 years, with the development of a convention center, a hotel, restaurants and tourist attractions on a peninsula that houses Presque Isle State Park. “We identified that as an area of opportunity for us and try to find events that fit.”
To that end, the bay has hosted powerboat poker runs, freestyle jet ski competitions and fishing events — including the two-day North Coast Bass Association’s fourth annual King of Bass Tournament in August. In July, Erie welcomed the 2018 Pro Watercross HydroFlight National Tour, held in conjunction with a first-time SUPcross Tour event.
Hydroflight uses the power of water to send a rider through the air at extreme speeds and soaring heights. A hose is installed into each participant’s personal watercraft, re-routing all waterpower to a jetpack strapped to the rider. The flyer uses the power of the jet stream to perform intricate stunts and maneuvers. Jeanneret says he envisions Presque Isle Bay becoming a regular stop for both the HydroFlight and SUPcross tours.
Columbia, South Carolina
The Capital City/Lake Murray Country region in the heart of South Carolina ranks among the state’s most popular destinations. Columbia is situated on three rivers (the Broad, Congaree and Saluda), and Lake Murray spans approximately 50,000 acres, with roughly 500 miles of shoreline.
“The vast size and numerous facilities around the lake offer a variety of water sports opportunities,” says Miriam Atria, president and chief executive officer of the Lake Murray Country Regional Tourism Board.
Those opportunities include October’s Dam Tri 2018 (a 1,000-meter swim, 21-mile bike ride and 7K run), multiple Forrest Wood Cup championships and other Fishing League Worldwide events, stand-up paddleboarding competitions and drag boat racing. And the Easter Sailing Regatta, a qualifier for the J/24 World Championship, will return to the lake next April.
A new sport on Lake Murray is hydro- flight, which currently is being enjoyed on a recreational level. “We would love to see this turn into a competition show on our lake,” Atria says, adding that she’s also looking to bring more water sports events to the area, including college and high school fishing championships and dragon boat races.
The 2018 International Canoe Federation’s Dragon Boat World Championships are coming to Lake Lanier – located in northern Georgia, near Gainesville — on September 12-16. The event marks the first time the competition has been held in the United States. (Previous hosts of the biennial event include Hungary, Italy, Poland and Russia.)
With ancient Chinese origins, the first dragon boat races involved Chinese villagers who competed in the belief that doing so would show worship to the dragon, a traditional symbol of water, according to the International Canoe Federation. Today, the sport is gaining popularity fast, as crews of either 10 or 20 paddle to the beat of a drum across a designated distance.
A total of 1,000 athletes are expected to compete at Worlds, according to Renee Carden, sales manager at the Lake Lanier Convention & Visitors Bureau. “The quality of competitors this event brings in is amazing,” she says. “They zoom across the water.”
Lake Lanier will be busy with dragon boats in September, as it also hosts the annual Atlanta Hong Kong Dragon Boat Festival, which generates up to 8,000 participants and spectators. The event is immersed in Asian culture and is part of a series of dragon boat races in major metropolitan areas along the East Coast, including Boston, Philadelphia, New York and Washington, D.C.
Other water sports events on the 38,000-acre Lake Lanier (which is surrounded by three counties) include hydroflighting, fishing, canoeing and kayaking. In fact, the lake hosted the rowing and sprint canoeing events at Atlanta’s 1996 Summer Olympics.
Chicago’s northwest suburbs might not be known for their bodies of water, but a large pond at the 3,700-square-foot Ned Brown Forest Reserve (more commonly known as Busse Woods), which adjoins Schaumburg and Elk Grove Village, is home to the Chicago International Dragon Boat Festival.
Teams from around the Midwest and as far north and south as Canada and Florida participate in the July races, and the competition attracts more than 4,000 spectators and a lively festival atmosphere, says Melinda Garritano, a senior account executive in Meet Chicago Northwest’s sports division. The festival also supports Adaptive Adventures, a charity dedicated to improving the quality of life for individuals with disabilities, through year-round adaptive sports and recreation programs.
Prior to this year, the Chicago International Dragon Boat Festival was held at Lake Arlington in Arlington Heights, in a park that is now undergoing renovations. Once those renovations are complete — which will allow for the potential of paddlesport competitions on the lake, according to Garritano — either venue will be able to host the festival.
“We have two venues that are able to support the event,” she says, adding that the fact dragon boats require a flat surface rules out Lake Michigan in downtown Chicago for the races. “Busse Woods also hosts high school fishing tournaments, and when renovations are complete, Lake Arlington will probably be able to host paddlesports competitions.”
Jefferson County, Tennessee
Jefferson County, in northeast Tennessee, is bordered on opposite ends by lakes: Douglas Lake in the south and Cherokee Lake in the north. Each offers advantages when it comes to sports tourism, according to Lauren Hurdle, director of tourism for the Jefferson County Chamber of Commerce.
Hosting the 2017 Bassmaster Elite at Cherokee Lake was a turning point for the county, she says, and opened up new fishing opportunities. Earlier this year, the lake welcomed the Bassmaster College Eastern Conference Regional, which attracted 532 competitors from more than 30 states and more than 100 colleges and universities. It was the second-largest collegiate tournament in Bassmaster history, according to Hurdle.
“We’ve really tried to push Cherokee Lake,” Hurdle says. “It has plenty of onsite parking and a launch that can accommodate 15 to 20 cars at one time. And we can still do more there.”
Douglas Lake, meanwhile, also hosts fishing events and will likely undergo changes to improve infrastructure and parking, according to Hurdle. Additionally, the lake houses a 64-by-58-foot floating dock that was built to bring in additional events. Right now, county officials are eyeing rowing events, and Hurdle says both Douglas and Cherokee Lakes would be “perfect” for such competitions.
Atlantic City, New Jersey
Let’s not forget that triathlons begin in the water, and Atlantic City’s IRONMAN 70.3 — slated for September 23 — is one of the historic seaside resort’s largest sporting events. The race starts at sunrise with a 1.2-mile sheltered swim in the back bays of Atlantic City. Spectators can view the entire swim course from the shore, on one of the only free beaches in New Jersey.
“This IRONMAN will produce some of the best times in the country,” says Daniel Gallagher, sports account director for the Atlantic City Sports Commission, citing the flat topography of the Atlantic City Boardwalk, which triathletes traverse for the final leg of the race. No wonder Major League Triathlon also scheduled a stop in Atlantic City in July. The swimming portion for that event took place in the Atlantic Ocean.
Additionally, Atlantic City’s Bungalow Beach is home to the Red Bull Surf + Rescue — the East Coast’s premier lifeguarding challenge, featuring 50 teams of elite ocean athletes from New Jersey, Delaware, Maryland, New York and Virginia. This year’s competition, held in July, incorporated swimming, sprinting, prone paddling and a rescue relay en route to crowning the best beach patrol on the East Coast. About 2,000 spectators attended the day-long event, Gallagher says. The competition began with only teams from New Jersey, he adds, and it keeps getting bigger.
Open water swimming has become increasingly popular in Bend, and many SCUBA divers train in lakes around the area, according to Hank Therien, director of sales and sports development for Visit Bend. Popular events include the annual Cascade Lakes Swim Series & Festival at Elk Lake, featuring five swims (500 meters, 1,000 meters, 1,500 meters, 3,000 meters and 5,000 meters) in three days.
As part of its “outdoor playground of the West” moniker, Bend also is known for its fly fishing opportunities.
“That’s the one water-based activity that’s most engrained in the fabric of Bend,” Therien says, noting that the city hosted the 2018 U.S. National Fly Fishing Championships in May. Impressively, team members for Fly Fishing Team USA for the next two years were selected from the winners of this event, and they now go on to represent the United States at the International Sport Flyfishing Federation’s World Fly Fishing Championship in Trentino, Italy, in September.
Bend was strategically chosen to host nationals because of the region’s abundance of lakes, Therien says. Trentino is home to almost 300 lakes, where much of the world championship fishing will take place.
The city also is world-renowned for its stand-up paddleboarding opportunities, including a river that runs through downtown Bend. Also downtown is Bend Whitewater Park, located in the Deschutes River. It opened in 2015 and offers a variety of river recreation opportunities that include tubing, kayaking and surfing. “I see some freestyle kayak and river surfing competitions in our future,” Therien says.
Grand Junction, Colorado
Grand Junction is named for the junction of the Colorado and Gunnison Rivers, so it makes sense that the city hosts Colorado Riverfest — which could become a launchpad for making the city a more diverse sports tourism destination. According to Colorado Riverfest’s website, the annual music festival is evolving into a river-themed, day-long celebration with concerts, competitions and recreational activities “in a manner that builds community appreciation of our rivers.”
Indeed, one dollar of every ticket sold goes to fund the festival’s Round Up for the Riverfront program, which focuses on funding riverfront projects.
“We’ve really seen outdoor recreation boom here over the last couple years, but the river had never really been a focal point until now,” says Jennifer Stoll, executive director of the Greater Grand Junction Sports Commission. “Now, we want to establish the water aspect of the city. The goal for us is to support and highlight the diversity of our community.” SDM