Tucson, a city of about 530,000 residents in Southern Arizona and located in the heart of the Sonoran Desert, was expected to host 50 sporting events during the 2018-19 fiscal year. Collectively, those events would bring more than 24,000 participants and spectators to the area, contributing to an economic impact of $15 million.
Not bad for a city that in years past was best known as a destination for conventions and meetings.
“Tucson’s sports story began when our traditional meetings business waned as a result of the recession,” says Luchie Javelosa, sports sales manager for Visit Tucson Sports. “We realized that sports groups would be able to help hotels — not just resorts — especially hotels with limited service and those in the mid-town area. We wanted to look at ways to bring in more business outside of the traditional meetings and conventions that had sustained Tucson tourism for years. People are always going to play sports, and this was a market to capitalize on.”
Indeed, if any industry proved to be recession-proof, it was sports tourism.
Visit Tucson Sports leveraged the opportunities that presented themselves during and after the recession to apply expertise in welcoming meetings and conventions to the sports tourism market. As noted above, the results speak for themselves.
Tucson established its own sports tourism office in the mid-2000s to promote not only the city but also Pima County, the surrounding Oro Valley and all of Southern Arizona.
Back then, Tucson already had a built-in sports infrastructure in the form of the Kino Sports Complex. The multi-purpose facility, built in 1998, included a stadium that previously served as the Spring Training home of the Arizona Diamondbacks and Chicago White Sox. Despite the initial disappointment from local residents when those teams departed, the venue now hosts more baseball than ever.
In fact, today the 162-acre facility accommodates numerous baseball, soccer, football and rugby events on fields that event planners who’ve held tournaments there have described as “immaculately maintained.” The facility’s calendar includes such annual events as the Fort Lowell Soccer Shootout (with more than 300 teams), international baseball spring training for teams from South Korea and Mexico, Major League Soccer preseason training, the Tucson Invitational Games baseball tournament and the Vamos a Tucson Mexican Beisbol Fiesta — a tournament featuring teams from the United States and Mexico.
Other special events have included the 2019 USA Rugby 7s National Championships featuring 63 teams from around the country, Women’s Premier League Rugby Championship, the 2016 and 2017 USA Rugby Men’s and Women’s Club Quarterfinals and Semifinals, and the 2016 and 2017 PAC Rugby 7s Championships.
“Baseball was the bread and butter for Kino, so when Spring Training left [in the late 2000s], Pima County needed to figure out how to generate new revenue,” Javelosa says. “They are very creative, in the sense that there’s never a limit to the type of events they host.”
The Kino Sports Complex also is slated for expansion, with the $26 million addition of 12 new multi-purpose fields and 20 pickleball courts expected to be ready for action in early 2020, thus bringing new hosting opportunities to Tucson and providing new destinations for event planners.
While the Kino Sports Complex is where Tucson hosts several high-profile events, it is far from the city’s only sports destination.
Field sports remain the most popular attractions, as evidenced by Tucson’s additional complexes, which include Lincoln Softball Park, host of the Tucson Invitational Games spring training trip featuring more than 60 teams from mostly northern, midwestern and eastern NCAA Division II and II, NAIA and junior college institutions. There’s also Hi Corbett Field, home of the University of Arizona baseball team, and the Reid Park Annex Fields, where additional baseball teams from South Korea participate in spring training.
Other Tucson sports venues include the following:
• Tucson Convention Center, home of the American Hockey League’s Tucson Roadrunners and the Indoor Football League’s Tucson Sugar Skulls. The facility also co-hosts the annual Cactus Classic Volleyball Invitational, which brings approximately 165 teams to the Tucson area every Martin Luther King Jr. Day weekend.
• Sporting Chance Center, a 40,000-square-foot indoor space featuring floating wood floors that co-hosts the Cactus Classic Volleyball Tournament with the Tucson Convention Center. The facility also can accommodate badminton and basketball and has been the site of the Western Middle School Basketball Association’s Arizona State Basketball Championship for the past three years. In July, the center welcomed the second annual American Pole League Championships for Pole Sport, Para Pole, Aerial Hoop and Artistic Pole.
• Oro Valley Aquatic Center, which boasts an Olympic-size pool with 18 short-course lanes and eight long-course lanes, two one-meter and two three-meter diving boards, a 30-person classroom and a shaded area that holds up to 50 people. The venue has hosted the 2018 U.S. Paralympics National Para Swimming Championships and the 2018 USA Synchro Collegiate Championships, as well as the 2016 USA Synchro Masters Championships and the 2014 and 2017 USA Synchro National Championships.
• El Conquistador Golf & Tennis and the Reffkin Tennis Center, which both host United States Tennis Association tournaments year-round.
• Omni Tucson National Resort, long-time host of the Cologuard Classic, a PGA TOUR Champions event for golfers over age 50.
Additionally, Tucson will celebrate 20 years of mountain bike single-track riding in the Sonoran Desert next February with 24 Hours in the Old Pueblo — among the world’s largest 24-hour endurance events.
For the past five years, Tucson also has hosted the NOVA® Home Loans Arizona Bowl at the University of Arizona’s Arizona Stadium. The postseason college football game pits teams from the Mountain West and Sun Belt conferences, and the event has turned into a day-long festival with a tailgate party and post-game concert.
“We continue to build the Arizona Bowl,” Javelosa says. “It provides a great opportunity to bring more attention to what we can do.”
The sun shines in Tucson an average of more 330 days per year, and it rarely rains. Temperatures often remain in the 70s even during December and January, when much of the rest of the country is snow-covered or in a deep freeze.
What’s more, Tucson’s location between five mountain ranges lends the city a picturesque backdrop from every angle. And when you also consider that it is bordered by two national parks — Saguaro National Park East and Saguaro National Park West, home of the largest cacti in the country — it’s nearly impossible to deny the destination’s broad appeal.
Tucson also offers plenty to do when visitors are not competing or spectating. As the first in the United States to be named a “UNESCO City of Gastronomy,” Tucson boasts a proud culinary heritage rich in Mexican and Native American traditions and with an emphasis on local ingredients. No wonder so many visitors tour the city’s famous “Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food.”
Top family-oriented attractions in the area include the Arizona-Sonora Desert Museum, the Pima Air & Space Museum, Arizona Zipline Adventures, the Tucson Botanical Gardens, the Old Tucson Wild West attraction, San Xavier Mission and Biosphere 2 owned by the University of Arizona — hailed by Time-Life Books as one of the “50 Must-See Wonders of the World.”
There’s also the recently redeveloped downtown entertainment district, which boasts award-winning restaurants and a vibrant night life.
Tucson and the surrounding communities offer a combined 15,570 hotel rooms, including 1,425 rooms in the downtown area. Additionally, given the city’s burgeoning sports tourism industry, 151 more rooms are expected to open in November, with another 164 coming online next year. And 375 new Hilton-branded rooms are slated to be ready by late 2020 or early 2021.
“The biggest misperception people have about Tucson is that it is a dry desert area with nothing to do,” Javelosa says. “But Tucson is an absolute natural for hosting sports. With top-notch facilities, we can host a plethora of outdoor and indoor sports. Peak season here never really stops.” SDM