Big Ten university cities boast plenty of sports venues, high-profile events and friendly people.
Champaign County, home of the University of Illinois, is no exception, hosting a variety of national, regional and state competitions. Among the highlights: Game Day USA baseball tournaments, the U.S. Junior Nationals Mid-America Challenge for girls’ basketball teams, the International Professional Rodeo Association’s Central Region Rodeo Finals, the Chiefs Classic youth hockey tournament and the United States Bowling Congress Illinois Women’s Bowling Association State Tournament.
Additionally, more than 40 Olympians hail from Champaign County, which is located in the central part of the state about 130 miles south of Chicago. The Tribute to Olympic and Paralympic Athletes, an angled monument that stands at the head of a granite platform with each Olympian’s name and featuring the iconic linked rings of the Olympic Games, serves as a centerpiece of Champaign’s Dodds Park, a 110-acre multi-purpose facility.
“We use the Olympic Tribute space a lot for ceremonies, as it reminds people of our sports legacy,” says Terri Reifsteck, vice president of marketing for Visit Champaign County.
The monument’s emphasis on both Olympians and Paralympians is noteworthy, as Champaign seeks to become a national leader in adaptive sports. The University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign is home to Disability Resources and Educational Services (DRES), the oldest post-secondary disability support program in the world that has helped thousands of students with disabilities earn college degrees.
“Illinois has a great wheelchair basketball team, and not a lot of people know that,” says Ryan Reid, assistant director of sales for Visit Champaign County. “My goal, since we have such a great resource center and learning facility in DRES, is to bring in more adaptive sports events for youths, such as wheelchair basketball. The idea is to not only get local kids to go to school here someday but also to bring in adaptive sports teams from all over the country.”
Champaign is off to a good start when it comes to tailoring opportunities for diverse sports groups. In 2014, the United States Olympic Committee designated the university as a U.S. Paralympics training site, using DRES venues, staff and resources. The training facility spans 2,100 square feet and boasts such specialized equipment as roller stations, weights and Nordic ski ergs.
Tatyana McFadden, one of the world’s most renowned para-athletes and winner of 16 medals at the past four Paralympic Games (including four in Rio in 2016), is an Illini grad and frequent user of the facility.
“That’s really done a lot for the university,” Reifsteck says of the USOC designation. “The community, as a whole, is very familiar with what’s happening here, and it’s definitely a selling point for other organizations.”
But not all sports planners know about Champaign’s efforts in this area. “Surprisingly enough, even when I meet with people who are involved in the adaptive sports world, they are not fully aware of all that Champaign and the University of Illinois have to offer,” Reid says. “When I tell them, they think it’s great, because there are plenty of places that don’t have what we have.”
Throughout Champaign County, the number of fully accessible sidewalks, public restrooms and hotel showers probably outnumbers those in many other communities, he adds.
Traditional and Nontraditional Sports
The Champaign-Urbana area boasts a population of approximately 120,000 and is one of only two Illinois cities gaining in population, according to Reifsteck and Reid. (The other one? Chicago.) As such, the community has bolstered its athletic and recreation options to match increased interest.
The highlight is Dodds Park, which boasts seven lighted softball fields in two complexes (one complex also offers concessions), as well as 11 tournament-quality outdoor soccer fields of varying sizes for youths up to adults, an 18-hole disc golf course, multiple art installations and a bike trail. Dodds Tennis Center, meanwhile, offers six indoor tennis courts.
Adjacent to Parkland College, which offers additional outdoor sports facilities and parking, Dodds Park hosts the Illinois FC Fall Cup and Spring Invite — youth soccer events that bring in 230 and 175 teams, respectively, from as far away as Colorado.
University of Illinois facilities are available for rent and include the Athletics and Recreation Center (ARC), a gigantic 340,000-square-foot space that includes a 35-foot climbing wall, two 50-meter swimming pools, 12 racquetball courts, three squash courts and four gymnasiums.
The ARC also hosts a health and fitness expo to coincide with the popular Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon, which finishes inside the university’s Memorial Stadium and attracted 18,000 participants from 48 states and 13 countries in April 2017. The 2018 edition of the race will celebrate the event’s 10-year anniversary. Reifsteck says the marathon is the biggest event of the year for Champaign County, packing a $10 million economic impact.
The community also annually hosts the multiple-day Illinois High School Association state football and wrestling championships, and in 2016 welcomed the Midwest’s first major American Cornhole Organization tournament.
More high-profile cornhole events are planned, according to Reid, who says he hopes to add competitions for boomerang and other nontraditional sports to the list of available opportunities in the Champaign-Urbana area.
“Big Ten athletics are a wonderful thing, and they bring in a lot of people,” he says. “So do high school championships. The thing about niche sports is that they don’t sell as well as high school football. But those organizations are looking for a comfortable place to compete in a city that has a lot of great things to do. And we fit that bill.”
‘Greatest Food Town’
As Champaign County’s reputation as a sports destination grows, the area is generating more hotel business. With more than 4,000 rooms already available, a new hotel is under construction with easy visibility from Interstate 57, and another one is about to break ground in downtown Champaign.
Additionally, Champaign-Urbana was named “Greatest Food Town in the Midwest” in 2017 by Midwest Living magazine and its readers. To that end, an eclectic dining scene includes everything from local beers to steaks originating from community farms. “We have one of the highest number of locally owned restaurants per capita in the Midwest,” Reifsteck says. “The University of Illinois has the second-largest international population of any public university and it shows in restaurant selection.”
Visit Champaign County also launched the Champaign County Film Office a couple years ago, in an effort to create local jobs and boost the local economy by bringing in funds to bid on high-profile sports events. Reifsteck doubles as director of the film office, and she says crews were on site to film a documentary about McFadden and a BMW
Several other university facilities help make the Champaign-Urbana area a desirable destination for athletes both before and after competition, including the Krannert Art Museum, the Krannert Center for the Performing Arts and the Spurlock Museum.
For a different type of culture, Hardy’s Reindeer Ranch in Rantoul (about a 20-minute drive from Champaign) provides visitors an up-close encounter with Alaskan reindeer. The facility hosts visitors from all over the world every fall and winter and is located on a property with rebuilt and restored 100-year-old barns surrounded by 5,000 Christmas trees.
“One of the things we pride ourselves on is the sheer number of community events we have,” Reifsteck says, adding that the Visit Champaign staff helps sports organizers create custom landing pages that include details about what is happening in the area during the time of their event. “We’re an active, vibrant community, and we want people to see the best of Champaign County.” SDM