Nestled between the renowned Cape Fear River, the Intercoastal Waterway and the Atlantic Ocean, Wilmington, North Carolina, is a natural setting for a variety of watersports. But this city, hailed as North Carolina’s most accessible coastal destination, also offers venues and facilities geared toward youth soccer, softball, volleyball, gymnastics, cheer, rugby, baseball and flag football. Add a solid slate of triathlons, marathons and golf and bowling tournaments, and it becomes clear why Wilmington has emerged as a recreational and competitive playground for athletes of all ages and skill levels.
“Thanks to good weather year-round, three breathtaking island beaches [Carolina, Kure and Wrightsville] and a variety of available sports venues and natural conditions, Wilmington has become a sought-after destination for sports events planners, offering many things to see and do before and after the event for athletes and spectators,” says Robert Cox, director of sports development for the Wilmington and Beaches Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Wilmington offers all the perks that come with a coastal destination, along with the conveniences and amenities of a big city.”
With a population of almost 120,000 residents, Wilmington sits at or near the top of several “America’s Best Riverfront Cities” lists, and it was named one of TripAdvisor’s 2018 Travelers’ Choice “Top Destinations on the Rise.”
The area boasts such signature events as the IRONMAN 70.3 North Carolina, the Seaside Soccer Classic for youth players, the NC State Closed National Tennis Rating Program Hard Court Tennis Championship, the Cape Fear Rugby 7s Tournament, and the Wrightsville Beach Marathon (a qualifier for the Boston Marathon).
In the water and on the sand, Wilmington consistently hosts the Carolina Cup Standup Paddleboard Race, the EVP Beach Volleyball Pro/Am Tour and the Sweetwater Pro/Am Surf Fest. Wrightsville Beach showcases five miles of pristine beach and marshland that Cox says is perfect for watersports of all kinds. In fact, Men’s Journal has called the beach “North Carolina’s most naturally gifted watersport hub,” thanks to its crystalline water and spacious coastline.
“Wilmington’s location along the coast provides a built-in location for sports events of all shapes and sizes,” Cox says. “From a small weekend beach volleyball tournament to a signature event like IRONMAN 70.3 North Carolina, our coastal locale is a natural fit for water- or sand-based events.”
The calendar for 2019 includes such high-profile events as the Top Gun USA Winter National Championships in softball, USA Wrestling’s Southeast Regional Championships and the United States Tennis Association’s Combo Doubles State Championships. Boasting 212 days of sunshine every year, Wilmington is especially popular among sports participants from colder climates. Many groups max out their registration at sporting events held in the area, according to Cox.
“Wilmington has been successful in attracting a variety of sports events due to top-notch facilities, an easily accessible location and plentiful natural resources,” Cox says. “These amenities, combined with a variety of accommodations, are second to none and offer sports planners a wonderful opportunity to expand their event offerings.”
An Abundance of Facilities
Sports event organizers have myriad options when booking a tournament or other competition in Wilmington. The city’s indoor and outdoor facilities include the largest convention center on North Carolina’s coast and Miracle Field at Olsen Park, which is accessible for wheelchair athletes.
Here is a sampling of popular athletic facilities in the Wilmington area:
•Althea Gibson Tennis Complex at Empie Park, which provides 19 lighted tennis courts and a 1,500-square-foot clubhouse with a lounge, meeting room and snack counter
•Cape Fear Community College’s Schwartz Center, which houses a 15,000-square-foot multi-purpose arena that seats 1,500 fans for basketball or volleyball; the college’s North Campus Soccer Complex offers large outdoor fields
•Cape Fear Regional Soccer Complex, with seven soccer fields
•Gary Shell Cross City Trail, a 15-mile off-road, multi-use trail
•Greenfield Grind Skate Park, a 9,000-square-foot lighted facility featuring multiple bowls with a banked street course and a variety of hips, rails and ledges
•Hugh MacRae Athletic Complex, which boasts three soccer fields, three softball fields, four baseball fields, four tennis courts, an equestrian center, several playgrounds and restrooms, and six shelters
•Legion Sports Complex, which includes multiple fields, a pool, four lighted tennis courts, seating for 6,000 and approximately four acres of paved parking
•Ogden Park, which includes three lighted baseball fields, a youth football stadium with lights, a lighted softball field, three soccer/football fields with lights, nine lighted tennis courts, a 10,000-square-foot concrete skatepark, shelters and paved and off-road trails
•Olsen Park, featuring five softball/baseball fields (including a Miracle Field) with lights, restrooms, concession stands and a picnic shelter
•Veterans Park, with six baseball fields (five with lights), four lighted soccer fields, three soccer/football fields, three softball fields, nine lighted tennis courts, one basketball court, two sand volleyball courts, shelters and a walking trail
•Wilmington Convention Center, which includes a 30,000-square-foot exhibit hall, a 12,000-square-foot ballroom, almost 6,000 square feet of meeting space and an attached parking deck. It can host groups ranging in size from 20 to 2,000, and the facility has welcomed cheerleading, dance, gymnastics, martial arts, badminton and volleyball events
•Wilmington Ice House, which boasts a 30,000-square-foot NHL-sized rink
Additionally, sports organizers may apply for permits to hold events on island beaches. Examples include the USA Beach Wrestling National Championships and the U.S. Open Fat Bike Beach Championships.
When Not Competing…
There’s a reason many sports participants and their families arrive in Wilmington early or stay around a little longer.
The region is home to more than 8,000 hotel rooms and suites. The Embassy Suites Wilmington Riverfront Hotel, located along the river and adjacent to the Wilmington Convention Center, opened in 2018 with 186 two-room guest suites, while the Hampton Inn Downtown recently opened with 92 guest rooms and suites. Forthcoming properties include the Aloft Hotel and two more downtown hotels.
Additionally, Hotel Ballast, part of the Tapestry Collection by Hilton, recently completed an $11 million renovation.
Wilmington’s River District offers more than 200 restaurants, shops and attractions, as well as an assortment of water- and land-based activities, a variety of diverse walking tours, kayak and canoe excursions, and biking and nature trails. Plus, several championship golf courses are located nearby.
The area also boasts a busy lineup of festivals and special events throughout the year that may be taking place during planned sporting events. And don’t forget that Wilmington is home to no fewer than 18 sites listed on the National Register of Historic Places — including the Battleship North Carolina (BB-55) landmark, commemorating the most decorated American battleship of World War II.
“Wilmington and the beaches offer the full package for sports planners,” Cox concludes. “Our facilities, combined with our broad range of accommodations, great year-round weather, the wealth of activities and beautiful beaches, have made us a top choice for sports organizers.” SDM