When you think of the road between Nashville and Memphis, chances are your thoughts turn to music. That well-travelled corridor has seen some of the most famous musicians in the world—Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Dolly Parton, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Patsy Cline, Muddy Waters, Reba McEntire… the list goes on and on.
Right in the middle of this stretch of road—now I-40—is the city of Jackson, Tennessee, which is well positioned just a few hours away from both of these musical Meccas: the country music made famous in Nashville, and the blues, soul and rock ‘n’ roll coming out of Memphis.
But Jackson also is well positioned in another way—it’s a hotspot for sports, and a key destination when it comes to performing … on the athletic field.
“Being right between Nashville and Memphis, a lot of things here in Jackson are tied to music in some way,” says Lori Nunnery, executive director of the Jackson, Tennessee, Convention & Visitors Bureau. “Many of our sports events, for instance, are named for or take place in conjunction with musical events or musicians. Sports here is big, and continues to grow. Jackson has some amazing facilities to offer, and more are on the way.”
Jackson, in fact, is committed to sports and fitness. The city and its mayor, Jerry Gist, were recognized last year by the National League of Cities for reaching key health and wellness goals for the “Let’s Move!” initiative promoted by First Lady Michelle Obama. Among the numerous awards to Jackson, presented at a White House event, were medals for promoting and increasing opportunities for physical activity, especially among children. In addition, this past June, Jackson was recognized with a 2014 Tennessee Municipal League (TML) Achievement Award for Excellence in Community Wellness and was hailed by the TML as the “healthiest city in Tennessee,” due in large part to a state-of-the-art, $50 million wellness center and for “efforts in building wellness into the very fabric of the community.”
“Our drive to increase the health and fitness of our community includes promoting sports and activities to everyone—children, adolescents and adults of all ages,” Nunnery says. “So we’re able to offer some pretty wonderful events and sports facilities, which benefit both our residents and also athletes of all ages coming to this area.”
Changing the Sports Landscape
When it comes to sports, “The West Tennessee Healthcare Sportsplex is probably our biggest driver, and the biggest thing that has changed our world here in Jackson,” Nunnery says. “With the development of that project, it’s just made a huge difference in our community and in what we can offer groups traveling here.”
Opened in 2006, the city-owned Sportsplex offers 17 baseball and softball diamonds, arranged in four pods. Six of the diamonds have dirt infields, so they can be used for both softball and baseball.
“Generally, we run a tournament schedule from the first weekend in March through October,” says Ron Barry, director of baseball and marketing for the Sportsplex. Last year, he says, between baseball and softball, the Sportsplex saw nearly 2,000 teams take to the fields.
During the week, the diamonds at the Sportsplex are filled with Little League and Jackson Park and Rec league teams. Locally, says Barry, there has been growth in the baseball program for eight straight seasons. On weekends, tournaments come into town. “We generally average between 70 and 100 teams every weekend at the Sportsplex,” he says, “but on some weekends, between softball and baseball events, we’ll have up to 110 teams here.”
The Sportsplex has hosted everything from the USGF Girls’ Softball World Series (for four years), to USSSA events, to state tournaments, to college events. Recently the NAIA Transouth Athletic Conference held a tournament in Jackson. And Barry says the American Amateur Youth Baseball Alliance is interested in bringing a huge event to Jackson next year.
“Our slogan is, ‘The Best Travel Ball Experience Possible,’” Barry says, “and that’s because the fields here are just spectacular. Kenny Franks is our full-time turf manager, and he can grow grass on a billiard ball. He and his great staff keep these fields looking beautiful. They’re as good as any fields youth teams can play on, anywhere.”
Next door to the Sportsplex is the home stadium for the Jackson Generals, the double-A affiliate of the Seattle Mariners. “We have a great relationship,” Barry says. “When the Generals are in town and there’s also a tournament going on at the Sportsplex, they’ll give us free tickets so the teams playing here can see the Generals play. It’s always a nice highlight, and a lot of fun for families coming into the area with their young players.” Also, visiting tournaments often are able to hold their opening ceremonies in the Generals’ stadium.
Other Sports and Activities
But Jackson isn’t just about baseball and softball. North Park currently has 15 lighted soccer fields, but will be reconfiguring so that by 2016, it will offer 17 fields suitable for soccer and other field sports. The Jackson Futbol Club also has a complex offering 10 fields (six lighted). The JFC hosts the popular Blue Suede Invitational, which brings more than 100 soccer teams to Jackson.
Currently on the drawing board is a new 10-court tennis complex, expected to open in 2016 and built with the intention of hosting U.S. Tennis Association tournaments. Jackson currently has 12 tennis courts in town, including an eight-court complex.
The 42-year-old Andrew Jackson Marathon is the oldest event of its kind in Tennessee and is a qualifier for the Boston Marathon. It’s held on the campus of Union University.
“We’re very lucky that we’re also a college town,” Nunnery says. In addition to Union University, the city is home to Lane College, Tennessee College of Applied Technology, West Tennessee Business College, University of Memphis–Lambuth, and Jackson State Community College. “In addition to many other parks and facilities in town, when events or tournaments are looking to come into the area, we can also work with area schools to help make them successful.”
Two other large events in Jackson are the Rockabilly Grand Prix, held at the end of May-beginning of June, which brings top-notch criterium cycling to town, and the Rockabilly Riot in October, a four-mile obstacle course race through downtown Jackson for beginner trail racers through hardcore competitors, to benefit local first responders. There is also the active Jackson BMX venue, which offers racing throughout the year.
Off the Field
Jackson, though, has a lot to offer athletes and families off the field or court, too. Located near the Sportsplex is the recently opened Sky Zone Trampoline Park, offering fun and healthy workouts. Jackson also is home to Rusty’s TV & Movie Car Museum, a unique attraction that features more than 30 cars used in movies and TV, as well as movie and TV memorabilia.
Famed train engineer Casey Jones lived in Jackson, and the Casey Jones Home & Railroad Museum is a popular attraction. Nearby is Brooks Shaw’s Old Country Store Restaurant, in business for nearly 50 years and a top-10 destination in Tennessee. Brooks Shaw’s serves authentic Southern cuisine, and it was voted Jackson’s Best Restaurant.
Discovery Park of America, located in Union City, offers entertainment and educational experiences with more than 70,000 square feet of exhibits focused on nature, science, technology, history and art. There are also 50 acres of gardens, grounds and exhibits focused on history.
And, of course, history is a huge draw to the area. Pinson Mounds State Archaeological Park contains at least 15 Native American mounds. About 90 minutes south of Jackson is the Shiloh National Military Park.
“We’re excited to have people come to this area,” Nunnery says. “We do everything we can to make their visits enjoyable and help put together successful events. We have amazing restaurants here, and dining and hotel options to fit any budget. Plus, it’s easy to get around; you can get pretty much anywhere in Jackson in less than 20 minutes.”
For players, families, and tournament and event owners and directors, Jackson hits all the right notes.