On a recent visit to a popular hockey complex in upstate New York, the head of the National Association of Sports Commissions was struck by the ambition of the facility’s expansion plans.
Already pushed beyond capacity by the large tournaments that use all four of its ice sheets, bringing in a stout $1,700 each from the 400 to 600 teams at a big event, it hoped to add a fifth and sixth.
“Are you kidding me?” NASC President Al Kidd asked, stunned by the numbers. “Do you have enough hotels?”
“No,” was the response.
The sports travel sector has grown dramatically in the last five years, rising from $8.7 billion in 2013 to $11.4 billion last year, a gain of 31 percent.
Increased competition for events and a growing appetite for new and expanded facilities can carry risks for communities hungry to get in the game.
“There’s no question it’s growing, and the opportunities are great for the more enterprising sports commissions,” Kidd said. “But it’s like anything else that everybody is trying to get a piece of. It’s competitive. So you better do your homework and you better execute, or it’s probably not going to work out.”
On the pages that follow, you’ll find a sampling of strategies that have helped sports commissions fill hotel rooms and make the most of the events they bring to town.
Building the girls volleyball machine
When the nation’s top travel volleyball club headed from its suburban Dallas base to Detroit for the USA Volleyball Girls’ Junior National Championships late last month, it took 13 teams spread from ages 12 to 17, including three that were ranked first in the nation and another ranked second.
The hotel bill for five nights approached $40,000.
NASC's State of the Industry
Events owned and operated by
sports commissions in 2017,
up from 27 percent in 2016
Events hosted by sports commissions
Average spending per event in 2017
And that didn’t include rooms for the parents.
“We used to book the parents rooms too,” said John Sample, Texas Advantage Volleyball founder and president. “But it got so big, it got hard to keep up with all the credit card numbers.”
When Sample bought the club in 1995, it was a modest operation that practiced in school gyms. He leased space in a warehouse that could hold nine courts, which not only gave him room for more teams, but also created a new funding stream. It was big enough to run weekend tournaments for up to 72 teams.
TAV began to travel more, improved, started winning, grew, and then grew some more.
Well established as a national power, Sample took an even larger leap in 2014, when he moved the club to a 100,000-square-foot facility with 15 courts, a training area and a pro shop. TAV now has more than 1,000 players on upward of 90 teams, with spinoffs operating in the Dallas-Fort Worth area, Houston and Amarillo.
Since January, TAV teams have played in San Antonio; Houston; Salt Lake City; Denver; Indianapolis; Spokane, Wash.; Philadelphia; Kansas City; Minneapolis and Long Beach, Calif.
Now the team sport played most by U.S. high school girls, with about 445,0000 players, volleyball has grown into a travel monster, fed by parents who want to get their daughters on rosters of clubs that promise to put them in front of college recruiters.
That chase for scholarships has fueled the growth of clubs, which has fed the growth of tournaments, which puts heads in hotel beds.
The USA Volleyball event that TAV traveled to Detroit for is viewed as an economic impact darling by sports commissions and convention and visitors bureaus, this year attracting 1,301 teams, all of which stay for five nights. Last year’s event in Minneapolis accounted for 59,000 hotel room nights and a reported economic impact of $50 million. In 2016, Indianapolis also reported an economic impact of $50 million for the event.
And the USA event isn’t even the largest junior girls tournament in the sport.
That crown belongs to the AAU Girls’ Junior National tournament, which last month brought 2,703 teams to Central Florida, where each of them stayed for five nights, generating an anticipated economic impact of at least $52 million, according to organizers. While the USA event requires teams to qualify in four of the five divisions it offers for each age group, the AAU mandates only that players and clubs are AAU members who register properly and pay an entry fee of $895 — $795 if you enter early.
“Today, I have a steady stream of our members wanting to know how they can get into the volleyball machine so they can get more of the impact in their markets,” said Al Kidd, CEO of the National Association of Sports Commissions and previous head of the sports commission in San Diego, a volleyball hotbed. “You see the numbers. It brings such a lift. And it’s done it in all different markets.”
Club volleyball has been an anchor tenant in Columbus, since not long after it formed a sports commission in 2002. The city hosted the USA girls championships in 2012, then landed the NCAA Division I women’s championships for 2017 and again for 2021. But it began in the sport with regional tournaments, which it hosts seven weekends a year.
“They fill our convention center,” said Linda Logan, executive director of the Greater Columbus Sports Commission. “And they fill our hotels. Those tournaments really were an impetus for us to then host a lot of the national tournaments that we’ve brought in.”
Not surprisingly, Sample already has begun contemplating TAV’s travel schedule for next year. Some of the qualifiers they’ll hit are locked in. But he expects to make some changes, based upon where he thinks he’s most likely to run into the better teams in the country, which he expects to see at the USA Volleyball Junior Nationals.
Last year, he took his team to Salt Lake City for an NIT event that attracted many of the top California teams. Next year, that tournament will move to Kansas City.
“I don’t see the California teams going to Kansas City,” Sample said. “So maybe we’ll go to Vegas. We’ll find out where they’re playing and find a way to play them. We don’t want the first time we see those guys to be at nationals.”
Tapping into a community’s natural resources
When tourism officials in Knoxville, Tenn., added a sports commission early in 2016, one of the new group’s first moves was to purchase flooring for 10 basketball courts and 14 volleyball courts, along with portable hoop and net systems, all of which allowed it to turn its vast convention center into a suitable venue for large tournaments.
That decision made it competitive with, but also similar to, scores of cities across the country.
Powerboats racing at more than 100 mph, the nation’s best cyclists jockeying for position as they cross a familiar downtown bridge and a Bassmaster event that has boats launching less than a mile from the arena at which they weigh the day’s catch — those are the sort of events that Knoxville hopes will set it apart.
“People see sports tourism and they go straight to youth tournaments,” said Chad Culver, senior director of the Knoxville Sports Commission. “And we certainly do our share. But there’s so much more that communities can do to bring in sports tourism.
“We want to showcase Knoxville.”
Knoxville is among an increasing number of cities and communities attempting to emphasize natural resources such as rivers, mountains and parks when it considers which events to pursue, or create, to fill hotel rooms and increase the profile of the city or region.
Volleyball and basketball events at the convention center still play an important role for Knoxville, Culver said, attracting about 550 teams through the first half of this year. But along with marketing Knoxville as a destination, outdoor spectator events are more likely to fill restaurants and area attractions than are youth tournaments, which typically monopolize a travel party’s days and exhaust them by nightfall.
“A lot of times when you come in for youth baseball or soccer tournaments, you go from sunup to sundown at the fields,” Culver said. “You may run over to a restaurant to eat dinner, but then you’re going back to the hotels. It’s usually only the shoulder days before or after your tournament that you can venture out and see stuff.
“These people are more likely to get out and see things and probably spend money.”
Known best as a ski destination and the host of the 2002 Winter Olympics, Salt Lake City is another locale that ties its sports tourism to its idyllic surroundings --— even for events that don’t actually play out on the slopes.
A Natural Draw
The Rockies are used as a marketing hook for sports events in and around Salt Lake City.
Big Mountain Jam
Rocky Mountain Showcase
Ski Town Shoot Out
One of the surprising aspects of Salt Lake City’s event roster is that, while known for its winter sports, most of its sports tourism flows in the summer, similarly to other communities. Its chief assets for attracting events are a large convention center; a central enough location to attract teams from the West Coast, the Midwest and the South; a growing menu of sports complexes; and plentiful hotel options.
While the Rockies make for a beautiful backdrop, they also are useful in marketing. “When we design logos for tournaments, we always incorporate the logo of the cityscape with the mountains,” said Clay Partain, director of sports market sales for Visit Salt Lake. “We use that a lot because it resonates and reminds people of where they’re coming. We want to take advantage of the fact that people like to come here.
“A lot of our growth as a host has to do with recognizing where we are and what we have for assets and utilizing that as best as we can.”
Of course, there are times of the year during which the ski season and the tournament schedule overlap. The Martin Luther King holiday weekend annually brings the Grizz Cup, a youth hockey tournament that typically attracts more than 80 teams and 1,400 players to Salt Lake City.
While skiing on a Sunday during the event, Partain once ran into a team that had been eliminated from the tournament earlier than expected.
“I looked up and I saw the entire team on skis,” Partain said. “The coach said, ‘We couldn’t miss out on this. The kids would kill me if we left early. We had to come ski.’
“When people get out here, the vacation component of the tournament is where we really shine.”
Championship events that draw a crowd
When the Greater Columbus Sports Commission landed the 2018 Women’s Final Four, the group’s executive director flashed back seven years, to the first time the city bid unsuccessfully on what would have been its first large-scale national event, and to the year after that, when it was passed over again.
“We lost, and we lost, and those losses really galvanized our efforts,” said Linda Logan, who pointed to the addition of a large hotel near Nationwide Arena and a doubling of the sports commission staff as reasons the city eventually started landing big events. “Many of our board members would say it was a defining moment for our organization. And then, having the success we just had two months ago hosting a great Final Four has become the organization’s new defining moment.”
This year’s women’s Final Four, hailed by many as the best ever on the court, also delivered mightily off of it, generating $21.7 million in direct visitor spending for the Columbus region, according to an economic impact study completed last month. Visitors from outside Ohio accounted for 83 percent of the nearly 22,000 people who attended one or both games, staying for an average of 3.6 days, spending an average of $271 a day and accounting for 32,747 room nights. Almost 60 percent of them were making their first visit to Columbus.
Big events such as Final Fours and Super Bowls and major bowl games almost always deliver for host cities when measured by standard tourism metrics. Delivering beyond that can be a taller order.
While Columbus worked to help sell tickets and build a hospitable environment for visitors, Logan said she also wanted to make sure the event resonated within the local community — even though few residents would be at the games.
“One of my biggest concerns was that on April 2, when the event was over, there would be parts of our community that would say they didn’t even know it was here,” Logan said. “How do you make sure that you’re touching as many people as possible? Well, people really got involved … If you didn’t know that the Women’s Final Four was in Columbus, you might have been on a sabbatical that week.”
When Houston hosted its second Final Four in five years in 2016, one of the legacies that made its sports tourism CEO most proud was a now popular elementary school literacy program that the NCAA has since taken to other cities, including Columbus.
“The economics of the event are important, but then what is the legacy?” said Janis Schmees Burke, CEO of the Harris County-Houston Sports Authority. “Making sure that your community feels engaged and connected to the event is really important. Let’s face it, there are only so many tickets to these events.
“There are about 7 million people here and only 77,000 people are going to get Super Bowl tickets — and most of those are going to be from out of town. So how do you get a community to feel proud and to own that event with you?”
The most common way is to engage as many as possible as volunteers. Another way, Schmees Burke said, is by creating a lasting impact on the community.
When health care providers in Houston approached Schmees Burke for help bidding on the Transplant Games of America for 2014, she had never heard of the event. She soon learned that, from a traditional host perspective, it was an attractive property; a six-day event with an anticipated economic impact of nearly $10 million. A sports festival for those who had undergone life-saving transplant surgeries, the Transplant Games not only filled hotel rooms, it also found a unique proposition in Houston, home to the world’s largest medical center.
At the time, Texas was behind all but one U.S. state on the organ donor registry list.
“We’re this huge state, with people coming in from all over the world for transplants, and we’re down near the bottom,” Schmees Burke said. “That didn’t make sense to us.”
Not only did the local hospitals want Houston to land the event, they were willing to cover any expenses necessary to make sure it at least broke even.
The Transplant Games not only raised awareness for the need for donors, it also united hospitals and organ procurement organizations that previously had not worked together, Schmees Burke said. With barely 2 million registered donors before Houston hosted the games, Texas now has more than 10 million.
“There is so much more to these events than just how many visitors are coming,” Schmees Burke said. “How you drive that is important. But there’s more.”