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  • Writer's pictureCatherine Sarrett

Sports Tourism...Is it finally time to develop with caution ?

Updated: Feb 21, 2019

Before starting a feasibility study for any sports or recreation development, I am regularly asked if I ever tell my clients that they should not build. The answer is, Yes, often. Do they listen? No, not always. Just about every project that I have worked on has at least one developer or city official uttering the ever hopeful, "If we build it, they will come."

My industry has seen quite the boom in amateur sports complex development. Whether it's outdoor soccer and baseball/softball fields, indoor basketball and volleyball courts, or ice sheets, sports feasibility consultants have been very busy. This boom has perhaps been fueled by parents' willingness to plunk out the money and time for travel sports. The Great Recession did its part by giving parents a reason to consider these trips with the kids as acceptable vacations. An increase in sports tourism spending from 2008 to 2009 with continued growth since has caused some to hang the dreaded "recession-proof" tag on the industry, further fueling excitement for its ability to reliably contribute to a local economy.

There is no question that a quality sports complex in a desirable destination can host tournaments that attract dozens or even hundreds of teams (depending on the sport). Honestly, for many years the destination did not even need to be that great if it was easily accessed and had high quality playing surfaces. There is also no question that sports visitors spend in the local economy. They may be looking for decent hotel deals and a free breakfast, but they also have to feed all those kids and find something to do when the games are done. Sports tourism is often a great complement to corporate and other transient hotel demand, filling up weekends that otherwise may be slow.

I recently googled "new sports complex construction", just to keep up with what is going on in the industry and update my growing database of amateur sports complexes. I was amazed at the number of communities currently in the advanced stages of development and construction. I was deep into the o's, (page 7 to be exact), and still getting relevant search results. Just a sampling demonstrates the variety of communities that are deep into their efforts to attract sports tourism with the development of regional sports centers...Irvine, CA , Appleton, WI, Sandusky, OH, Tucson, AZ, Spokane, WA, Jackson, NJ, Virginia Beach, VA, Warrenton, VA, Palm Beach Gardens, FL, Etowah County, AL, Grayson, KY, Panama City Beach, FL, Tampa, FL, Lexington, KY. Many, many other communities, large and small, are considering their options, not wanting to be left behind.

I am not trying to predict the future, but I am reminded by the feeling that this may be the time to sell my bitcoin (the one that I wished I had listened to). There is an air of FOMO and communities wanting to get in. The fact is that there are only so many weekends in a year and 3-day weekends in the U.S. are pretty much established. While I have heard arguments for greater distances, the majority of visitors will arrive from within 200 miles of a sports complex. If you draw a 200-mile radius around most regional complexes, it will overlap with at least two or three competing facilities. For those looking to get in, please keep in mind that existing facilities already host a Memorial Day Extravaganza.

For the time being, there is growing interest in sports tourism. But, there are hard limits to sports tourism demand. If you build your facility, they will not come if they are already going somewhere else.

So, what can communities and developers do to reap the benefits of sports tourism without over building? When designing a sports facility, building programming should first satisfy the needs of local residents. It is the daily use, including weeknight leagues, team training, and instructional programs that will generate revenues and create excitement for a facility. A study of local needs should also investigate the extent to which local teams are regularly traveling to out of town tournaments and where they are going. Keeping local athletes and their families home, rather than exporting their spending, can create positive economic impacts. In addition, sports clubs in communities with proper facilities regularly host tournaments as fundraisers. While third-party tournament organizers may rotate their events around a region, a locally-generated tournament can become an annual occasion.

It is also important to consider that sports participation trends follow demographic trends. Over the past decade, most team sports have experienced declines in participation - the notables exceptions are ice hockey and lacrosse. To the extent that the percentage of population under 18 declines, these trends should continue. But, adults are clearly getting in the game and looking to compete. One of the reasons that ice hockey is gaining popularity is the high percentage of adult participation. New sports development should pay attention these trends, creating playing surfaces that cater to sports that are popular with adults. The traditional youth-oriented sports of soccer, baseball, and cheerleading may give way to rugby, ultimate, handball, and yes, pickleball.


Catherine Sarrett is the President of Strategic Venue Studies, a consulting firm dedicated to sports, entertainment, and convention venues. She has provided feasibility analyses and economic impact assessments to facilities throughout North America.

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