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Sports Tourism Is Big in Growing Group Travel

Sports ETA CEO: 'The sky’s the limit'

By Kathy Gibbons

The city of Salem, Virginia, has embraced sports tourism and hosted more NCAA collegiate events than any other city in the U.S. || Courtesy of Salem Tourism

Want to attract more people to visit your area? Look to sports tourism, as many communities across the United States are.

John David, president and CEO of the Sports Events & Tourism Association (Sports ETA) headquartered in West Chester Township, Ohio, says that more than ever, sports tourism is growing. Even as new facilities are being built, everyone from convention and visitors bureaus and chambers of commerce to government leaders and parks and recreation departments—part of what David calls the “sports tourism ecosystem”—recognize the value of investing in this growing niche that the Sports ETA values as a $128 billion industry. Private equity investment is also “trickling down” into youth and amateur sports like never before in both event creation and management as well as facility development, David says.

“Over about a 10-year term … we’re going to see 72% growth in sports facilities,” David says during an address at the 2024 Pure Michigan Governor’s Conference on Tourism. “Why? Because it makes sense. There is so much development in the pipeline. People are looking at this opportunity in sports tourism. We can build a facility for youth sports that local citizens can use Monday through Thursday and we can pay for it Friday, Saturday, and Sunday with [tournaments, rentals, etc.].”

Sports ETA recently released its 2023 State of the Industry Report for the sports tourism industry. Conducted by Tourism Economics, with support from Northstar Meetings Group, the study showed that sports travelers spent $52.5 billion last year on a combination of transportation ($13.5 billion), lodging ($10.9 billion), and food and beverage ($9.7 billion). Additional spending included $6.9 billion for recreation, $6.5 billion for retail, and $4.7 billion for tournament operations.

A drone shot of the Salem Football Stadium in Salem, Virginia || Courtesy of Salem Tourism

Towns, cities, and states are taking notice—as they should, David says, describing sports tourism as “an opportunity for small and mid-markets.” He cites the example of the city of Salem, Virginia, which has embraced sports tourism and hosted more NCAA collegiate events than any other city in the country. “They made themselves Virginia’s championship city—a town of 25,000,” he says. “They’re hosting Division 2 and Division 3 championship events; [and their] completely synchronized parks and recreation and tourism [departments] have some of the best sports facilities in the United States.”

David cites Kansas City, Missouri, as an example of how a destination leverages sporting events to drive economic impact. The city recently unveiled the new CPKC Stadium for women’s soccer, which he said sold out its entire first season.

“In fact, at our 2024 Sports ETA Symposium, we honored Kansas City with two industry awards: Event of the Year for the 2023 NFL Draft and Kathy Nelson, president and CEO of Visit KC and the KC Sports Commission, as the 2024 Sports Executive of the Year,” David notes. “Kansas City is a collaborative community where their sports commission convenes community partners to host dozens of sporting events each year.”

Rock Hill, South Carolina, just built a 170,000-square-foot sports and events center that David says has a $22.5 million annual economic impact including $7 million in hospitality taxes. It generated just under 200,000 room nights last year.

“I asked the mayor, ‘what would you have done differently?’” David says. “He said, ‘I would have built it twice the size.’”

In Michigan, the new championship-level Eastern Michigan University Rowing Course at Ford Lake in Ypsilanti Township is expected to put the region on the map as a key Midwest rowing venue. It is a partnership of the college, township, Marriott at Eagle Crest on Ford Lake, and Ann Arbor Sports Commission that David says is “a win all day long” as the new facility makes it possible to bid on attracting massive events.

The state of Illinois has established its Tourism Incentive Grant Program to provide grant funding that eligible entities can use to attract new out-of-state events when competing with other states’ destinations. Missouri has an Amateur Sporting Tax Credit Program that provides local community organizations with incentives to help them attract amateur sporting events to their communities.

“In sports, we always have to talk about the cycle,” David says. “Visitors come in and spend money, create economic impact, tax revenue. We like to tell people we are so much more than heads in beds. There’s economic impact, job creation, tax revenue … and the opportunity for children and families to have world-class facilities.”