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Take Groups Out to the Ball Game

By Scott Wible

They had barely shed their graduation garb when they hit the road to revel in a little post-college freedom before launching their careers. It was on both of their bucket lists to visit 12 iconic baseball parks in 21 days. Minnesotans Drew Kiperts and Brad Fendler, friends since high school, had mapped their route and chosen their priorities. At the top of the list? Chicago’s Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs. “Wrigley was a must—its history, its legacy, its character were big draws,” says Fendler. “We were driven both by a love of baseball and an itch for adventure.”

Wrigley was everything they could have hoped for. “We could feel the buzz the moment we stepped off the ‘L’ at the stadium,” says Kiperts.

As evidenced by this road trip, sports tourism is a big deal in Illinois—a boon to both the state’s economy and quality of life. And one might think that Kiperts and Fendler define the typical sports tourist: sports fans who will travel almost any distance to see a game, but think broader.


“The definition of a sports tourist is as large and varied as Illinois itself,” says Cort Carlson, executive director for Aurora Area Convention and Visitors Bureau. “The sports tourist to Chicago may be very different than the sports tourist to the Aurora area.” Carlson explains that sports tourists visit the Aurora area primarily to participate in some type of tournament or event, or to cheer on participating family or friends. Chicago, on the other hand, attracts many who travel simply as spectators to enjoy a professional sporting event.

The sports tourist varies by age and gender as well, Carlson says. “A youth sports tournament not only draws young participating athletes,” he explains, “but also their families. They often come with mom, dad, siblings, aunts, uncles and grandparents in tow.”

In short, then, a sports tourist hails from outside the immediate area where the athletic event is taking place, often traveling from a distance great enough to require overnight lodging, and spending money on restaurants, transportation, souvenirs, shopping and more. They generally fall into one of two categories: participatory travelers (youth and adults traveling to play in a tournament or event along with their families), or spectator travelers (visitors traveling to watch a professional or college sporting event, like Green Bay fans who flock to Chicago to watch the Packers take on the Bears).

“I really don’t believe there’s a ‘typical’ sports tourist who attends events in Bloomington-Normal,” says Matt Hawkins, sports director for Bloomington-Normal Area Sports Commission. “From 80-year-old Midwesterners participating in a triathlon to golf tournaments with 7-year-olds from South Africa, our participation base is pretty wide.”


There is no question that sports tourism in Illinois brings a boatload of money into the state. Aurora’s Carlson reports that the projected economic impact of sports tourism in the area will exceed $4 million for the past fiscal year. According to Hawkins, overnight sports tourists in the Bloomington-Normal area spent $4.8 million in 2017.

“Major events mean sold-out weekends and high foot traffic for our local businesses,” adds Ryan Reid, director of sports and special events for Visit Champaign County. The Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon in April, for example, attracts runners from 48 states and 13 countries hoping to qualify for the Boston Marathon. Economic impact: $10 million.

Sports tourism in and around Rockford over the past year contributed significantly to a total tourism yield of $6.8 million in visitorgenerated tax receipts. “What may be even more telling is the number of jobs—3,080— that tourism supports in Winnebago County,” says Nick Povalitis, director of sports development for Rockford Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

It’s no wonder, then, that sports tourists— spectators and athletes alike—are treated like royalty. “The staffs at our hotels, attractions and sports venues are in the business of making memories,” Hawkins says. “As a community, we treat each tournament director, athlete and fan like they’re the only thing that matters.”

But again, think broader. President of Meet Chicago Northwest Dave Parulo cautions against undervaluing the potential of sports tourism to help cities and communities reinvent themselves. “There’s an impressive trend among communities and individual investors to reimagine their use of buildings and even regions toward adding a whole array of sports facilities,” he says.


Indeed, new sports venues around the state are making headlines, and the expectation is that they will profit the local and state economies in the same big ways their older counterparts have always done. Wintrust Arena and the United Center Atrium are open for business in Chicago. Rosemont has a new baseball stadium and Peoria is home to the relatively new Louisville Slugger Sports Complex.

Even Wrigley Field is undergoing renovations. It’s been a few years since the pals from Minnesota visited that landmark stadium during their memorable ballpark road trip. Fendler looks forward to sharing the Wrigley experience with his wife and kids someday. “I’ve been back more than once, and I know we’ll go again,” he says. For Fendler, it could be a matter of destiny. “I love Chicago,” he enthuses. “I go back as often as I can—the Wrigley vibe is true of Chicago in general. It’s irresistible.”

So heads up, Illinois. Sports tourism may benefit the state in yet another way, morphing at least one baseball fan into a permanent resident.

Sports tourism figures significantly in these travel spending totals for Illinois in 2016.

Food Service $9.4 billion // 25%
Public Transportation $9.1 billion // 24.1%
Auto Transportation $7.2 billion // 19.1%
Lodging $7.2 billion // 19.1%
General Retail Trade 7.4%
Entertainment and Recreation 5.3%