My sense is there are 25 percent to 30 percent more people in sports events than prior to 9/11,” says Don Schumacher, executive director for the National Association of Sports Commissions in Cincinnati, Ohio.
Why the surge in these types of events? Schumacher believes the growth of sports-event travel boils down to two factors. “One: The business was already growing at a very rapid pace before 9/11. And two: 9/11 drove home the importance of traveling with the family unit, doing things with the family, and doing it by car.”
In April 1992, 15 cities came together to found the NASC, an organization primarily dedicated to sports-event industry networking and best practices. By the end of 1992, 40 associations, many of which were convention and visitors bureaus, had joined NASC, Schumacher reports. “There are now approximately 110 to 115 sports commissions in the United States and a few hundred CVBs competing for events. And the number of events taking place has increased faster than the demand.”
This market includes two basic types of sports events: ticket-based and participant-based. With ticket-based events, “the whole thing is based on teams coming in and competing,” Schumacher explains. “The reason for the event is to buy tickets and see it. The NCAA Women's Final Four is a ticketed event. People are anxious to buy tickets and see that event.”
He estimates that more than 90 percent of sports events held in the United States are grass roots, youth-oriented, participant-based events. “There are hundreds of organizations that hold multiple events every year. For example, the Amateur Athletic Union has 150 national championships a year in youth sports, and they may [bring in] 3,000 people for a community, and those 3,000 people may stay there for a week.”
Moreover, there could be several feeder tournaments to that event, and the feeder tournaments produce room nights and restaurant and shopping revenue in the communities that feed those events to the nationals, Schumacher says, noting that some of these events can guarantee weeks of revenue for a city.
“We conduct the U.S. Bowling Congress Open Championships, which is widely recognized as the world's largest participatory sporting event,” says Jerry Schneider,communications manager for the U.S. Bowling Congress in Greendale, Wis. “This year it attracted 12,606 teams. With five-player teams, that's 60,000 bowlers. These tournaments run between 100 and 140 consecutive days. And we bring in a steady influx of 600 to 800 bowlers each day with their friends and family.”
Bringing the sports-event travel market to a city can mean big money — but it comes at a price. Sports events aren't like meetings or conventions, which have a pre-defined structure and a staff of people to run them.
“Typically, a committee is needed to successfully host the event. And most of those people need to be volunteers, or people on the bureau staff who will work with the meeting planners to make sure they get all their questions answered and the business is handled properly. The work starts when the sale is made.”
Linda Riley, director of communications for the Valley Forge Convention and Visitors Bureau in Plymouth Meeting, Pa., agrees. “The market requires assistance from the venue in putting together a variety of sports facilities and youth-friendly hotels. Particularly with regional tournaments, this can mean going to multiple facilities that are located conveniently to one another, around a central hub, because very few places are set up to host an entire tournament with multiple competitions taking place simultaneously in a single location.”
The list of venue requirements for these events varies widely and is very sport-specific. “Every event holder has certain requirements that must be met in order for a city to be considered,” says Alan Sims, director of convention sales and services for the Oklahoma City Convention and Visitors Bureau in Oklahoma City, Okla. “For example, event holders who organize swimming and diving meets will have certain requirements for the pool, but event holders who organize soccer tournaments will have different requirements.”
According to Kristen Wood, CSEE, who is director of sport development for the Buffalo Niagara Convention & Visitors Bureau in Buffalo, N.Y., and Kelly McKeown, director of marketing for ASA/USA Softball in Oklahoma City, Okla., sports-event organizers want host cities that can meet the following general needs:
Appropriate athletic venues that facilitate the best performances possible. For example, a “fast pool” or a “fast track”
A strong, local organizing committee that includes experts in the sport
An adequate number of trained volunteers to help run the event
Assistance with equipment and supplies, vendors, and venue setup and teardown.
Fundraising opportunities or assistance with maximizing revenue margins
Convenience — an easy drive or short travel time to and from venues, transportation hubs, and hotels
Cost-effectiveness. Producing the event should be affordable for the event organizer and for participants and their families.
Affordable, quality overnight accommodations and restaurants
Activities and attractions for event participants and their families
One, very fundamental difference between sports-events and meetings is the spectators. “Nobody comes to watch a meeting,” Wood says. “No one sells popcorn, programs, and T-shirts. There are no cheerleaders. The dynamic and needs are very different from a convention.”
The spectator component means the sports-event traveler stays longer and brings more guests to an event than most attendees, says Larry Slade, a senior sales manager for the Lisle Convention & Visitor Bureau in Lisle, Ill. “The average length of stay is usually longer than for a meeting,” he says. “According to the Illinois Bureau of Tourism, a sports traveler spends nearly twice as much time in a city than a ‘true’ leisure traveler and the average party size is 4.36 persons per trip.”
For many sports-event organizers, selecting a destination comes down to good relationships and gut reactions.
“A CVB will win an event if it makes the organizer feel that the community wants the event and is willing to become a good partner,” says Jose H. Rodriguez, executive director of USA Judo in Colorado Springs, Colo. “The feeling you get from CVB leaders is, to me, one of the most important factors in the decision-making. You can have a great venue, a great market, and great hotels, but if you have a bad partner it will be a bad experience for both sides.”
Fishing for Business
Many CVBs have staff members devoted to servicing the sports-event market. “We hired a dedicated sales person specifically for this market,” Riley says. “He attends all major related trade shows. He builds relationships and matches event planners with communities that meet their needs.”
“We have a dedicated Sports and Entertainment department,” notes Jack Croghan, director of sports/entertainment sales and development for the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission in St. Louis, Mo. “The staff also attends a variety of events to meet one-on-one with event planners.”
CVBs are also courting local sporting venues. “We inventoried the sports facilities in Montgomery County and built relationships with the municipalities, schools, and colleges that own the facilities,” Riley says. “We are also producing a Montgomery County sports facilities guide and bid packages to provide an overview of the area's facilities and amenities, including hotels and attractions.”
Some CVBs have gone as far as building new venues. “We built a state-of-the-art sports facility through a unique partnership with the Lisle hospitality industry, the Village of Lisle, and Benedictine University, to offer the area a premier facility that can host major sporting and outdoor exhibition events,” Slade says. “The core components of the complex include a stadium, which can be utilized for many different sports; an Olympic-sized, 9-lane track; a professional baseball field; and a professional softball field.”
“The city of Reno, Nev., so much wanted to have our national championships that it built a bowling stadium,” Schneider says. “As a result, we hold our Open and Women's championships in the National Bowling Stadium in Reno on an every-third-year rotation.”
CVBs are building relationships with local sports organizations as well. “Most events will not come to a city if local expertise is not available,” Wood says. “Therefore, cultivating relationships with local sport clubs and chapters is critical. We help local organizations by lobbying for them, creating marketing pieces to get their message out to the public and political entities. We help them put their best foot forward.” Wood says.
Experts agree the sports-event travel market is a good investment. “The industry is pretty resilient to economic downturns and world issues,” Wood says. “Families will always invest in their kids and their futures. Medals will always be awarded. Super Bowls will always take place. The philosophy is truly ‘the games must go on.’”