Parks and Recreation Departments Benefit from Sports Tourism

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In 2005, parks and recreation operations manager Joel Dunn approached the Carson City, Nev., convention and visitors bureau with a proposal to boost sports tourism in the city.

(Photo courtesy of Columbus Area Visitors Center)(Photo courtesy of Columbus Area Visitors Center)

In 2005, parks and recreation operations manager Joel Dunn approached the Carson City, Nev., convention and visitors bureau with a proposal to boost sports tourism in the city. "When we originally started the campaign, the intent was to bring in some additional tournaments so that we would reap the benefits of our concessions sales," Dunn says. "We knew that if we could bring in a few more thousand dollars from concessions each year, we could offset some of the operational costs of our programs for our residents."

It paid off. The bureau's grant of $15,000, which covered costs such as event staffing and facility operations, allowed Dunn to bring in 12,000 visitors from outside of a 100-mile radius and more than $3.6 million in local spending. For the 2012-13 tournament season, the bureau has invested nearly $71,000, and Dunn estimates that the campaign is on track to bring in $18.5 million to Carson City's economy.

Dunn has spent the past seven years attracting and growing tournaments in Carson City, as well as building support among businesses and residents. The local hotel industry was on board relatively early. "About halfway through this campaign we had one of our major lodging properties say that if it were not for sports tourism, they would have had an eight percent occupancy rate and more than likely would have had to shut their doors," Dunn says.

From amateur youth tournaments to NCAA tournaments, communities are vying to land a piece of the largely recession-proof action. According to a 2012 report from the National Association of Sports Commissions, visitors spent more than $7.6 billion on sports travel in 2011, a 6.5 percent increase over the previous year. Most of that is spent locally on food, lodging and retail, providing a significant economic boost that's good for everyone in the community, including the parks and recreation department. Once seen as an intrusion into resources intended to serve the local community, sports tournaments are now embraced by many parks and recreation departments.

"What we're seeing is a gradual confluence of mutual interest," says NASC executive director Don Schumacher. "Ten years ago, parks and recreation departments were very defensive when someone from a sports commission or convention and visitors bureau approached them about a tournament. But as departments have been under budgetary pressures, they have realized that if they can demonstrate that their facilities are valuable as a resource to attract visitors and spending, then they can be seen as part of the economic development engine in the community, instead of an expense line in the budget."

"The figure we use is $208 per day per visitor - that is what gets spent in the local community," says director of parks and recreation Michael Golden of the sports tourism efforts in Chesterfield County, Va. "Our last fiscal year, we had a 46 percent increase in sports tourism over the fiscal year before, up to $20 million. Our budget went up by between $67,000 and $70,000 to handle the increased volume."

Though the outcome speaks for itself, convincing residents that giving up use of a field or facility for a day or a weekend here or there will actually benefit not only them but the entire local economy requires a bit of work. "I've got youth and adult participants paying for our recreation programs, and they don't want to lose a Friday night coed softball game for the sake of a tournament," says Dunn.

"It's really a culture change," Golden says. "The local sports organizations think, 'I've got my fields, that's all I care about.' But if they want to participate in some of these events, if they want nicer facilities, we've got to pay the bills somehow."

The shift requires focusing not on what a recreation department or its users must give up, but what they stand to gain. The city of Columbus, Ind., got into the tournament hosting business in 2004 with the United States Specialty Sports Association Girls' Fastpitch World Series and a few smaller events. "It was ideal for parks and recreation," says director of sports tourism Jim Dietz. "For the most part, a lot of their facilities were sitting vacant on weekends. They had a lot of leagues during the week, but nothing on weekends. It was perfect to take an existing facility, without spending additional money, and bring in a tournament."

A little extra money can make a big difference for a parks and recreation department, though not necessarily in ways that are noticed by users - Dunn says that although his department's budget has been cut 13 percent over the past five years, it has been able to maintain its staff and programming thanks to the added revenue. More noticeable to users are the improvements in facilities that come along with sports tourism. "Whenever you hold a tournament, especially a rather significant regional or national tournament, you upgrade the quality of your field and your facilities," says Dietz. "You might fertilize the grass a little bit more or irrigate more. What typically will happen is, once you reach that higher plateau of quality, you don't drop back. And then, quite frankly, it becomes a matter of pride for your parks and recreation department."

This year, the city of Columbus has 80 scheduled sports events. To keep up with demand, the city has upgraded its facilities and added a new irrigation system to bear the added use. "We have some 35 soccer fields, depending on the configuration," Dietz says. "It was a combination of the revenue from the tournaments and some money that was given through the city to enhance it. It was given because of the potential money we could get from hosting soccer tournaments, but we also use that facility for rugby and will use it down the road for field hockey and lacrosse."

Sprucing up existing facilities is just the beginning, says Schumacher. "One of the really big benefits is that everyone is able to show the value of these facilities, and then the question comes up, 'Do we need more sports facilities?' And then, 'If we somehow make them available, how many more tournaments could we host that would bring more visitors to town?' Cities can't possibly host tournaments all the time, which means fields are available to the public a lot of the time."

The added space means local organizations that utilize parks and recreation facilities don't have to compete with each other and can expand their programs, which in turn leads to more revenue for the recreation department to support and expand its own programs. Participation is further fueled by sports events themselves. Even when they can't use the facilities, events provide an inexpensive form of entertainment for local residents, as well as expose youths to different sports and possibly motivate them to be more active.

Getting communities on board to use existing resources is one thing, but investing in a larger, regional sports park, which is becoming almost essential for sports tourism campaigns to remain competitive, is a harder sell. "The past couple years have been focused on community awareness and trying to find additional revenue to invest in a regional park for the city," says Dunn. "The one thing we're lacking in Carson City is that reinvestment in our own sports fields. In order to continue to expand, we're going to have to look at building a regional park."

In August, residents in Frankenmuth, Mich., headed to the polls to vote on whether a tax increase would fund the construction of a new recreation center. The design was not very different from other recreation centers: an indoor facility with a track, multiuse courts and meeting rooms, and 13 outdoor athletic fields, a playground, a splash park and concessions areas. Unlike other facilities, however, the Frankenmuth Recreation Center would be completely free for residents, relying solely on revenue from sports tournaments to fund its upkeep.

"This is an amenity that will keep kids in the gyms and on the fields instead of getting into trouble elsewhere," Chris Rittmueller, president of the Frankenmuth Youth Sports Association, told The Saginaw News. "It is a positive in terms of bringing people into Frankenmuth, hopefully bringing young families into Frankenmuth and giving our residents a place to stay active, free of charge for city residents."

The sports association spent six years developing a plan for the center, which included a cost analysis to determine the number of tournaments required to break even. But as good as the concept was in theory, investing in a self-sustaining recreation center required a greater leap of faith than the residents of Frankenmuth were willing to take, and voters turned down the proposal. Said Rittmueller in a statement, "I've had people I consider friends ask me questions about it, listen to me explain the way in which it will operate, and basically say, 'Well, that's what you say.' "

Convincing a community to pay higher taxes to fund a facility to be used by outside groups has a low success rate, but residents are more accepting of an increase on services primarily used by visitors, like restaurant or hotel taxes. In July, the City of Elizabethtown, Ky., opened one of the largest sports parks in the country, featuring 24 lighted fields. The $29 million project was financed by a two percent increase in restaurant sales tax. "Yes, the residents are paying for it every time they eat out, but it's a tourist area," says Schumacher. "The largest percentage is actually being borne by people coming to Elizabethtown for sports purposes or going to Fort Knox for military purposes, whatever it is."

Officials in Virginia's Chesterfield County have taken a slightly different approach to providing tournament facilities. While they have invested in their own resources, the county has also encouraged local nonprofit groups to build facilities. The county helped fund construction of 12 synthetic turf fields at the privately owned River City Sportsplex. In exchange, it holds a long-term lease that allows the parks and recreation department to use the fields during the week, increasing what it can do with its own programming. By pooling county and nonprofit resources, the two groups are able to host larger tournaments than either could individually. Even when county facilities are not being used for tournaments, everyone still benefits, Golden says. "My view is that as long as it's happening in the county and folks are coming and staying in our hotels and our kids can come and watch, it doesn't matter if it's private or public facilities; it's good for us."

BY ALL MEANS From tournaments to triathlons, myriad opportunities exist for communities to bring in outside visitors - and their spending. (Photo Courtesy of City of Columbus)BY ALL MEANS From tournaments to triathlons, myriad opportunities exist for communities to bring in outside visitors - and their spending. (Photo Courtesy of City of Columbus)

Having a state-of-the-art facility at your disposal doesn't guarantee success, however. Community support is needed not only to build a facility, but also to supply the other necessary elements of a successful tournament. About 30 miles away from Carson City, the City of Sparks opened its Golden Eagle Regional Park in 2008, featuring 1.4 million square feet of synthetic turf, the largest single installation in North America. "We did have some competition," says Dunn, "but with the location of the fields - it's about 35 or 40 minutes north of Reno/Sparks, and they just haven't seen businesses grow in that area, so there's no lodging - if you're playing out there, you're a minimum half-hour drive from where you're going to stay."

"What's really looked upon is the facility, the number of fields available, and whether they fit with the size of the tournament," says Ron Radigonda, executive director of the Amateur Softball Association/USA Softball of the association's bidding criteria. "We have 150 teams a year at some of our tournaments. In order to best accommodate that, you need 15 fields in close proximity that are all of suitable quality. Then, do they have the corresponding number of hotel rooms that can handle the number of visitors?"

The ASA awards bids for its 115 tournaments at its national convention every November and looks at a variety of factors that the bidding city or organization must have considered. The best bids cover all the bases, including marketing, facility use, hotel availability - areas over which no one city department or organization has complete expertise, nor the resources to take on.

"If you can get the convention and visitors bureau, the sports commission and the parks and recreation department together, it's going to be a successful event," says Radigonda. "The city is actually putting the bid in and going forward using the three prongs: the marketing aspect of the CVB; the relationship building of the sports commission; and the work of the park and recreation people to put the tournament on. That's a pretty empowering group that some cities have figured out and embraced."

There is one more element that is essential to the success of a sporting event - local sports organizations. For them, the benefits of sports tourism extend beyond improved facilities, providing more incentive for them to give up not only their facilities for a tournament, but their time, as well.

"Here's the normal scenario," explains Schumacher. "The parks and recreation department has leased fields to a club, and the club is responsible for all maintenance and must keep the facility in at least the condition it was in when the lease was signed. The club has to go out and figure out how to pay for all of that maintenance. The beauty of the tournament is that a club can earn money, the department can rent the facility, the event takes place, the visitors come to town, and they leave money behind."

Clubs may work with a sports commission or the local CVB to bid for a tournament, but the development of local, grassroots tournaments is becoming more common. "They're essentially locally owned and controlled, and they grow every year," says Schumacher. Because they originate from within the community, they tend to sidestep objections over local versus tourist use of facilities. Moreover, there is no bidding process required for recurring events.

"It's a lot easier to keep an existing customer than recruit a new one," says Golden. "Our focus is on keeping and growing the events we have, helping our local groups and start small, rather than going out and bidding on a tournament that might come one time and not again for 10 years."

Even if they're not involved in the initial bidding of a tournament, local leagues can still play an important role in organizing and hosting a tournament. "We depend not on the county but sports groups to bring volunteers to run these events," Golden says. "Our role is to provide nice facilities so that people will want to come back again. You put the tournament on; we'll help you with the facilities."

"It takes a small army to run a successful tournament," says Dunn, but it's worth it. "A lot of communities are missing the boat on this. If you have the resources, the fields, the rooms to bring these tournaments in, you really need to do it."

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