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Local youths are among those who enjoy league play at the Fieldhouse Sportscenter, purchased recently by the city with sports tourism dollars in mind.
McKenzie Robinson | SBJ
Local youths are among those who enjoy league play at the Fieldhouse Sportscenter, purchased recently by the city with sports tourism dollars in mind.

City, region pursue sports tourism dollars

Officials say Midwest location is just right to attract tournaments

Posted online

Sports tourism is big business. Globally, the industry was pegged at $323 billion in 2020, and it is expected to reach $1.8 trillion by 2030, a compound annual growth rate of 16%, according to Sports Tourism Media, which publishes Sport and Travel Magazine.

While the global numbers are monumental, Lance Kettering, executive director of the Springfield Sports Commission, said the effects are felt right here in the Queen City.

“I certainly think there’s room for a piece of the pie,” Kettering said.

One of Springfield’s strengths, said Kettering, is Lake Country Soccer Inc., a complex in northeast Springfield that includes 18 fields, giving it anchor status, meaning tournament operators recognize it as having what they need to support an event. A weakness: Kettering said only four of the fields are turfed.

“Most facilities in the Midwest are turfed because of the funky weather here,” he said.

Tourney organizers want to know they can have an event without worrying about it being cut short by the elements and having to refund money to registered teams.

Kettering’s eyes light up when he thinks about the expanded sports facility offerings Springfield will soon be able to boast. The Betty & Bobby Allison Sports Town complex under construction in the city’s northwest will add 12 soccer fields, four of them turf.

Sports Town also will have four indoor basketball or volleyball courts and two indoor soccer facilities – all of which expand what Kettering calls Springfield’s inventory of facilities.

Each March (with the exception of 2020, when the event was canceled for the coronavirus pandemic), Springfield hosts some 350 teams for the National Christian HomeSchool Basketball Championships, Kettering said, and organizers reserve around 30 gym floors throughout the city. He’s excited about the city’s recent purchase of the Fieldhouse Sportscenter, with its four basketball courts under the same roof to add to the inventory of available hoops.

The courts begin to add up – and so does the revenue of hosting 350 teams, with coaches and players, plus their families, staying in hotels, visiting local attractions and eating at restaurants.

Kettering says the Sports Events & Tourism Association estimates each person who visits a community for sports tourism spends $208 per day. But his organization tries to be more conservative.

“We generally say $125 to $150,” he said.

Kettering said the home-school tourney alone equates to at least $4.2 million in visitor spending.

Springfield has high hopes for more basketball and soccer tournaments, though the city has also hosted competitions in many other sports, including a BMX bike championship in October. Even esports – electronic gaming – involve physical travel and tournament play.

Whatever cities choose to do, Kettering said they need to play to their strengths, and those may be surprising ones – like the world’s largest indoor beach volleyball complex, which opened in Ozark in June.

“That’s a good example of a community finding a niche,” Kettering said, “but who would have thought it would be beach volleyball in Ozark, Missouri?”

ARPA debate
While sports tourism investment seems to promise financial returns, one debate that has sprung up around the topic is the use of funds from the American Recue Plan Act of 2021 to pay for it. The federal government allocated the city of Springfield roughly $40 million for its coronavirus recovery efforts, and tourism investment is an allowable expenditure under the program.

The reason seems clear enough. Tourism worldwide has suffered during the COVID-19 pandemic, and Springfield shared in that loss. Myriad events were canceled or downsized, and the losses in revenue were steep. The Springfield-Greene County Park District reported a loss of over $5.2 million in fiscal 2021, director Bob Belote told Springfield City Council at an Aug. 9 meeting.

In that meeting, Springfield City Council considered the use of $2 million in ARPA funds to purchase the Fieldhouse Sportscenter from a private owner at a total cost of $5.2 million. An objection by a council member to the piecemeal use of ARPA funds resulted in an amendment to the measure to instead use general funds, and this was approved at the Aug. 23 meeting.

The Fieldhouse Sportscenter was a unique opportunity, Belote said at the time. Some 400,000 people used the facility in 2019, and the building was in excellent shape, he said. Additionally, the owners were offering a 20% discount if the city were to purchase it, just to see it stay in the community.

Kettering noted that some of the community’s top priorities for ARPA funds, like homelessness relief or mental health services, are not ones that can pay for themselves.

“Sports tourism is one element that can help pay for those resources,” he said. “In bringing in tourism dollars to turn into tax revenue, we can fund those programs that are also needed in the community. It can be a big revenue driver to help all programs needed in the community.”

Springfield City Council also has been asked to allocate $4 million in ARPA funds to the Betty & Bobby Allison Sports Town project. A decision on that request has not yet been made.

Branson sports tourism
Well known for its shows, Branson has been a tourist destination since Marble Cave, later renamed Marvel Cave – now included with admission to Silver Dollar City – first began charging visitors for walk-throughs in 1894. Today, entrepreneurs may just invest as much in bats and balls as they do in rhinestones and hairspray.

As general manager of Ballparks of America LLC, Scott Bailes oversees a facility that includes five baseball fields, all designed in the images of famous ballparks. Players are put up in dorms to compete in tournaments, with games taking place on replicas of Boston’s Fenway Park or Chicago’s Wrigley Field. Teams arrive, and out come the cameras for photos in front of the facility’s version of Fenway’s Green Monster or Wrigley’s ivy-covered brick outfield.

Bailes said he is excited to see the investment in sports facilities in all of southwest Missouri, including Springfield, Branson and beyond.

“It’s just a tried and proven way to get people to visit your town,” he said. “If you just look at what the travel teams spend when they come to your community, it’s amazing.”

He said when families come to Branson for a week in June, they’re not just looking forward to two baseball games per day. Instead, they’re thinking about Silver Dollar City, White Water, Fritz’s Adventure and other attractions.

Bailes sees a synergy between Branson and Springfield, with tourney participants flying into Springfield, making a day trip to Branson and competing at their tournament site, whatever that sport may be.

He enjoys a similar synergy with the Branson RecPlex, the city’s multipurpose sports complex.

“They had a tournament that had gotten so big they either had to find more fields or this tournament was going to go away,” he said.

Cindy Shook, Branson’s parks director, asked Bailes if he could help, and he opened his fields and concessions for the event, which he said was a success.

In 2021, Shook said she had 48 tournaments scheduled at the RecPlex, and total attendance so far has been 60,030.

An investment
Tracy Kimberlin, president of the Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau Inc., acknowledges that Springfield is not alone in building tournament-grade sports facilities in hopes of attracting competitors.

“It’s not unusual to see these kinds of facilities being built in communities far smaller than Springfield,” he said.

But he said Springfield has a geographical advantage being located in the center of the country.

“That’s a big deal to tournament organizers,” he said. “The easier you are to get to – the more teams in a reasonable drive to your location – the better.”

Plus, Springfield has outdoor opportunities, such as the original Bass Pro Shops Outdoor World and proximity to Branson.

“We’ve got a lot of assets other communities do not have,” he said.

Park Board Director Belote noted a lot of partners are very interested in sports tourism, and these include the parks system, the city of Springfield, the CVB, Springfield Public Schools and area universities.

“They all get it,” he said.

Belote is mostly focused on the impact on local residents.

“I come at it from what are we doing for our local families, local athletes, first and foremost,” he said, noting athletes can make great use of upgraded facilities for league play and recreation.

Belote agrees that Springfield is a viable contender for sports tourism dollars and that even with investments made in other cities, there is enough action to go around.

“I absolutely think there is, but I think we’ve got to be smart about it,” he said. “We have to be very strategic in how we go about the facilities that are required.”

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