“To be nine hours from our small hometown and run into someone from Charlotte who had just been there for a baseball tournament,” said Joe Shuttleworth, Director Parks and Recreation at City of Bridgeport. “Small world.”
In his role as his city’s parks and recreation director, Shuttleworth is still getting used to the idea that Bridgeport, West Virginia is now a national travel sports destination. Their 160,000 square-foot sport and recreation mega-plex, the Bridge, opened in 2021.
That chance encounter continues to showcase the convergence of youth sports and sports tourism with local parks and recreation taking place throughout the United States, from rural communities to major metropolitan cities. When families travel with their children for youth sports, they are not only exposed to new communities in their region, but the economic impact of their visit can also fund recreation offerings for local residents. Municipalities can rethink both the ways in which their parks and recreation departments serve to boost the health of their own residents, but how they can also consider partnerships that allow them to benefit from the fast-growing sports tourism industry.
According to a 2021 Industry Report by the Sports Events and Travel Association (now called SportsETA), the youth and amateur sports tourism industry was valued at $39.7 billion, a 320% increase from the $9.45 billion valuation in 2015. That growth is expected to continue to skyrocket and reach $77.5 billion by 2026, according to Wintergreen Research Inc. In conjunction with that, local park and recreation agencies generated $218 billion in economic activity while supporting more than 1.3 million jobs in 2019, according to a report from the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA).
“What we’ve seen in the last ten years is this extraordinary explosion in the youth sports industry,” said Michael Kelly, former General Superintendent and CEO of the Chicago Park District and NRPA chair. “Big cities don’t have the land that suburbs or more rural areas do to build these megaplexes. Parents are going to these tournaments, seeing these facilities and their amenities, and they’re planning their vacations around their children’s youth sports schedule. It’s expanding a community’s opportunity to become a travel destination.”
Kelly, who now serves as the Executive Vice President of Community Development for the Sports Facilities Companies (SFC), is seeing this convergence in realtime across their management portfolio of 40+ sports and recreation properties and 130+ active planning projects. “There’s a collision between sports tourism and local recreation. You’re seeing a race among cities and suburban towns of all shapes and sizes to develop complexes as people are trying to find new, creative ways to boost their economies.” Hundreds of communities across the country, like Bridgeport, West Virginia, are investing in multi-use, hybrid athletic complexes that go beyond traditional parks and recreation offerings and delve into the tourism space.
These new facilities not only offer extensive recreation programs and services to local community members but also tap into the ever-growing sports tourism industry through large-scale tournaments to drive new tourism visitors, a role traditionally filled by a convention and visitors bureau. Opened in June 2021 for approximately $40 million, The Bridge Sports Complex boasts six basketball courts, a 25-meter by 25-yard competition pool, a 40-by-70 foot configurable indoor turf field, fitness center, one-quarter-mile walking track, indoor climbing, concessions, four laser-graded diamond fields, and a full-size, multipurpose outdoor artificial turf field. This facility would normally be considered significantly overbuilt for a community with a population of less than 10,000, but sports tourism has shifted that paradigm.
Image courtesy of The Bridge Sports Complex
“It’s truly become a game-changer for our area,” Shuttleworth said. “As the world and economies have tightened up over the past 20 years, we’ve [parks and recreation] been pushed into developing more self-generated revenue that supports what we’re trying to do. Our sole purpose is to provide health, fitness, wellness, recreational, and outdoor opportunities to our local citizens. That’s the core of where we’re at, but this new model goes beyond that.”
“We have a lot of hotels, restaurants and shopping all within a 3-4 mile radius of our site. For those people traveling to our area for sports, we’re a very attractive location.” The collision of these industries is not lost on the city of Hoover, Alabama, which has become a pioneer in combining local recreation programming with sports tourism events in its $80 million indoor/ outdoor megaplex. The property opened in 2017, and this past year generated $55 million in direct economic impact through sports tourism. It hosted more than 125,000 local participants for recreational sports and activities, including their free year-round indoor walking track and ADA-accessible community splash pad and playground. Finding the balance between serving the local community while attracting new visitors through youth sports tourism is a delicate situation, and one that depends on a number of factors, including city/ town size, location, and resources.
“There is a huge balance,” Shuttleworth said. “It’s hard for a community our size to say, ‘Let’s spend $40 million and build this center that’s larger than a Walmart and staff it, put in world-class facilities, and offer it to our community without having some other avenue to create revenue that helps support the community operations of the facility.’”
“That balance to us—it’s difficult, and it’s one of those where we do our best to keep people happy and placated, but it doesn’t necessarily happen all the time.”
Image courtesy of The Bridge Sports Complex
In larger cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, and Miami that lack the seemingly endless acres of green space to build these multisport complexes, the priorities are all about maximizing and improving current facilities and parks. For Mike Shull, the recently retired General Manager of the Los Angeles Department of Recreation and Parks, the priority was replacing natural grass fields with synthetic turf, which requires less maintenance, as well as adding lights to many fields to keep them open later in a city where outdoor sports take place year-round.
Responsible for managing more than 450 parks throughout Los Angeles, Shull spearheaded the addition of 74 parks during his tenure. “I’m proud of adding all those new facilities, but if you ask me if it’s enough, it’s not even close,” Shull said. “You have to keep adding places to play and finding ways to add access. Parks are looked at as critical infrastructure, and they should be. When you’re talking about police, fire, and waste management, parks and recreation need to be in the same conversation. You must have that conversation about parks in the same manner as you do these other pieces of what you’d consider in government as critical infrastructure…”
In 2021, the city received a $160 million investment from the LA28 Olympic and Paralympic Games Organizing Committee and the International Olympic Committee to launch PlayLA, the single-largest commitment to youth sports development in California, to make sport more accessible to kids across LA ahead of the Olympic and Paralympic Games coming to the city in 2028.
Image courtesy of PlayLA – laparks.org/play-la
“Our numbers have tripled, quadrupled in some places,” Shull said. “It all became very affordable. There’s really nothing that youth has to pay for. That in and of itself caused a good thing, which was increased participation. … It’s made and continues to make a significant difference here in LA.”
There’s no debating the positive impact parks and recreation have on local communities from small towns to major cities, but to embrace the next generation or to capitalize on the new ‘hybrid’ models that combine local recreation with travel sports, there needs to be increased partnership and understanding between government agencies. There’s also a need for increased collaboration between the public and private sectors to continue to provide these much-needed green spaces, facilities, and programs to communities throughout the country
“Good business partnerships only work when there’s trust and understanding,” said Jack Kardys, former Director of Miami-Dade Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces Department. “Both sides can’t work in a silo toward their own end without prioritizing community benefit and community outcome. What a force multiplier when you bring the public and private sectors together to work on a problem. We would have never won WWII if we didn’t bring the private sector into the fold and harness it. This country is amazing in the way it works when it’s in a jam.”
“In government, we need to understand that the change isn’t just coming. It’s here,” Michael Kelly continued. “Consumer demand and preference, economics, and partnerships are all moving targets. If we want to serve our citizens, we need to lean in and be willing to embrace the change.”