Image courtesy of Publix Sports Park
As the COVID-19 pandemic further progresses into the endemic phase, pent-up demand for competitive sports and travel is skyrocketing, and youth sports tourism is becoming more popular than ever. In fact, $39.7 billion on the direct spending impact of amateur and youth sports tourism in 2021 generated a total economic impact of $91.8 billion, according to the Sports Events and Tourism Association (Sports ETA), a trade organization for the sports tourism industry. This generated 636,000 jobs and a total tax revenue of $12.9 billion for the local economies. Moreover, in a 2022 State of the Industry Survey completed by 176 Sports ETA destination members, 97 percent of the members hosted youth sports events in 2021.
Many experts note that some of the first events to come back from the pandemic were outdoor youth sports tournaments. And at convention centers in many U.S cities, volleyball and other indoor sports tournaments—which in some cases attracted tens of thousands of people—eclipsed attendance at conventions and meetings and sometimes filled entire hotel inventories. Clearly, youth sports tourism is an important driver of travel when it comes to filling hotel rooms and boosting local economies. As a bonus, a growing number of travelers are also eager to enjoy experiences beyond the sporting event itself and may arrive earlier or leave later to enjoy local attractions and activities.
In 2022 when the country was still coming out of COVID, 28 sports events were hosted in Rhode Island, bringing in just shy of $18 million. That figure will climb in 2023 to $30 million plus, with the lion’s share coming from youth sports events, reports John Gibbons, Executive Director of the RI Sports Commission. “During COVID, people didn’t want to give up travel tournaments, but they had to. Once the door opened, it got kicked wide open and events took off,” he says. “In 2022, we booked about 38,000 hotel nights. This fiscal year (July 1-June 30), we have so far year-to-date booked and confirmed $51 million of business, and those are direct spending numbers. We’ve already booked business out as far as 2028.”
Gibbons further reports, “We do the best with ice hockey and work with a dozen tournaments annually, including three that start after Memorial Day. The tournaments attract 300 teams total—100 each weekend—from January through October. We also host the NCAA Men’s Hockey Regionals.” Additionally, there are about six volleyball tournaments per year, with seven to eight slated for 2025. Three large cheer and dance events are also on the docket, two of which are held in January and March, plus a national dance championship in July; each attracts 5,000 competitors and a total of 15,000 people each. The recent January and March cheer events alone generated a combined $5.2 million.
Baseball—including a Little League tournament with New England and Mid-Atlantic divisions for 9- to 10-year-old boys—as well as softball, lacrosse, marathons, and cross-country races, are also in the mix. Held in mid-February, the National Prep School Invitational Basketball Tournament boasts about 32 teams and attracts college recruiters and NBA scouts from the U.S. and abroad. Many of the youth sports events are held at the Rhode Island Convention Center in Providence, and other contests, most notably ice hockey, are held at college facilities such as Brown University, Providence College, and the University of Rhode Island, as well as at local rinks.
“These youth sports events got our industry out of COVID,” says Gibbons. “Sports is back above and beyond where it ever was. In fact, sports account for more than 60 percent of the business booked by the Providence-Warwick CVB, while pre-COVID, it only accounted for 40 to 45 percent.” Looking ahead, Gibbons wants to add new business by going after NCAA events, bidding on water polo, and courting bowling tournaments, tennis, diversity events, and esports. “The toughest part of the job is to find enough, or large enough, venues. We need a public-private facility to serve the local community from Monday through Thursday and open it up to sports competitions on weekends. Facilities are expensive to build, but they bring in a lot of money.”
Certainly, Rhode Island is not alone in experiencing a surge in youth sports tourism. When discussing the key factors fueling recent dramatic increases across the U.S., Jason Clement, co-founder and CEO of the Sports Facilities Companies, which partners with cities to plan, develop, and operate venues, points to the rise in sports participation and communities’ efforts to attract events.
“More and more kids are playing sports, and more of those kids playing sports are playing travel sports. It’s where the best competition exists, oftentimes where the best coaching lies, and it also provides an experience for kids and families,” Clement explains. “The second part is the communities that host these events. There’s a bit of an arms race regarding facility development that’s taking place to host the most attractive events and drive the largest spend and tax revenue into these communities. That also spurs economic growth [such as] new development and commercial development, quick-service restaurants, hotel, and retail. The combination of all those things has created this $40 to $50 billion sports tourism industry.”
Just as important, communities recognize the importance of sport and recreation for young people and families and have been investing in it for a long time, historically via the park and recreation system. “We’re finding now that as park and recreation assets and facilities start to age, one of the ways to fund redevelopment or renovation is by utilizing sports tourism as an economic tool,” says Clement. “Traditional recreation assets are being made sports tourism capable and ready, and new venues are being utilized for parks and recreation as well. They spur economic growth in almost every community that we’re in. Significant business creation, innovation, restaurants, breweries, hotels, and retail have grown. It elevates property tax availability for the community and also elevates property values for homeowners and constituents.”
As Clement points out, “Oftentimes, in the communities that we’re in, we bring national-level programming and activities and events that otherwise wouldn’t be there. Additionally, these venues can host non-sport and non-traditional events including concerts, entertainment, black tie and philanthropic events, carnivals, festivals, car shows—all kinds of things the community wouldn’t otherwise get an opportunity to participate in.”
Regarding funding for facilities that cater to youth sports tourism, Clement suggests that municipal governments will consider general obligation bonding. “They could look at creating a TIF tax increment financing district. In some cases, philanthropic dollars are utilized for it, and sometimes [the funding] is some form of private-public partnership in which institutional money could be brought in through local businesses and organizations.” He adds, “Special taxes, hotel taxes, and tourism taxes are utilized regularly because those hotel rooms and businesses will get a return on investment as people come to stay and play.” Clement notes that other innovative ways of funding are coming, such as partnerships between sponsors. Events rights holders and management companies could also bring capital sources to the table.
Image courtesy of The Hoover Met Complex
For municipalities that want to enter or grow their presence in the youth sports tourism market, there is much to consider before investing in a venue or facility. “The first thing is to get clear on what the goals and objectives are,” says Clement. “Is it just about sports tourism and catering to the visitors that come into the marketplace? Is that balanced with providing access to the community and users? What takes priority, and when? There’s a financial return on investment that comes with that, and there’s a quality return on effort and investment as well.”
Here are a few other points that Clement believes are important to consider:
Going forward, Clement foresees more dramatic growth in youth sports tourism. “It’s just going to continue to grow because more kids and families are looking for this outlet. All the reasons that sports tourism has exploded over the last decade or two are the same reasons why continued growth will occur”. He adds, “What we found in the 2008 to 2010 window (The Great Recession) was that sports tourism actually grew. It didn’t plateau and it didn’t diminish. If an economic downturn takes place—or, in some cases, people believe the recession is already here—sports tourism will just continue to grow as families look to consolidate their trips and travel and their vacation time to go to a sports tourism destination instead.”
In tribute to the late John V. Gibbons Jr., we’d like to share the following statement, which can be found here:
“Mr. Gibbons was employed by the Providence Warwick Convention and Visitors Bureau, and then he ascended to his role as Executive Director of the Rhode Island Sports Commission, a division of the PWCVB, where he led the transformation of the sports landscape in Rhode Island. In his time with the RISC, John traveled throughout the country, representing Rhode Island and bringing lucrative business to the state, including the NCAA Men’s Basketball, Ice Hockey, Division III Wrestling, and Lacrosse Tournaments in 2024 and 2025. He was an extremely valued member of the PWCVB team, known for forming strong relationships with clients that helped solidify the state as a top destination for sporting events and sports-related meetings. John was well-respected throughout the industry for his hard work and dedication and, in 2022, received the Community Hospitality Ambassador of the Year Award from the Rhode Island Hospitality Association. “John Gibbons used his immense talent, strong work ethic, and boundless passion for sports and for life to build a program that brought millions of dollars into Rhode Island,” said Kristen Adamo, president, and CEO of the PWCVB.”
Gibbons is survived by his wife Amy, their three children, Erin M. Wood and her husband Austen, Chelsea L. Gibbons, and Sean K. Gibbons and his wife Spencer; his sister, Maureen J. McCabe and her husband Eugene and his seven grandchildren, Cole, Logan, Lucas, Sydney, Eloise, Simon, and Howard.