According to a 2015 Industry Report by the Sports Events and Travel Association (Sports ETA), the youth and amateur sports tourism industry in the United States was valued at $9.45 billion. Fast forward to their 2021 report, and that figure is now $39.7 billion, a 320 percent increase in six years. This growth is predicted to continue and reach $77.5 billion in 2026, according to Wintergreen Research, Inc. Check out these six youth sports facilities that are capitalizing on this explosive growth in the travel sports economy.
A fantastic example of a brownfield site redevelopment, the UW Health Sports Factory was built in Rockford on the site of a vacant school district administration building and several manufacturing companies from the 1950s and 1960s. The city received a $200,000 United States Environmental Protection Agency (USEPA) Grant in 2009 to clean up two soil hot spots, and remove petroleum-free products from the site, work which was completed in 2012. To fund the project, special legislation was passed to direct approximately $12 million of the Tourism (Hotel/Motel) Tax toward the $18 million facility. Due to complications from the site existing in a 100-year flood plain, the facility had to be elevated 21 inches. This increased the cost of the project to $24 million. The project also secured more than $10 million in grants, including $5.3 million in the Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) “IKE” Disaster Recovery Program. After opening, the project secured an additional $1.9 million in the form of a 10-year naming rights deal with UW Health for this downtown facility. The venue features eight basketball courts, including one championship court, and is situated right on the banks of Rock River in downtown Rockford.
Facing a decline in population and falling real estate values in the mid-2010s, the City of Rocky Mount cast a vision for an exciting new anchor project to lead the redevelopment of their downtown and spur economic growth. Funded by a special obligation fund of $33.7 million and with the benefit of $7 million from the federal New Market Tax Credits Program and a small property tax increase, a dynamic sports and event facility was championed by (now former) City Manager Charles Penny. Penny faced significant public opposition from community members who didn’t see how one facility could make such a large impact. After being built, the Rocky Mount Event Center has far exceeded initial projections and the data speaks volumes.
Since opening in 2018, the 165,000-square-foot facility has hosted hundreds of sporting events, tournaments, corporate meetings, and concerts – including hosting the Harlem Globetrotters during the venue’s inaugural year. In 2021, the center produced more than $7 million in direct economic impact through tourism, and in 2022, that number grew to $14.9 million. In that same year, the facility hosted more than 77,011 guests for various tourism-related events as well as more than 50,000 residents for local events and programs like their Spooktacular Oktoberfest, which was free for residents.
Image courtesy of Rocky Mount Event Center
Located 15 miles from Austin, Round Rock’s claim to fame is that they are the “Sports Capital of Texas”. A keystone of that motto is the Round Rock Sports Center, which opened in 2014. The 82,800-square-foot indoor center includes six basketball courts and seating capacity for 3,000 spectators. The facility employs 50-60 part-time employees for events and nine full-time City of Round Rock staff members. The $14.5 million facility was funded leveraging three funding mechanisms, cash from the hotel tax fund, city-issued hotel revenue bonds, and a self-financed construction fund. This amazing facility is used for both sports tourism events and to support recreation for local users – a growing trend amongst these sports facilities. The site reports that 25 percent of the usage is allocated to tourism-based visitors, and 75 percent to Round Rock residents. The Hotel Occupancy Tax (HOT) goes to support the ongoing operations and maintenance of the facility – revenue generated by out-of-town visitors coming for sports tournaments. Through national, state, and regional tournaments in everything from basketball to quadball to volleyball, the City partners with Go Round Rock CVB to generate more than $16 million in economic impact in 2021 alone.
This $58 million, 129-acre park was the vision of Mayor Tracy Honea and his staff at the City of Albertville. “We had several feasibility studies done and it became apparent that it (Sand Mountain Park) would be an economic engine early on. It was just a matter of connecting enough dots so that it made sense financially for the city to take on such a task,” said Mayor Honea. The original five-year economic impact forecast totaled more than $34 million; this amount was exceeded in year two of operation. The project was in planning for over five years before the issue went to referendum and passed a one-cent sales tax increase, passing by a vote of 4-0 in 2017. In 2019, the project broke ground, and then officially celebrated its grand opening in 2021 with a black-tie event and community celebration. Sand Mountain Park includes a 103,000-square-foot indoor recreation center, outdoor water park, splash pads, numerous playgrounds, 16 tennis courts, a 7,500-seat amphitheater, and 14 outdoor turf fields.
Image courtesy of Sand Mountain Park & Amphitheater
An early pioneer in the sports tourism industry, Gatlinburg knows what it takes to bring tournament organizers to the area. The city may have a smaller population, but they welcome more than 12 million visitors each year. Funded by a joint venture between the City of Gatlinburg and Sevier County, the property features both indoor and outdoor sports amenities. Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner was thrilled with Rocky Top’s performance for 2017-18, having an economic impact of $45.7 million, When speaking to the press, Werner added “Rocky Top Sports World has surpassed all expectations and is a vital part of Gatlinburg’s economic growth.” Voted a 2022 Champion of Economic Impact in Sports Tourism by Sports Destination Management Magazine, Rocky Top’s outsourced operating team, the Sports Facilities Companies, produced a whopping $55.6 million in economic impact.
“Rocky Top Sports World continues to surpass expectations since the multi-sport campus opened in Gatlinburg in 2014,” Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner said in a 2022 interview. “Entering the sports tourism realm and introducing numerous families to Gatlinburg has proven to be an important element of the economic growth in the city over the past eight years.”
Image courtesy of Rocky Top Sports World
This $38 million outdoor sports park was developed through an innovative partnership between the Panama City Beach Tourist Development Council (TDC), land donated by St. Joe Company, Bay District Schools, Florida Department of Transportation, the City of Panama City Beach, and the Bay County Commission. Located on 160 acres on the east end of Panama City Beach, this outdoor sports destination includes 13 multi-purpose rectangular fields, 9 synthetic turf fields, and two championship fields. The property opened in July of 2019, and that same year the complex hosted more than 80,000 visitors and filled 120,000 hotel room nights. In 2021, the park produced $110 million in economic impact for the city and had a calendar booked for 2022 – 50 of 52 weekends slated to host large-scale sports events. The outdoor project has been so successful for the TDC and the city that they have approved an additional investment of $41 million to expand their sports offerings with a state-of-the-art, 112,000-square-foot indoor sports center.
“The center is a game changer that will have positive benefits for Panama City Beach and all of Bay County,” President and CEO of Visit Panama City Beach, Dan Rowe wrote in an email. “With its ability to generate incremental non-summer visitation through sports tournaments and technical conferences, this facility will help strengthen and diversify our local economy.”
Image courtesy of Publix Sports Park