Sporting events are big business. Nothing new there. Freedom Hall, the KFC Yum! Center and Rupp Arena bring people in by the thousands. People pay to park, eat, shop and often stay overnight. It doesn’t take long for dollars spent by fans and participating teams to add up to millions.
But that’s Louisville and Lexington, where people have been coming to watch games being played for years. NCAA Tournament games and high school championships in Kentucky’s two largest cities have been the norm for decades. For hotels and restaurants, it has been a bonanza.
Sporting events also translate into dollar signs in smaller towns across Kentucky.
Several years ago, communities realized they didn’t have to have 20,000-seat arenas, giant motor speedways or huge baseball parks to get in on some of these sporting dollars. Smaller towns can capitalize by having several smaller venues and concentrating on large numbers of participating teams instead of just fans.
Towns big enough to have hotels or motels rely on tourists to fill their rooms. Most marketing efforts revolve around local attractions, such as museums, caves, waterparks, lakes, historic homes, Civil War sites and outlet malls. All of these elements at one time were appealing to the motor coach business, which the Kentucky Department of Travel went after in a big way. Motor coaches were lucrative, bringing visitors in groups of 40 or more. But as the economy began to tank, so did the investments of senior citizens, who were the primary travelers on the coaches.
Since most visitors’ bureaus across Kentucky are funded solely from a hotel occupancy or restaurant tax, it became essential to develop alternatives to replace lost revenues. Tourism offices, especially those with smaller staffs, are still chasing group sales and motor coaches, but also are making sporting events a priority.
Nationally, and particularly in Kentucky, the sports segment of the tourism business is the fastest growing. Because of sports tourism, hotels, restaurants, shops and local attractions have been able to remain profitable.
“Without sporting events in our town, hundreds of jobs would be lost,” said Jared Bratcher, Owensboro’s sports marketing director. “Our hotels and restaurants rely on the business from our tournaments.”
Once upon a time, statewide youth sporting events gravitated to Kentucky’s larger cities, mainly Louisville and Lexington, because they have the facilities, but they also have hotels, restaurants and things to see and do while there.
Several years ago, the winds began to shift.
In 2003, Sports Illustrated magazine named Owensboro one of America’s 50 Best Sports Towns and No. 1 in Kentucky. “Back in 2000, we hosted over 100 USSSA Baseball teams that summer,” Jared Bratcher said. “And with that success, we were hooked and went after more of these events.”
Bratcher said this year Owensboro will host six national and World Series events and numerous regional and state tournaments; the CVB has some 50 events listed on its calendar. “Owensboro was one of the first cities to recognize the importance of youth sports and the impact it can have on the economy,” added Bratcher. “The estimated impact on our city and county has grown from $2 million in 2000 to over $30 million today.”
Owensboro’s winter sports activities got a boost when The Next Level Indoor Sports Facility opened its doors in January. The privately owned, 32,000-square-foot complex has six batting cages, three basketball courts, six volleyball courts and a large baseball/softball infield. During the opening weekend, a 9-and-under baseball tournament was held, and according to co-owner and operator Jennifer Bowlds, other groups are scheduling events that will entertain locals and bring outsiders to Owensboro.
The spirit of cooperation couldn’t be more evident than in Frankfort, which has landed two large basketball tournaments
during the next three years.
The Touchstone Energy All “A” Basketball Tournament was held there in late January with 16 small Kentucky high schools advancing to the Frankfort Convention Center. The tournament previously was held in Richmond for 21 years, but a scheduling conflict with Eastern Kentucky University’s basketball team necessitated the change.
The NAIA Division I Women’s Basketball National Championship came to Frankfort March 14-20. It brought 32 teams and their fans from across the country. “The only way we could get both of these championships here is because of the partnerships with the City of Frankfort, Frankfort/Franklin County Tourism, the Chamber of Commerce and the Downtown Frankfort Association,” said Rob Minerich, executive director of the Frankfort Convention Center. “We expect the economic impact of these two tournaments over the next three years to be approximately $10 million.”
This was the first time Kentucky hosted the 32-year-old event. The Convention Center’s history with Mid-South Conference basketball tournaments in the 5,300-seat arena played a big part in landing the event. At the same time, the nearby Kentucky History Center opened an exhibit, “Women in Basketball,” which shows the changes in the women’s game over the years. The exhibition runs through May 5.
Frankfort also draws high school dance
team competitions, bodybuilding championships, collegiate basketball and volleyball
Pikeville began to draw serious attention a few years ago with the opening of the East Kentucky Exposition Center in the middle of downtown. The 7,000-seat arena has become a destination sports venue. “Sports tourism is a major economic driver in Pikeville, Pike County and eastern Kentucky,” said general manager Steve St. John. “When fans come in for our events, they eat in our restaurants, buy gas, shop, and many stay overnight.”
The Expo Center hosts several high school and college basketball tournaments, and serves as the home court for the University of Pikeville Bears, the 2011 NAIA champions. St. John said the versatile center is now home for a new indoor arena football team, the East Kentucky Drillers.
Janna Clark is the sports and sales director for the Elizabethtown CVB. In a few months, her already busy job will rev up even more.
In July, the city will unveil its 157-acre outdoor sports complex. The Elizabethtown Sports Park has 12 athletic fields that include a pair with synthetic surfaces; 12 baseball/softball diamonds; three pavilions for ceremonies, meetings and vendors; locker rooms for game officials; shaded stadium seating; a 3-mile walking/jogging trail; and state-of-the art lighting on all full-size fields.
One of the unique elements of the venue Clark likes to tout is the Americans with Disabilities Act-certified “Miracle Field.” “It’s constructed of a rubberized material specifically designed for athletes with physical disabilities. It’s the crown jewel,” said Clark.
The park, which will cost an estimated $29 million to build, is being funded by a 2 percent restaurant tax and will be owned and operated by the city. The facility is projected to attract 400,000 out-of-town visitors annually. Pre-opening chatter about the E-town Park reached even The New York Times last September with a story that proclaimed it to be one of the best in the country. Owensboro also received a solid mention in the article, giving Kentucky an extra bump in publicity on a national scale.
“The youth traveling market is a perfect fit for Elizabethtown,” said Clark, who worked several years with the sports marketing and event promotion company Host Communications in Lexington before moving to E-town in 2007 with her husband. “We are conveniently located and full of family-friendly hotels, restaurants and retail establishments. But in addition, our local residents will be able to enjoy a state-of-the-art park that will be open daily for the community.”
During the past four years, the Hopkins County Tourist Commission has directed its sports tourism efforts toward disc golf as host of the Madisonville Open Pro-Am Disc Golf Tournament. Executive Director Tricia Noel said those efforts are beginning to pay off.
“Last year, we attracted over 110 players from as far away as California,” she said. “And we are looking to add another 18 holes in order to expand the number of participants for this tournament. Many of the players use our event as a stopover on their way to North Carolina for the World Championships.”
The fifth annual Madisonville Open will be held July 6-8 at Madisonville City Park. “This tournament brings national recognition to Madisonville and Hopkins County from competitors who travel all over the country for these events,” Noel said.
Paul Dorries of Tulsa, Okla., a participant last year, said the course is definitely in his top 10. “[The course] is very fair and fun with lots of picturesque holes.”
Noel said Hopkins County has begun work to construct a 105-acre sports complex with fields for softball, baseball, soccer and football, and possibly an indoor archery range.
London seems to have found a niche in sports to complement its successful World Chicken Festival.
According to Elaine Harris of the London-Laurel County Tourist Commission, four years ago the McKensie ASA Pro/Am Archery Tournament came to town, and its success caught everyone off guard. “No one expected it to be as large as it turned out to be,” she said. “Most of our restaurants were totally overwhelmed.”
The event, slated for June 1-3 this year, has grown to fill not only the hotels but also the campgrounds. Archery competitors from 34 states, Canada and Australia have made their way to London. “The economic impact also helps our grocery and retail stores, area attractions and even the movie theaters,” said Harris.
She is quick to point out that London offers other sports-related events. Each April, more than 700 cyclists from 22 states visit to take part in the annual Redbud Ride. Several fishing tournaments draw entrants to Laurel River Lake. “We’re also home to the Daniel Boone Motocross Park and the London Dragway, which host several national events that attract many competitors and spectators,” Harris said.
Bowling Green points to the
diversity of sporting events it draws as the big reason the city’s tourism business has remained strong.
Amy Cardwell, sports director at the Bowling Green Area CVB, said strong community relationships and support have led to the Kentucky High School Athletic Association bringing three major championships to town. “We got a 10-year extension in 2010 for the Leachman Buick-GMC-Cadillac KHSAA Girls and Boys State Golf Championship,” she said. “We have the Russell Athletic KHSAA Gridiron Bowl [state football class championships] under contract through 2014. And recently the Houchens Industries KHSAA Girls’ Sweet 16 committed for another four years.”
Bowling Green has concentrated on Amateur Softball Association events for several years. The city will host the 2013 Class A 10 and Under Girls’ National Fast Pitch Championships. “This is just the second Class A national championship for the state,” Cardwell added.
She pointed out that last summer a local salon owner asked how she could become more involved with the tourism office. “Apparently, they had a rush of girls who were participating in one of the softball tournaments who came to their salon for hair feathers,” Cardwell said.
Lovers Lane Soccer Complex hosts numerous tournaments annually. The city’s disc golf courses also attract several tournaments, including the largest amateur tournament in the country. National motocross events and the American Working Dog Federation Championships bring different types of visitors, according to Cardwell. The National Soap Box Derby Rallies also will be held in Bowling Green this year and next.
“Our attractions, Western Kentucky University and our hospitality industry are huge components of why we bid on sporting events,” Cardwell said. “We also have a group of volunteers, the ‘Sports Masters,’ who host visiting teams with welcome receptions at hotels, provide area discounts and coupons, and give information about our area.”
While individual communities do much of the heavy lifting to attract sporting events, a state-level agency, the Kentucky Sports Authority, established in 2005 by the Kentucky Tourism, Arts & Heritage Cabinet, is there to help.
The Sports Authority was created to bring athletic events to Kentucky, the end result being jobs, tourism and economic development. The organization also is responsible for sports marketing initiatives to build the state’s image in the sports industry. The two-person agency is made up of executive director Kevin Marie Nuss and former sports marketing manager Nick Hope. It is partially funded by a 1 percent statewide tax on occupied hotel rooms.
The KSA also oversees and coordinates a subgroup called TEAM Kentucky. This is a group of CVBs, facilities and sports commissions that participate by virtue of a “partnership fee,” a large portion of which is
reimbursable through the Kentucky Department of Travel’s Marketing Incentive Program. TEAM Kentucky comprises 20 partner communities from around the state that are interested in hosting sporting events and have the hotels, facilities, staff and volunteers to pull it off.
The Kentucky Sports Authority represents the state at two major trade shows each year. The National Association of Sports Commissions Annual Symposium and TEAMS Conference provide an excellent opportunity for KSA and TEAM Kentucky representatives to interact with potential clients and discuss the virtues of Kentucky for their events.
“We’re a liaison between some of these potential clients and our partner communities,” Hope said. “The criteria we use to try to pair available events with the appropriate communities involve many factors, but the most prevalent would be championship
facilities, event résumé, local sponsor availability, number of hotels, location, airport access, local organizing groups and personnel considerations.
“Our TEAM Kentucky partners definitely get involved with the KSA. We poll our partners and try to get an idea of what direction they would like to take over the next year,” Hope said. “We want to market the state as a whole and under that umbrella get a larger seat at the table on a national level for our partners.”