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Sports Parks Energize Local Economies

One of my interests outside of work is coaching my son’s travel baseball team. He and his teammates are passionate about the sport, so the other coaches and I really enjoy the time helping the boys improve their skills and learn the game. We try to keep the amount of actual travel reasonable, but we do get to see different ballparks in our region.

It has been interesting to see communities make investments that replace ordinary ballparks with attractions that draw visitors. From firsthand experience, the quality of the park itself is a primary factor when teams consider where to play tournaments.

In September 2017, a Time magazine cover article quoted statistics from WinterGreen Research, a private firm tracking the economics of youth sports over a 10-year period. The report showed a $15 billion market with an average growth rate of 7 percent per year.

A different report published in 2013 from the National Center for Charitable Statistics estimated out-of-town tournaments accounted for 27 percent of family travel. Both studies found the sports tourism industry to be remarkably resistant to recession. In fact, revenue from sports tourism is a proven boon to economies that host athletes and their families.

Brad Lacy, president of the Conway Chamber of Commerce, has seen the positive impact youth sports can have on a city’s economy.

“In trying to be realistic and deliberate about our opportunities for economic development, youth sports became the mechanism through which we built a destination spot,” he said.

The City of Conway constructed a five-field softball park called City of Colleges Park in 2009 and a nine-field baseball park called Conway Station Park in 2011. These parks are among the best of their kind in the central United States. Both are exceptionally maintained and feature covered bleachers, air conditioned restroom and concession facilities, and fields built to appropriate youth sports dimensions.

Large-scale tournaments pump money into a city’s local economy through the hotel and restaurant industries, but also through less obvious sectors. For example, anyone who has traveled to a tournament can attest to the amount of downtime involved. During their free time, families go to the movies, shop, or attend a local event. It is not uncommon to see groups decked out in uniforms and team colors around town throughout the year.

“From mid-March through October our parks are booked,” Conway Parks Director Steve Ibbotson said. “Each tournament has a minimum of 60 teams — when you multiply that by the number of players, family members, coaches, you can clearly see how it adds up.”

Ibbotson said revenue from sales taxes as well as advertising and promotion tax revenues are sources of income for the city.

There are factors to consider before a community should invest in a major sports park project:

  1. Consider conducting an economic feasibility study first. Conservative estimates for expected revenue and realistic cost estimates for construction as well as maintenance should be included in the study.

  2. Next, be sure to hire qualified, experienced, licensed professionals to design and construct the park. Lacy addressed the importance of this, saying “We build for quality. From the facility’s architecture, lighting, seating, etcetera. This leads to positive experiences and helps us stand out as a destination.”

  3. Once your park is constructed, dedicate a qualified staff and a sufficient budget to adequately maintain it. Immaculate parks improve the experience for the user and leave a lasting impression on visitors, which may lead to repeat tournaments.

  4. Repeat bookings are essential to maximizing the return on your investment. Before allowing a third party to run tournaments at your park, be sure to have a written agreement with them that outlines all terms of use and ensures they are a good representative for your city. When people feel welcome, safe and fairly treated, they remember it.

Youth sports are not only a source of enjoyment for families but a significant economic benefit for cities. If your city is considering such an investment, the steps outlined above are a good start in the planning process. The next step will be to look around your community to improve the non-sports options that cater to families.

Matt Crafton P.E., LEED AP
President & CEO