Sports tourism a score for economy

Sports continues to be big business in the Tri-Cities.

Visit Tri-Cities, the Tri-City area’s visitors and convention bureau, reports that last year there were 212 sports, convention and group activities that attracted 127,931 visitors who spent $38,157,557.

The same report estimates that in 2019 and beyond there will be 227 sports, convention and group activities that will attract 143,929 people who will spend $48,895,758, or 28 percent more in spending.

“Sports tourism provides significant economic impact for our community,” said Michael Novakovich, president and chief executive officer of Visit Tri-Cities. “Last year, sports and conventions sales generated over $38 million in visitor spending. More than 42 percent of this economic impact is attributable to overnight visitation of athletes and their families attending and participating in sporting events.”

The benefit to the community is multifaceted, Novakovich said.

“When athletes and their families visit the Tri-Cities for sporting events, they spend a considerable amount of money as they stay in our hotels, eat in our restaurants, take in our attractions, buy from our retail, pump gas and purchase groceries,” he said. “These are imported dollars — dollars that didn’t exist in our community until these visitors arrived.”

Novakovich added that visitor spending in the region supports more than 6,300 jobs.

Twenty-five years ago, the numbers were nowhere near what they are now.

But something happened back then to help: a community-led sports council was created.

Starting a sports council

Even back in the 1990s, community leaders knew sports was big business.

So Don Hart and a group of like-minded citizens created the Tri-Cities Sports Council in 1996.

“In 1996, the Tri-Cities was going through some harrowing economic times because the DOE had cut a number of key programs in the area over the previous years …,” Hart said. “There were a number of task forces underway to look at possibilities and new ideas.”

Hart, who was chairman of USA Swimming National Officials at that time, picked up ideas that included creating a council to fuel economic development through sports.

Besides Hart, that first group included Russ Burtner, Randy Dolven, Stan Johnson, Grant Linnen, CJ Mitchell, Paul Whitemarsh, Randy Willis, Kris Watkins and Tana Bader Inglima.

“We defined our objectives: Closely define our target markets – this became refined over the areas of youth sports, adult sports, support to the minor league type professional teams in the area,” Hart said. “Encourage and develop the number of sporting events in the Tri-Cities; provide input to the city governments on facility needs and encourage sharing of resources; develop a positive relationship with the WIAA and local college entities; build participation of all of the school districts on the council; support bringing new sports activities to the Tri-Cities; create an area sports hall of fame; and build a positive, healthy image of the Tri-Cities for visitors to come back to.”

The council was one of the first in the nation.

“It was a very new concept at the time,” said Hector Cruz, vice president of Visit Tri-Cities. “It was great leadership in the community truly thinking outside the box. It took a while to get everybody to realize what we were doing. But our council founders had a lot of great contacts.”

About 15 years ago, the Tri-Cities Visitor & Convention Bureau, which became Visit Tri-Cities, added staff to help support the sports council.

Today, Cruz and Dan Mulhausen, sports development manager, work with the council and find ways to bring in more sports business.

They attend four national trade shows a year, where they meet one-on-one with promoters.

“Our city partners (the recreation department managers) go with us, and we have a booth,” Cruz said. “They are actually the experts. It’s easy to manage. It’s very successful because we’re able to build through relationships, whether it’s new events, or building those relationships with our current partners.”

The conventions are successful, Mulhausen said.

“It gets us in front of a lot of different groups,” he said. “There are a lot of groups always there that are not on top of everyone’s radar.”

He mentions pickleball and lacrosse — the fast-growing sports in the Tri-Cities — as examples.

“We’re not going to say no to business,” Mulhausen said. “Our strengths are baseball, softball and soccer. At the same time, what’s new? Where do we have people involved and motivated?”

Cruz and Mulhausen also seek to bring in events during what they call “shoulder season,” the non-peak hotel season in the Tri-Cities.

That’s usually August, and the winter months of November, December and January.

“And we’re always keeping an eye on what’s happening around the region,” Mulhausen said.

The current council

The council numbers between 40 and 50 members and normally meets once a month.

“The council is invaluable. Just the whole group,” Cruz said. “It has high school and college athletic directors, club sports directors, professional sports team people, people running facilities.”

Another component is hotels. Two representatives from local hotels serve on the council for a year.

“We want to make sure we have the rooms (for events),” said Cruz, who says there has been a 24 percent growth in Tri-City area hotel rooms since 2014, with new hotels opening soon, such as Courtyard at Marriott at the airport and Comfort Suites at Southridge.

During the monthly council meetings, Cruz and Mulhausen report on new sports-related business, their latest visit to a convention to drum up more business, and what’s coming up.

Then everyone takes a turn updating the group about what’s going on in their part of the sports world. It’s called the roundtable.

“The roundtable is the best part,” Cruz said.

It allows everyone on the council to be on the same page of what’s happening in the community, and provides the chance for cooperation.

For example, the council worked together with the Tri-City Dust Devils to host the WIAA state baseball championships at Gesa Stadium in May. Or it might reveal that the upcoming See 3 Slam 3-on-3 basketball tournament might need help with volunteers, and other organizations will step up.

“Other cities don’t have that kind of cooperation,” Mulhausen said. “We don’t take it for granted. … Everybody here is rolling in the same direction. Everyone wants to see the Tri-Cities be better. Even when new people come in they see the collaboration process. People have a passion for sports and giving back. It’s unique when you’re able to do both, and you find opportunities to improve your community.”

Cruz agreed: “In the sports market in the Tri-Cities, people are awesome. Everyone is willing to help and support you.”

A need for facilities

There’s already demand for more Tri-City athletic facilities.

“We’re finding that there is a growing need now (for more facilities),” Cruz said. “Groups and clubs need more space for practice time.”

“You’d be hard pressed to find a group that doesn’t need more space,” Mulhausen said. “But we’ve got to make sure we have the space to sell the destination, and the promoters see the potential to grow.”

Novakovich said the sports facilities question is being addressed through a market analysis and feasibility study.

“The study is being done through a partnership between Visit Tri-Cities and the cities of Kennewick, Pasco and Richland,” he said. “Goals include: Determining the need for multi-use sports facilities within each city that will meet demands of the community and generate increased visitor spending. The intent is to expand capacity for sports programming for residents and generate community economic impact and facilities level revenues from regional, national and international sports events that draw visitors from 50 miles away or more.”

The study is expected to be complete by August.

 “I believe our dependence on sports tourism will continue to grow,” Novakovich said. “It aids in the diversification of our economy, which is a great benefit as we consider the progress being made on the Hanford site and the retirement of associated activities.”

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