Sports tourism hasn’t returned to pre-pandemic levels yet, but Visit Tri-Cities is working hard to change that.
“Sports was one of the first groups to open back up (after the pandemic),” said Hector Cruz, vice president of development and community engagement for Visit Tri-Cities. “It was needed for our hospitality industry. We really relied on the sports market to help drive tourism back to the Tri-Cities.”
In 2019, 209 sports and convention groups generated more than $33.6 million in visitor spending. While Visit Tri-Cities lumps sports and conventions together in its reporting, sports events account for 40% to 50% of those figures.
In 2020, visitor spending for sport and convention groups dropped when the pandemic hit to $4.2 million.
In 2023, it’s estimated that more than $26 million will be generated from sports and convention groups. In August alone, the expected economic impact is projected to be $1.3 million, with 18,750 participants, thanks to four confirmed conventions.
The Tri-Cities is a terrific sporting event destination for a variety of reasons, Cruz said.
“Tri-Cities has the venues, the infrastructure to host events at a local, regional and now at a national level. We’re right in the middle of these major metropolitan areas, so we can draw all these participants where they are only driving three to five hours,” he said.
But many organizations still aren’t familiar with the area’s amenities so constant promotion is a must, Cruz noted.
“A lot of them don’t know about our location,” he said. “Our job is to sell the Tri-Cities as a premiere sports destination.”
Besides the ability to successfully support sports events, Cruz said the region’s customer service is attractive to event organizers.
The Tri-Cities Sports Council, founded in 1996, also plays a role in promoting the area to sports organizers. It exists to curate a team-driven effort among those in the sports tourism industry.
Visit Tri-Cities attends five trade shows a year to meet with about 20 prospective event planners. Most recently in July, the team attended an esports convention in Toronto.
Cruz said Visit Tri-Cities is trying to take it a step further and provide top-notch customer service for event organizers to make it a one-stop shop experience.
“We build trust with these event owners,” said Cruz. “We go out and meet one on one with them. The next step is we invite them to the Tri-Cities to show them what we can offer.”
Several high-profile sporting events already have found success in the Tri-Cities. The Water Follies hydroplane races and air show generate an estimated $2.8 million in economic impact.
The National Softball Association’s state softball championships brings in an estimated $1.3 million.
The tourism agency recently secured the National Horseshoe Pitchers Association world championships in 2024 and 2027. Each event is expected to have a $1 million economic impact as 1,000 participants travel to the area to compete for the world title.
“The two-week event will showcase the best pitchers in the world, and we look forward to welcoming them here,” said Kevin Lewis, chief executive officer and president of Visit Tri-Cities in a news release.
The Northwest Athletic Conference (NWAC) basketball tournament returned this year to the Tri-Cities for the first time since 2015. The construction of Columbia Basin College’s new student recreation center helped secure the three-year bid for the tournament. The event was last at the Toyota Center in 2015.
“It was nice to bring it back here,” Cruz said. “It was a big win as we were trying to build business back into the community. It means a lot not only to CBC and the city of Pasco, but to the whole region because of the economic impact that event creates.”
In 2019, Visit Tri-Cities conducted a sports facility feasibility study to find out where and what the need was for the sports world. It showed the need for new infrastructure for sports facilities. That study was given to the individual cities to implement as their budgets allow.
Pasco is in the middle of the multiphase A Street soccer complex project with an estimated completion date of 2025.
The 30-acre West Village Community Park will have basketball, pickleball and sports fields in the Badger Mountain South area. The project’s first phase begins this fall.
Kennewick recently installed 15 pickleball courts with the hopes of getting certified by the USA Pickleball Association to host competitive events.
“It’s one of the fastest growing sports, and we’d be one of the only venues in the region to offer it,” said Cruz.
The Red Mountain Event Center and Tri-City Raceway in West Richland were revived in 2021, with an economic impact just shy of $1 million.
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