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Youth and Recreational Sports Now Big Business


Remember the days when you and your friends would meet at a local playground and while away your free time playing games with no adults around? Those days are nothing more than distant memories.

There is now organized competition for young people in almost every sport. As people found themselves having more leisure time in the years after World War II, the Baby Boomers and members of Generation X continued to play sports well into their adult years. Organized leagues and events sprang up to accommodate these games.

At some point, a bell went off with local leaders. They figured out that community sports activities can be used as economic engines to help drive local economies. The truth of this statement has always been quietly assumed but recent figures provide support for this.

Sports is big business, even youth sports.

The Gulf Shores Orange Beach Sports Commission (GSOBS) announced March 4 that in 2012 sports events brought more than $22 million in spending to the economies of Alabama’s two beach towns. In 2008, that figure was a mere $3 million.

What happened over a four-year period to bring about more than a seven-fold increase in economic impact?

The governments of both communities decided to use taxpayers’ monies and bond revenues to construct local sports facilities. The GSOBS use as lures to go out and bid on sports events the presence of a recently upgraded track and field complex, two local soccer complexes and facilities for baseball and softball.

The Southeastern Conference (SEC) has held its women’s soccer tournament at Orange Beach for the past few years. In 2011 and 2012, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) held its national men’s and women’s soccer tournament at Orange Beach. The Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) recently signed a contract extension to continue holding its Class 4A through 6A state championship track meet at the beach.

Beth Gendler, GSOBS vice president for sales, told AL.com that in 2012 a total of 88 sporting events were held along the Alabama coast and that all of these will return in 2013 along with two new events. One is a Redfish fishing tournament and the other is a running event.

The GSOBS reported that in 2012 this sports tourism accounted for 64,076 room nights, bringing in more than $10 million. In addition, visitors spent another $12 million while in the area. This total of almost $22.5 million was $6 million more than in 2011.

It’s not just vacation destinations that are trying to use sports as an economic starter. Anyone can check out the Tuscaloosa Travel and Sports Commission (TTSC). Tuscaloosa, Ala., is the home of the University of Alabama. The city of slightly less than 100,000 people has also discovered the economic potential of bringing in sporting events that have nothing to do with the Crimson Tide.

Four years ago, Tuscaloosa teamed up with Auburn to bring the AHSAA football championships to each city in alternate years. The event brings six championship games to the stadiums at Alabama and Auburn over a two-day period. In addition to bringing in 12 teams with coaching staffs and about 1,000 loyal fans, the games are drawing around 50,000 spectators. Many of these people spend a night in the area hotels and motels and all of them eat, buy gasoline and shop.

The sports director for TTSC is Don Staley, who for many years was a college soccer coach. Staley has used his promotional skills to bring events such as triathlons, bicycling events, Olympic Development Soccer camps, club softball and volleyball tournaments, and many other activities to Tuscaloosa. The Region III Olympic Development camps for boys are held in July and last for 10 days. Players and family members come from 13 states, with each state sending one team in six different age groups to, in effect, try out for the regional team. That means that there are a total of 78 teams with nearly 2,000 people who come to town. The University of Alabama provides the use of its recreational fields and women’s soccer stadium. The event is an economic boon to Tuscaloosa.

You don’t have to be a major metropolitan area to bring in sporting events, if your city or town can find public and private backing to build facilities. Decatur, Ala., has a population of about 40,000 in north Alabama about 30 miles from the Tennessee border. In the past 20 years, local leaders built the Point Mallard recreation area along the Tennessee River and a state-of-the-art soccer complex on the city’s western edge. The soccer complex includes a 3,000-seat soccer stadium.

These facilities have helped Decatur land numerous youth soccer and adult amateur soccer tournaments, as well as women’s college teams to play. This success has helped bring in other sporting events and city leaders have credited this push as having helped ignite the city’s economy.

Local areas do have to make a commitment to build facilities, which aren’t cheap. It costs at least $1 million to build an 8-10 field soccer complex that will be nice enough to attract tournaments. Facilities for other sports also require capital investments. In an economic downturnwhen many politicians loathe to say the word “tax,” finding the revenues to build facilities can be daunting. Tuscaloosa, for instance, does not have a suitable soccer complex to host large tournaments at one site and Staley has said that this has cost the city a number of events over the past five years.

There is no question, however, that once facilities exist and a city has created a local board to recruit events to the area, major money will follow. In Gulf Shores and Orange Beach, for example, the $22.5 million spent in 2012 resulted in local tax collections of more than $1 million. That is a major boost to the budgets of both little beach havens.

All of this is a long way from days past when kids would find a local vacant lot and play baseball, football or soccer, or would go to a small park to play basketball.

Families will hit the road almost every weekend for months at a time to follow a child to a sports tournament. There is money to be made from the games we play and strapped local governments have figured this out.

Sports are a big business, now even at the youth level.

Greg Tyler is the Library Director at the United States Sports Academy. He has also taught courses at the Academy in sports law. He worked for years in youth sports as a coach, league administrator and as a soccer referee. He has a law degree and practiced law for a number of years. You can reach him at gtyler@ussa.edu.


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