Get to know Huntsville’s key players in Sports Tourism

single-meta-cal August 24, 2017

Photo credit: Eric Schultz / Rocket City Photo

Sports tourism is big business for Huntsville. In this two-part series, City Blog Senior Writer Mark McCarter looks at the key players. Part One: 

It doesn’t launch people into space. It doesn’t involve serious problems and serious solutions. 

Here in the high-tech world of Huntsville, it turns out fun and games are also a major industry. 

Sports tourism in the City of Huntsville is a $10 million annual industry, according to Ralph Stone, executive director of the Huntsville Sports Commission. That’s the economic impact of visitor spending for sports events. The National Association of Sports Commission estimates spending of $895 per athlete per event, so imagine the revenue generated from sales and lodging taxes for 50-60 events per year. 

“Sports are a big business for us,” says Huntsville Mayor Tommy Battle. “Plus, it’s just downright fun, whether it’s a 10K race or a state soccer tournament or kids playing baseball.” 

There are three entities most deeply involved in the city’s sports tourism industry: 

— The Huntsville Sports Commissionwhich was initiated in 1999 and is funded by the City of Huntsville in 1999, led by Stone and assistant director Gina Kirkland. 

— The Huntsville-Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) works on a broader spectrum of recruiting tourism and conventions to the Rocket City which includes the overall branding of the area. The CVB also devotes generous resources toward sports marketing and recruitment,  sports focus led by Don Dukemineer, Convention Sales Manager. 

— The Huntsville Parks & Recreation Department, which primarily serves in a capacity of host and provider of facilities, led by director Steve Ivey. 

All can be summed up within the mission statement offered by Stone: “To identify, recruit and host sporting events for the purpose of economic impact to our community.”  There is also an emphasis in assisting existing, long-running events and organizations. 

The Sports Commission and CVB occasionally join forces for events, but more typically work separately to maximize the number of competitions brought to the area; the CVB has a responsibility to serve the entire county as well as the ability to expand its horizons when it comes to facilities. 

(Local high schools and universities and various sports organizations certainly provide a boost to the sports tourism industry. However, they have primarily spectator-focused events, rather than participant-driven, such as Alabama A&M’s home football schedule or UAH’s frequent role as NCAA Division II South Regional Basketball host. Encouraging visitor spending is not the priority for those groups, though it certainly can’t be trivialized.) 

Most major cities recognize the benefits of sports tourism. Youth and amateur sports are the key, with participants and their families making overnight stays and pumping money into local economies.  

There can be a residual affect from sporting events. Often spectators and participants have time constraints. 

“When you’re traveling and watching little Johnny or Susie on the field, they say, ‘We didn’t have a chance to explore,’” Dukemineer says. “So they come back and explore, to do a walking tour or eat at a good restaurant, to visit Huntsville’s attractions, or to spend a couple of days to see what we can offer.” 

As a member of the Board of Directors for the National Association of Sports Commissions, Dukemineer is a frequent traveler to conventions and meetings, where he spreads the gospel of Huntsville.

Now and again, he’ll find someone who hasn’t heard of Huntsville “and I’ll say ‘come check it out.’ Maybe do a tournament or an event. Once they come here and see all we have to offer, they’ll say, ‘When can I sign on the dotted line?’”