Sports tourism is big business for Huntsville. In this two-part series, City Blog Senior Writer Mark McCarter looks at the key players. Part two:
Any successful industry needs great leadership, it needs a plan – and it needs a place to operate. Or, in the case of sports tourism, a lot of different places to operate.
Sports tourism in the City of Huntsville is a $10 million annual industry, recruiting some 50-60 events a year. Most of that due to the work of the Huntsville Sports Commission, the Huntsville-Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) and the Huntsville Parks & Recreation Department.
As noted in the first part of this series, it is summed up neatly in the mission statement offered by Ralph Stone, executive director of the Huntsville Sports Commission: “To identify, recruit and host sporting events for the purpose of economic impact to our community.”
Step one: think beyond what those in the business call “stick-and-ball sports.” Softball tournaments are well and good. But as CVB Convention Sales Manager Don Dukemineer points out, “We have to go beyond ‘normal’ sports.” Many times, non-traditional sports are looking for homes for their events too.
Think Quidditch is just a fantasy sport from Harry Potter movies? It’s now a popular “real” game, and it holds regional (Tuscaloosa is hosting one in February) and national competitions.
Huntsville has had great success hosting fishing tournaments. Other events from Ultimate Frisbee to shuffleboard to juggling have been on Dukemineer’s radar.
As a member of the National Association of Sports Commissions board of directors, Dukemineer often gets to pitch Huntsville in person at meetings and conventions to key decision makers.
While the Sports Commission staff attends similar events on occasion, particularly when expressly asked to make a bid, Stone said his group relies on the “great resources” of local volunteers who have existing relationships with governing bodies, whether it be as a connection to a national softball organization or as a leader in a specific sport.
The CVB role is typically one of procuring an event, then making connections with local volunteers and established organizations that can serve as host, including the Sports Commission.
The Sports Commission will acquire events, help event organizers with lodging and facilities and frequently serve to administer an event as tournament director or similar role.
“We do the work so tournament organizers don’t have to,” Stone says. “We want to make it easy for visitors, whether they’re the planners or fans, so they can enjoy the experience.”
Huntsville Parks & Recreation stands by to serve. As director Steve Ivey says, “We’re here to do all we can to make sure they have a quality place to play and to hold their events.”
The newest quality facility is the $22.4 million Huntsville Aquatics Center. It recently held the Southeastern Long Course championships, which provided more than a $1 million boost to the local economy, and those in the Huntsville area’s swim community are optimistic that it will host national-level events in the near future.
“When you build a facility like that, it serves a double purpose,” Stone says. “One is that six, eight, 10 times a year, it’s utilized for major sporting events that generate big economic impacts. The other 300 days, it’s here for our citizens to use and they’ve got a world-class facility to use every day.”
Other venues are in the works. Plans are set for 11 new soccer/lacrosse fields near Milton Frank Stadium and the existing Merrimack complex. The former Becky Peirce Municipal Golf Course is being transitioned into a multi-purpose athletic mecca for cyclists, runners and walkers, while still including a golf practice facility. The bike paths and cross country trails will provide outstanding competitive sites, Ivey says.
“Other cities are building new sports venues every day, so there is an expectation from people who participate to have quality facilities,” Stone says. “In order to stay in the game we have to match up. Not only on facilities but our volunteers and our organization skills come into play. Sometimes, you can have a little bit less of a facility as long as you give them a good experience. We like to offer both.”