Sports tourism a bright light during pandemic’s dark days

single-meta-cal June 16, 2021

As the world slowly begins to reopen, a Huntsville-area industry appears to be poised for an economic revival – the world of sports tourism.

From state-of-the-art facilities to year-round efforts of groups like the Huntsville Sports Commission (HSC), Huntsville/Madison County Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB) and  City’s Parks and Recreation Department, premiere athletes and athletic events have flooded the City and its venues in the first half of 2021.

Fans, golfers and golf course staff watch play on a hole at a golf course.

A pairing hits the tee box on the seventh hole at The Ledges Golf Course during tournament play at the inaugural Korn Ferry Tour Huntsville Championship this April.

The bottom line: Huntsville generated more than $10 million in economic impact in less than three months, thanks to the sports tourism industry. Four years ago, it took a year to produce those kinds of numbers.

“I suspect it’ll be in the $30-$35 million range for 2021, and that may be conservative,” said CVB Convention Sales Manager Mark McCarter. “The City’s investment in facilities, like the Huntsville Aquatics Center and the transformation of John Hunt Park, has enabled us to attract and host so many more events.”

The tale of the tape

Even as live events continue to bounce back, groups collaborated to bring an impressive array of events to the Rocket City in the first half of 2021, and more are planned through the end of the year. The U.S. Paralympic Cycling Trials at Research Park, Southeastern Conference (SEC) Gymnastics Championships at the Von Braun Center and the Huntsville Championship at The Ledges Golf Course all received national attention.

Female athlete jumping in the air during a gymanstics competition.

Auburn Tigers junior Derrian Gobourne competes on the balance beam during the SEC Gymnastics Championship at the Von Braun Center this past March.

The nation’s best in several sports also competed in Huntsville. The Coastal Collegiate Sports Association Beach Volleyball Championship and the Gulf South Conference Soccer Championship were both held at John Hunt Park’s sand volleyball and championship fields earlier this spring.

Huntsville welcomed the Alabama High School Athletic Association (AHSAA) state wrestling championships in February, followed by the state soccer championship in May. And though not in Huntsville, Toyota Field in nearby Madison hosted the Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC) Baseball Championship in May.

“Huntsville is truly a sports destination for competitors of all levels,” said Bernita Reese, Director of Parks and Recreation.

“The best athletes from the across the state, nation and the world have found out what our City already knows. We are a City custom-fit to host championships. As a result, Huntsville’s top facilities and venues have the attention of the sports world.”

Looking forward

If the pandemic continues to subside, sports fans in the Rocket City can expect to see more marquee events. The Huntsville Aquatics Center will be hosting the USA Swimming Futures Championship and the National Club Swimming Championship in the next two months. In November, Huntsville will host the NCAA Division I Cross-Country Regionals at John Hunt Park’s cross-country course.

“There is a lot to look forward to this year,” said HSC Executive Director Mark Russell about the first-of-its-kind cross-country meet. “This showcases the type of high caliber events we are bidding on in Huntsville.”

Field level photo of construction inside sports arena on a partly cloudy day. Construction equipment throughout the picture.

Joe W. Davis Stadium is currently undergoing a renovation to recruit more amateur and professional athletic sporting events to Huntsville in the future.

Also, the City plans to renovate and redesign Joe Davis Stadium, which will play host to high school football and minor league soccer. It also presents an opportunity to recruit some of the nation’s top teams, tournaments and championships each year.

Though the pandemic provided economic challenges, the big business of sports gave a much-needed boost to Huntsville’s travel and hospitality industries. Russell said the Huntsville Sports Commission reported a $3.8 million economic impact in 2020 and said that trend wouldn’t be slowing.

“During uncertain times, the sports industry has proven to be resilient and most beneficial to businesses offering lodging, dining, and travel options in the City,” he said. “Each event brings visitors from across the nation. They eat, shop and explore Huntsville. While the money they spend brings great value, what they experience, take away and share about our City and community is what will keep them coming back.”