Richmond area emerges as destination for sports tourism with $76 million economic impact
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The Richmond region is becoming a hotbed for one of the world’s fastest-growing tourism industries: sports tourism.
Sports tourism can take many shapes and forms. One of those most recognizable forms is when someone takes a trip to see their favorite NFL team play in a stadium across the country. Worldwide events like the Olympics and World Cup are other examples, when people take trips for the purpose of seeing live sports.
Another side of sports tourism is when families travel out of state with their kids whose baseball teams are playing in a tournament. It also could be groups of friends traveling to participate in a regional disc golf tournament in a nearby city.
These families and groups of friends will play several games in that area’s sports facilities, eat at some of its restaurants and possibly visit some of its tourist attractions and other businesses.
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That second brand of sports tourism is on the rise in the Richmond area, and large investments are being made across central Virginia to help capture its growth. Localities across the region are capitalizing off of their public sports facilities and organizing to better capture that market.
Richmond Region Tourism says nearly 70% of its total bookings over the past year have been in sports tourism. In 2021, it booked 116 sports tourism events with about 247,000 attendees tallying an estimated $76.7 million in economic impact. Most recent numbers from 2022 show almost the same number of attendees across 96 events and an estimated $89 million in economic impact.
Jack Berry, president of Richmond Region Tourism, said sports tourism has proven to be a resilient form of tourism through different crises.
“In 2008 when the banks collapsed in September, business travel stopped, but sports tourism kept going,” Berry said. Families “gave up their trips to Europe, they gave up trips to Disney, but they still attended their kids’ sports tournaments. Sports tourism did not take a dip whatsoever.”
When some surrounding states shut down youth sports during the coronavirus pandemic, Virginia allowed them to keep going, with safety measures requiring teams to wear masks and barring parents from attending games. Berry said central Virginia captured some of those lost events, and that sports tourism had a major contribution to record-setting visitor stays from July 2021 through January 2022.
Disney in Florida was an early adopter of sports tourism and remains a dominant destination. Markets around the country are beginning to build infrastructure and programs to vie in this industry. Richmond is well-positioned geographically to compete in the regional market with the intersection of three major interstates.
“If you’re living in Connecticut or Maryland and you have a lacrosse team in Maryland, you won’t go to Disney because of how far it is versus a weekend here in Richmond,” Berry said. “They could drive down and be back in school Monday morning.”
Berry said Washington, D.C., was the area’s biggest market for a long time, but that tourism web traffic for the nation’s capital is starting to be outpaced by users in and around New York City.
Capturing sports tournaments and events requires a competitive bid process. Events weigh the availability of hotel inventory, strong restaurants, and modernized and maintained facilities plus the customer service support from grounds crews for such things as staffing to organize, set up and clean up events.
Richmond’s biggest local competitors are Williamsburg, with its abundance of museums and traditional tourist destinations, and Virginia Beach, which recently built an $86 million indoor sports complex with 12 basketball courts and a hydraulic indoor track.
The Richmond area has an ecosystem that already boasts an abundance of fields and events with more on the way.
The single-largest sports tourism event in the region is the Jefferson Cup. The youth soccer tournament was started in the 1980s in conjunction with the local Richmond Strikers club. It has grown to become one of the nation’s preeminent tournaments with more than 1,600 teams from around the U.S. competing across four weekends during the summer.
The Jefferson Cup also has become an important NCAA recruiting destination with hundreds of coaches watching the U-17 and U-18 age groups. Its boys and girls showcases are consistently ranked among the top youth tournaments in the country among all sports.
Its rise to its current stature coincided with the construction of facilities across Henrico and Chesterfield counties over the past decade. Tournament organizers said the Jefferson Cup had only half the number of its current teams in 2010 when River City Sportsplex was built in Midlothian. The number of teams jumped 20% that first year. Fields have continued to be built across the Richmond area, and the tournament now has more than 38 fields across eight locations in the region. Now, it is estimated to generate an economic impact of $30 million with over 50,000 hotel room nights in the region.
The city of Richmond’s convention center also has been an underrecognized sports tourism asset with major indoor events like the Cheer and Dance Extreme Mid Atlantic Open championship.
Henrico County estimates that its 160 sports events generated about $60 million in economic activity in 2021, while Chesterfield County says its 70 countywide events generated 250,000 visits with about $34.4 million in direct spending. Both counties have more projects in the pipeline.
Several sports destination developments are on the way in Richmond. Its $2.5 billion Diamond District project and Flying Squirrels stadium add a more traditional sports tourism avenue, alongside a spate of co-located hotel units and retail. Virginia Commonwealth University also is planning a new athletics village with tennis courts, a track facility and a soccer stadium across 41 acres next to the new stadium.
Chesterfield has a possible addition to two of it strongest destinations on the horizon. A $540 million county bond referendum in November could earmark $27 million for an overhaul at River City Sportsplex and Horner Park. It would add 16 fields at River City and other amenities like a destination playground and cross country course plus four softball fields at Horner Park.
Henrico also has plans for the near and far future that will help capture incoming sports enthusiasts. The county is focusing so heavily on sports tourism that it developed a Sports and Entertainment Authority this past year.
“The county has been doing a great job of hosting tournaments for years. Now, it becomes the next evolution of tourism because it’s gotten so big as a business,” said Dennis Bickmeier, executive director of the Sports and Entertainment Authority.
The $50 million Henrico Sports and Event Center scheduled to open in 2023 is a 185,000-square-foot space for 12 basketball courts or 24 volleyball courts. The county had no ability to bid for indoor tournaments before this building’s announcement. Now, it has a substantial capacity to go after indoor sports like basketball, indoor field hockey, volleyball, pickleball and anything else on hardwood.
Then just off Parham Road, a private developer is planning Green City, a $2.3 billion “ecodistrict” with a 17,000-seat arena that Bickmeier said could go after bigger sports tourism events like gymnastics, NCAA events like March Madness, or figure skating.
Richmond Region Tourism said this conglomerate of facilities, organizations, governments and other partners vying for sports tourism dollars can stimulate the entire region.
Berry uses the analogy of a family from Omaha, Neb. — they fly into Richmond International Airport to play in the Jefferson Cup, stay at a hotel in Henrico, play games at soccer fields in Chesterfield and then go to Richmond restaurants for dinner.
“Then they go back to Omaha and people say, ‘Well, where were you?’” Berry said. “All they know is that they were in Richmond. And that’s the beauty of our jurisdictions.”