The Richmond area is becoming a hotbed for one of the fastest growing tourism industries in the world: sports tourism.
Sport tourism can take many 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. Global events like the Olympics and the World Cup are other examples, when people travel for the purpose of seeing live sports.
Another aspect of sports tourism is when families travel out of state with their children whose baseball teams compete in a tournament. It can also be groups of friends traveling to participate in a regional disc golf tournament in a nearby town.
These families and groups of friends will play several games in the sports facilities of this region, eat in some of its restaurants and perhaps visit some of its tourist attractions and other businesses.
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This second brand of sports tourism is on the rise in the Richmond area, and significant investments are being made in central Virginia to help capture its growth. The localities of the region take advantage of their public sports facilities and organize themselves to better capture this 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 approximately 247,000 attendees totaling an estimated economic impact of $76.7 million. The most recent figures for 2022 show almost the same number of participants in 96 events and an estimated economic impact of $89 million.
Jack Berry, chairman of Richmond Region Tourism, said sport 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 continued,” Berry said. The families “gave up their trips to Europe, they gave up trips to Disney, but they still attended their kids’ sports tournaments. Sports tourism has not declined at all.
When some surrounding states shut down youth sports during the coronavirus pandemic, Virginia allowed them to continue, with safety measures requiring teams to wear masks and prohibiting parents from attending games. Berry said Central Virginia captured some of those lost events and sports tourism had a major contribution to record visitor stays from July 2021 to January 2022.
Disney Florida was an early adopter of sports tourism and remains a dominant destination. Markets across the country are beginning to build infrastructure and programs to compete in this industry. Richmond is well positioned geographically to be competitive in the regional market with the intersection of three major highways.
“If you live in Connecticut or Maryland and you have a lacrosse team in Maryland, you’re not going to Disney because of the distance compared to a weekend here in Richmond,” Berry said. “They could get out in the car and go back to school on Monday morning.”
Berry said Washington, DC, has been the region’s biggest market for a long time, but tourist web traffic for the nation’s capital is starting to be overtaken by users in and around New York.
Capturing tournaments and sporting events requires a competitive bidding process. Events weigh on the availability of hotel inventory, solid restaurants and modernized and maintained facilities, as well as customer service support from field teams for things such as staff 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 hydro indoor track.
The Richmond area has an ecosystem that already has an abundance of courses and events with more to come.
The region’s largest sports tourism event is the Jefferson Cup. The youth football tournament was started in the 1980s in conjunction with local club Richmond Strikers. It has become one of the nation’s largest tournaments with more than 1,600 teams from across the United States competing over four weekends during the summer.
The Jefferson Cup has also become a major NCAA recruiting destination with hundreds of coaches overseeing the U-17 and U-18 age groups. Its boys’ and girls’ showcases are consistently ranked among the nation’s top youth tournaments across all sports.
Its rise to its current stature has coincided with the construction of facilities in 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% this first year. Courts continued to be built in the Richmond area, and the tournament now has over 38 courts spread over eight venues in the region. Today, it is estimated to generate an economic impact of $30 million with more than 50,000 hotel nights in the region.
The City of Richmond Convention Center has also been an under-recognized sports tourism asset with major indoor events like the Cheer and Dance Extreme Mid Atlantic Open Championship.
Henrico County estimates its 160 sporting 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 expenditures. Both counties have other projects in the works.
Several sports destination developments are underway in Richmond. Its $2.5 billion Diamond District project and Flying Squirrels stadium add a more traditional sports tourism avenue, alongside a series of co-located hotel and retail units. Virginia Commonwealth University is also planning a new athletics village with tennis courts, a running track, and a football stadium on 41 acres adjacent to the new stadium.
Chesterfield has a possible addition to two of its strongest destinations on the horizon. A $540 million county bond referendum in November could earmark $27 million for an overhaul of River City Sportsplex and Horner Park. It would add 16 fields in River City and other amenities like a destination playground and cross-country course as well as four softball fields in Horner Park.
Henrico also has plans for the near and distant future that will help attract new sports enthusiasts. The county is so focused on sports tourism that it created a sports and entertainment authority last year.
“The county has been doing a great job hosting tournaments for years. Now it’s becoming the next evolution in 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 Events Center slated to open in 2023 is a 185,000 square foot space for 12 basketball courts or 24 volleyball courts. The county did not have the ability to bid for indoor tournaments before this building was announced. Now it has a substantial capacity to play 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 says could target bigger sports tourism events like the gymnastics, NCAA events like March Madness or figure skating.
Richmond Region Tourism said this conglomeration of facilities, organizations, governments and other partners vying for sport tourism dollars can boost 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 football fields in Chesterfield, then go to restaurants in Richmond 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 is the beauty of our jurisdictions.