Downstate towns court multimillion-dollar travel sports market
By Jon Hurdle
Special to Delaware Business Times
Georgetown Mayor Bill West wants a place where local kids can play soccer, lacrosse and field hockey without driving long distances to compete, and which will boost the economy by attracting hundreds of their opponents from out of state.
That’s why he’s backing a plan to build an eight-field sports complex which would host tournaments of up to 700 players at a time, generating more business for local hotels, restaurants and retailers, and helping to build Delaware’s reputation as a regional magnet for visitors.
West said the center was originally conceived by developer Joe Schell, who donated land for the project, as an alternative to the long drives that are often required when a young person plays sports in a travel team.
But the economic benefits of hosting youth sports tournaments are also a compelling reason to back the project, which is expected to open next spring after a $3 million fundraising campaign.
“Whenever you can bring 700 kids to town with their parents and grandparents for a sporting event, it has an impact on your town, and that’s why I’m so very supportive of this,” West said.
The Georgetown complex will add to Delaware’s growing lineup of youth sports facilities that are being recognized by business, government and nonprofit sectors as important economic drivers.
That’s why Delaware Sports Commission, a partnership of government and private interests, works to link sporting events to host venues, and to the hotels and restaurants that also benefit from the business.
Commission Chairman Matt Robinson said it has brought $60 million in business to the state since it started in 2009. Commission representatives travel to trade shows around the U.S., making contacts with sporting associations looking for facilities and their surrounding hotels and restaurants that have the capacity to host events attracting hundreds or thousands of players and spectators at one time.
The commission recently secured the national lacrosse championships for 13-14 year-olds, which will play at DE Turf, a 12-field, all-weather complex at Frederica, next summer.
It also came close to attracting the world senior lacrosse championships for 2018, but lost the bid to Israel after the sport’s governing body decided to hold the event outside of North America in an effort to increase the game’s appeal worldwide.
“We didn’t win it but we showed what we are capable of doing for them,” Robinson said.
Delaware sells itself with its position in the center of the mid-Atlantic area and its proximity to Interstate 95 providing access to millions of people, Robinson said.
Because the state lacks big spectator venues other than the University of Delaware, the commission focuses on attracting smaller events that would not be of interest to big cities like Baltimore or Philadelphia, he said.
The commission also acts as an intermediary between the sports complexes and local hotels.
“Hotels need heads in beds but they also need to be able to work with the sports facilities because it takes a lot of time and effort so we help them both get what they need,” Robinson said.
The economic value of youth sports is also shown by Sports at the Beach, a 16-field baseball complex outside Rehoboth that attracts around 100,000 players, officials and spectators every season, said co-owner Pete Townsend.
Each year since 2003, the facility has hosted about 35 tournaments for some 2,000 teams, Townsend said. Over the last year, the number of players has grown by about 20 percent but that rate won’t be sustained because the complex is already working at full capacity during the peak summer months. Any additional growth would have to take place during the spring and fall seasons when demand is not so great, he said.
“It’s quite an economic impact on the county,” Townsend said. “They stay all around the area in motels and campgrounds and rental houses.”
In Middletown, plans for a new sports facility were derailed by the recent bankruptcy of the project, Delaware Sports Complex LLC.
But that event doesn’t indicate that the market for youth sports facilities has been over-supplied, said Linda Parkowski, deputy director of the state’s Division of Small Business Development and Tourism.
“I don’t think it’s reflective of the market as a whole, and I think it’s just reflective of that one project,” Parkowski said.
Perhaps the clearest demonstration of the business’s potential is DE Turf, where about 4,000 players and their supporters have been coming to play soccer, lacrosse, field hockey and other sports every weekend since it opened on April 1. During the weeks, the center draws about another 2,000 players for programs such as recreational soccer.
The 85-acre complex charges $500-$700 per team for soccer tournaments, and $1,000-$1,500 per team for lacrosse events, said Chris Giacomucci, executive director of the 501c3 nonprofit.
The $24 million center, whose main mission is to generate economic impact by hosting large travel sports events, has hosted 20 tournaments so far. That’s twice the number used in a pre-opening study that estimated 10 tournaments a year would add $18 million to the local economy, Giacomucci said.
“These tournaments bring in a lot of out-of-state license plates; traveling parents need hotels to stay in; they need a place to eat; they need gas; they go shopping; they are looking for things to do while they are in Delaware,” he said. “It’s a great tourism attraction.”
Back in Georgetown, optimism about the coming sports center recently helped the local planning commission approve plans for a five-story Marriott hotel, said Mayor West. The new hotel will also accommodate young baseball players from the nearby Sports at the Beach complex.