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Small sports mean big business in Arizona

This month, Arizona’s Swimming Showcase is anticipated to draw 300 elite high school athletes — along with thousands of family members and fans — from more than a dozen different states to Mesa. The projected economic impact is more than $600,000 in direct visitor spending over the course of the two-day event.  And that’s just the first year and just one event.

The Phoenix Regional Sports Commission (PRSC) has successfully bid for or created 66 events (involving 278 event days) since its restructuring in 2009.  That’s 66 times in which thousands of visitors stay in area hotels, eat local food and shop at local stores. Just since 2009, the overall impact on the Arizona economy totals more than $133 million dollars in direct visitor spending, which translates to almost $13 million in sales tax revenue.

“We’re building a grassroots sports tourism infrastructure in an area where there otherwise wasn’t one. And that’s big business,” said Don Kile, former PRSC chairman and current board member.

That sporting infrastructure is built upon often overlooked, usually under-served, high school, amateur and youth sporting events. They are events that draw from all corners of the country, events that bring big tourism dollars into the local economy, and events that have largely proven recession proof.

“In this recession, we’ve tracked business travel, international travel, and leisure travel.  In all categories, travel is down,” said Don Schumacher, National Association of Sports Commissions (NASC) executive director.  “The one area where we’ve seen consistent growth is in sports travel/tourism, and the Phoenix Regional Sports Commission is capitalizing.”

According to the NASC, in the last 10 years nationwide, the sports travel industry has grown from an estimated $5 billion to $8 billion.  That’s a conservative estimate of just direct visitor spending, not projected economic impact.  And that’s in a challenging economy.

“In tight economic times, families may choose to forego their annual vacation to the beach or cut their snow skiing vacation short.  But, they are not going to forego their commitment to their child’s championship tournament,” added Kile.  “They travel for a purpose.  We have studied this and know this to be true.  So we want to build this tourism niche to exploit this phenomenon and continue to encourage that family travel into our market.  Our economy, hotels, and local businesses benefit financially, and those dollars spent in our local economy support multiple levels of local employment.”

The USA Field Hockey Festival hosted by PRSC in November 2010 and 2011 is the largest Field Hockey event in the world.  It’s played during Thanksgiving weekend and involves more than 6,600 visitors for an average stay of five days each, with an annual direct visitor spending impact of more than $4.7 million.

Another example … the Arizona Soccer Showcase the PRSC created in 2011 to take place during the December holidays.  The inaugural event drew more than 40 elite teams, 20 of them from outside Arizona, with an economic impact of more than $2 million in direct visitor spending.  A significant sports tourism boost over a traditionally slow holiday weekend, in just its first year.

“When we can create and grow our own events, the ability to attract and retain tourism dollars is enormous,” said Rob Yowell, Interim PRSC Executive Director.  “Bidding and landing events is one critical piece of the puzzle, but those events come and go and often change host locations from year-to-year.  Creating and owning events insulates us from the risk of an event relocating to a competing city.  It is a more sustainable and predictable financial investment.  In the example of the Arizona Soccer Showcase, we’re pumping roughly $2 million in direct visitor spending into our economy every year.  Guaranteed.”

In all, the PRSC calculates the return on its investment as $103 dollars for every dollar spent.  That’s a staggering 10,300 percent.  And it’s just getting started.

The Phoenix Regional Sports Commission, one of the oldest in the country, was created in 1988 as the Maricopa County Sports Authority.  Its early stages as a government organization hindered its ability to assert itself as a true representative of the over-arching sports community and therefore it couldn’t compete nationally.

“We just needed to retool and prepare ourselves to compete on a national basis,” said Yowell.

In 2008, the PRSC requested the legislation be dissolved, and the Sports Commission was restructured as a more nimble community-based 501(c)3 non-profit organization.  This seismic shift in structure and attitude has resulted in formidable forward progress.  Since then, the NIRSA Soccer and US Lacrosse Championships were both secured for multiple years, and an agreement with the Senior Softball World Championships was extended for four additional years.  The PRSC has re-launched the Arizona Sports Hall of Fame, which has become the organization’s primary annual fundraising event.  The restructured PRSC created the Youth Sports Summit, which continues, and it finalized agreements with USA Field Hockey and the Women’s Half Marathon.  The number of members on the Sports Commission Board of Directors has increased and includes prominent community leaders, and the Arizona Showcase series (soccer and track) has established itself as one of the most competitive and prestigious series of high school championships in the country – with the Swimming Showcase to launch in 2013 in Mesa.

“In Mesa, one of our strongest market segments is youth and amateur sports,” said Marc Garcia, president and CEO of the Mesa Convention and Visitor’s Bureau.  “Teams travel and they bring their families who spend money.  The opportunity to partner with the Sports Commission to attract more of these types of events adds tremendous value to our city and ranks very highly on our priority list.”

Garcia points to Mesa’s strong sports facilities as one key economic driver.  With a national reputation for some of the best event swimming pools in the country, his city is perfectly poised to host the PRSC’s Arizona Swimming Showcase.  Mesa’s reputation will draw competitors from the far reaches of the country, and the community will benefit in a big way.

“The potential impact of the Arizona Swimming Showcase is enormous, even in this upcoming inaugural year,” added Garcia.  “We see tremendous possibilities in hosting championship events in swimming as well as other sports, and we look forward to a continued strong partnership with the Sports Commission.”

Valley wide, the PRSC has a full inventory of superior products (fields, pools, tracks, courts) capable of hosting the highest quality of events.  While one amateur sporting event may provide only a small stimulus, stacking signature events one after the other produces a significant impact worthy of attention.
With forward momentum, the PRSC plans to add two additional high school championships to the calendar each year.  Strategically, it will continue to target holiday weekends and slower tourism seasons to boost times in which hospitality industry partners and host communities can use the help.
And that’s merely the financial footprint.

“While the boost in tourism and dollars being spent are much needed, especially in a continued challenging economy, let’s not forget the healthy impact on our families and our youth,” said Don Kile.  “We’re attracting and creating sporting events that enable our local youth to compete with the best of the best.  We’re raising the stakes.  We’re developing more competitive athletes, leaders, and more well rounded individuals.  The impact in that regard is priceless.”