Tournaments bring huge economic impact, positive exposure to Henrico
Pity the last-minute traveler who needs a weekend hotel room in Henrico County this month.
They’re likely all gone – reserved months ahead of time – by players, coaches, parents and fans of the Jefferson Cup soccer tournament, a three-weekend event that began last weekend and will involve 916 teams from 35 states and Canada before wrapping up March 25.
By its conclusion, the 916-team tournament will have brought more than 13,500 athletes and an estimated 20,250 spectators to Henrico and Metro Richmond, filling about 21,000 hotel room nights and contributing more than $15 million to the local economy.
And though the tournament is the most significant recreational sports event in the region, it’s not the only one helping to raise Henrico’s profile nationally while making a positive impression on its bottom line.
In Fiscal Year 2011 (which concluded June 30, 2011), nine youth and adult sporting events in Henrico County contributed $100,000 or more apiece to the county’s economy – including six that generated more than $1 million apiece – by drawing athletes from 1,999 teams, associated spectators and other visitors to the county from outside
In total, the economic impact felt by Henrico County as the result of recreational sports tourism during that time period totaled nearly $30 million, according to figures provided by county officials.
Factor in the professional sports – in the form of two NASCAR Sprint Cup Series and Nationwide Series races that take place each May and September at Richmond International Raceway in Henrico, drawing a total of more than 300,000 fans from all 50 states to the county and an estimated regional economic impact of $417 million annually – and
the effects of sports tourism here are clear.
“It means a lot of things,” Henrico Recreation and Parks Director Neil Luther said. “It certainly promotes spending in Henrico but it also is a good way to represent the county to these visitors who are coming in.”
Alive and kicking
When the Richmond Strikers hosted the first Jefferson Cup travel tournament in 1980, it’s likely that no one associated with the organization could have known what it would become. In the two decades after that first event with a handful of teams, the tournament steadily expanded and attracted more teams from outside the region and the state.
By 2005, it was drawing nearly 250 boys teams and 250 girls teams. Then the recession hit in late 2007, and participation in the tournament. . . increased. The Jefferson Cup has nearly doubled in size during the past seven years, growing despite the sagging national economy during a time when families are cutting their own budgets and watching every dime.
But perhaps that shouldn’t come as a surprise.
“Youth sports is fairly recession-proof,” said Scott Turner, the executive director of the Richmond Strikers Soccer Club, which host and organizes the tournament.
“Parents are spending a lot of money – maybe a thousand dollars a year to enroll their kids in a travel team,” Luther said. “We’re seeing the evidence backed up in national trends. People are making choices whether they’re just going on a family vacation or combining that with somewhere their children are going to be in a tournament.”
Today, the Jefferson Cup has grown into the largest single youth soccer travel tournament in the United States and one of the “big five” tournaments recognized as the best nationally (the others are held in Dallas, Orlando, San Diego and Washington, D.C.). It features competitions in age divisions from Under-10 through Under-19 and is divided into three weekends; March 9-11 for boys, March 16-18 for girls and March 23-25 for teams trying to qualify for next year’s event.
“The economic impact is huge for our county,” Turner said. “I’ve lived here for 25 years, and seen the growth.”
Though more than 1,400 teams applied for this year’s Jefferson Cup, tournament organizers rejected some 500 applications because those teams did not meet their high standards for inclusion. Despite the rejection, this year’s field grew by more than 100 teams compared with last year’s.
Tournament directors spend weeks reviewing each team’s performance during the previous year and running analytical models to ensure only the top teams are included, Turner said.
“We do our homework. Not only do we pick the highest quality games, but we bracket those games so they are very competitive,” he said. “Nobody wants to fly into Richmond from California and win every game 5-0.”
The steady growth of youth soccer in the United States has caught the attention of localities throughout the nation, many of which are angling to attract visitors and tourism dollars by hosting similar tournaments. But Metro Richmond has a leg up, Turner said.
“We’re aware this is a competitive market. Major complexes being built as we speak,” he said. “We feel like we’ve created a first-mover advantage. As long as we can deliver a high quality product, we believe teams will continue to come back.”
Impact of other sports
Though soccer clearly is the driving force behind the lion’s share of the economic impact felt by recreational sports tourism in Henrico, other sports are doing their part, too.
In recent years, Henrico has hosted a number of state, regional and national Babe Ruth Baseball and Softball tournaments in Varina and Glen Allen, including last year’s 14U Babe Ruth Baseball World Series at RF&P Stadium in Glen Allen. With those events under its belt, the county seems to have established itself in the rotation for future events.
Last year’s World Series, in which the home team fell one run short against a team from Oregon in the title game, served as a showcase not only to the teams and their supporters who made the trip, but also to those who could not. Henrico officials streamed all games live online for free, something most other host sites offer for a fee, if they offer it at all.
“After the tournament, I got an e-mail from a lady from Texas who was able to stream games,” Luther said. “She just said it was wonderful, it was a marvelous experience and that she was able to “be” here. She remembers Henrico County, and her son remembers Henrico County. That’s what this emphasis on sports tourism is all about, making
The county also is home to the Richmond Volleyball Club, located near Staples Mill Road and I-64, which hosts several large tournaments each year as well as local and regional events for adults, youngsters and high school teams.
In the past 12 months, RVC’s two largest tournaments combined to create an estimated economic impact of $3 million for the region, according to officials.
The 2011 South Atlantic Championship/Boys’ East Coast Championships last Memorial Day weekend drew 220 teams and more than 6,000 players and spectators to the Greater Richmond Convention Center, while January’s 2012 Monument City Classic attracted 280 teams and more than 8,500 players and spectators. In both cases, nearly all the
teams came from outside the region.
Because of its stranglehold on the local hotel market, Henrico benefits from events such as those even when they take place in another locality.
The MRCVB estimates that each out-of-town visitor that comes to the region for a sports tournament spends an average of $208 per day. Hotel operators in the county feel the positive effects of that spending.
“We’re booked all weekend,” said Dan Rand, sales director at the Comfort Suites hotel in Innsbrook, describing the impact of the Jefferson Cup tournament. “Typically we’re booked a couple of months in advance of these tournaments.”
Rand estimated that the hotel is completely booked about four to five times a year – and just about each occasion is directly related to a recreational sporting event or a NASCAR race. Recently, the nearby SkateNation Plus facility has helped fill a number of rooms at the hotel through ice hockey tournaments, Rand said.
SkateNation Plus is the only ice skating rink in Henrico and one of two primary facilities in the region and is home to youth and adult ice hockey leagues and tournaments, as well as figure skating competitions. It also attracts recreational ice skaters from the region and state.
During the past three fiscal years, sports tourism for recreational sporting events in Henrico has ranged between about $21 million and $33 million, according to county statistics.
While that immediate impact primarily is felt in the hospitality industry – through hotel stays and restaurant visits – and to a lesser extent through retail expenditures, the long-term benefits, though more difficult to measure, may be even greater to Henrico.
Tournaments and other sporting events provide an opportunity for the county to make a name for itself nationally by putting its best foot forward to tens of thousands of new visitors annually.
“Every one of them is potentially a customer, potentially a resident,” Luther said. “They may make a lot of decisions based on their first experience, their first experiences here.”
Tournaments like the Jefferson Cup present Henrico with a unique opportunity to capture far-away visitors and entice them to stay a few extra nights to enjoy the county’s history, shopping, performing arts and other amenities.
In an attempt to become more pro-active, Henrico officials recently created a new position for a tourism supervisor and hired former Henrico County Public Schools Public Information Director Dawn Miller to fill it. Miller is tasked with promoting all aspects of the county – including sports – to potential visitors and organizations.
“Sports tourism is one of the largest parts of travel right now [to Henrico],” said Miller, who has spent two weeks in the new position. “We’ve got different areas that we can plug other tournaments into. It’s an exciting future here for sports tourism.”
The climate is right for the county to capitalize on its assets, Luther said.
“We’re well positioned because of our facilities, exceptional staff, we have most of the hotel rooms in the area [nearly 54 percent of those in Metro Richmond, or 9,021 total], destination shopping – a lot of things that come together nicely for these people who come to town. Sports tournament venues are things that drive repeat visitation for your locality. They’re not just a one-and-done type event.”
A study conducted by the Richmond Metropolitan Convention and Visitors Bureau found that 93 percent of all visitors to the region planned to return – 44 percent within a year, and 61 percent within two years.
When they do come back, Luther wants them to know where they’re headed.
“We want them to know and love Henrico,” he said.
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They don’t really eat (or breathe, as far as anyone can tell). And only occasionally do they have visible, functioning legs.
As far as anyone knows, sleeping might be off the table. And that makes it very hard to accuse the Muppets of sleepwalking through their latest feature, Muppets Most Wanted – even if that’s exactly what’s going on.
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