With an economic impact topping $11 billion annually — and growing — it’s no surprise that sports tourism has become a major focus for area communities.
No doubt, that figure played into the Fox Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau’s decision to pursue building the Community First Champion Center in Grand Chute. The center, which is slated to open this fall, is projected to generate an estimated economic impact of up to $8.9 million in its first year.
As the FCCVB considered plans for the center, leaders looked at the impact of the Fox Cities Exhibition Center, which helps bring business to hotels during the week but not as much on weekends. In addition, they took in the economic success of outdoor sporting events and saw an opportunity to expand on that with indoor sports — while bringing more weekend business to hotels.
In 2013, the FCCVB team began assessing sports facilities in the Fox Cities and what was lacking. Conducting three feasibility studies helped the team identify a need for indoor ice and hard-court space. Pam Seidl, executive director of the FCCVB, says it made sense to add the infrastructure needed to support hosting travel teams for sports such as basketball, volleyball and hockey.
Eventually, the Town of Grand Chute Development Authority offered to build the indoor sports venue on town-owned land near the corner of Greenville Drive and McCarthy Road. Hotel-motel room taxes from 10 Fox Cities municipalities will fund the $30 million project.
“Grand Chute certainly has a lot of that infrastructure that is conducive to these families and teams traveling,” Seidl says. “This was sort of a slam dunk on both things: The land was free, and the location was ideal for where this type of facility should go.”
The center will feature a year-round ice rink with seating for up to 1,000, a fieldhouse with four basketball courts or eight volleyball courts and a seasonal arena that doubles as an ice rink and four basketball or eight volleyball courts.
Matt Ten Haken, director of sports marketing for the FCCVB, says the Champion Center will focus on hosting tournaments and youth sports rather than professional. It aims to get players on courts and the ice versus fans in seats, he says.
“That participatory focus is unique and is, I think, going to be paying dividends for the long run,” he says.
Ten Haken says the center’s scope and proximity to Interstate 41 and many hotels, dining options and attractions set it apart and will make it an appealing option for teams statewide, throughout the Midwest and even nationwide. Dollars from those
visitors will touch hotels, restaurants, grocery stores, gas stations, retail outlets and attractions.
Ken Weinaug, general manager of the Community First Champion Center, says the center addresses a need for ice and court space and pent-up demand for weekday practice and training and space. For a climate like Wisconsin’s, it’s important to offer indoor space, but he says the facility won’t go dormant during the summer. Uses could include camps, training sessions and birthday parties.
The center, which will employ five people full time and 30 to 40 part time, will host a hockey tournament and a gymnastics meet the first week in December. Weinaug says buzz is building around the facility and will continue once it’s open.
“The response that we’ve had as far as booking events has been really positive already,” he says. “We’re filling up weekends all the time, and the mid-week. The prime hours in the afternoon are basically full in all the venues right now.”
A booming business
The Community First Champion Center is one of many venues that capitalizes on the success of sports tourism. Joel Everts, destination sports manager for the Greater Green Bay Convention & Visitors Bureau, says the quest to draw sporting events to communities has grown increasingly competitive.
When Everts stepped into his role in 2004, only three other destinations in Wisconsin had sports marketing departments. Today, 10 to 15 convention and visitors bureaus statewide go after that market. There’s good reason for that, he says, as sports tourism and travel tend to be recession proof.
“Your child is only going to be 13 years old once, and that soccer tournament might be your summer vacation,” he says.
Everts says the region does well in drawing hockey, soccer and bowling tournaments — the Ashwaubenon Bowling Alley offers 60 lanes. Green Bay hosts the WIAA state tournaments for girls’ basketball and volleyball and has hosted eight USA Hockey youth national championships in the past 14 years.
In 2018, 34 sports held competitions in the greater Green Bay area, bringing a $39 million economic impact and accounting for 80,000 room nights. That figure could climb with new facilities coming online. Capital Credit Union Park in Ashwaubenon recently opened, and the $93 million Brown County Expo Center is slated to open in 2021.
Everts says the new 120,000-square-foot exhibition center will offer a large open space that could lend itself to events such as cornhole tournaments and fencing and wrestling competitions. A pool tournament will be held in March 2021, soon after the facility’s January opening.
The greater Oshkosh area offers its own unique sporting venues. The Menominee Nation Arena provides a place for basketball, concerts and other events. For example, it has hosted the state dartball tournament and the Gus Macker 3-on-3 basketball tournament, says Jodi Jensema, sales and service manager for sports marketing at the Oshkosh Convention & Visitors Bureau.
While the EAA grounds hosts its massive fly-in each July, the space also offers acres of land for other events. Oshkosh works with an Arizona company to offer a bubble run and terrain obstacle course run on the site. Jensema says a nighttime glow run is on the slate for the future.
The University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh also has much to offer between its Kolf Sports Center, J. J. Keller Field at Titan Stadium and newly opened Rec Plex Dome, a 4.35-acre recreational complex. The rec plex is a “unique venue that not all communities have,” Jensema says.
While securing events is competitive, Jensema says the regional convention and visitors bureaus often work together. For example, her organization is working with Green Bay and the Fox Cities to draw a bass fishing tournament to Northeast Wisconsin.
“The really neat thing is, yes, we’re all trying to get these events, but we want the event to be in the best possible place, and we’re also selling Wisconsin. If it doesn’t fit (in Oshkosh), I would love it to be in the Fox Cities or Green Bay,” she says.