Jeff Pistone knew he was onto something the first time he approached an area volleyball club with the idea of building additional courts for the Fox Valley region.
Not only were they enthusiastic, the club was willing to sign a long-term deal for practices and tournaments at the new facility – and Pistone and his partners had not yet broken ground on what is now Lake Park Sportzone, an indoor sports complex in Menasha.
“That reaction sort of solidified the business plan for us,” Pistone says. “We knew there was a need, we just didn’t know how intense it was.”
Pistone and his partner officially opened Lake Park Sportzone in February, and already they are seeing high demand for the space by area volleyball and basketball leagues and tournaments. One tournament sold out in 24 hours after it was announced it was moving to the new facility.
The upcoming fall and winter calendar is filling fast, with tournaments already booked from December through May. Many weekends feature multiple basketball or volleyball tournaments, each bringing between 400 and 800 people into the Fox Cities.
“It’s a recurring complaint there aren’t enough wood floors in this region to support the tournament opportunities that are out there,” Pistone says.
Nationwide, sports-related tourism, from major events such as the Super Bowl to youth sports tournaments such as those held at Lake Park Sportzone and other facilities, represents more than $9 billion in economic activity.
Many communities are putting together specific strategies to capture a larger share of that growing market. Northeast Wisconsin is no exception.
“The industry has grown rapidly and every community wants to put itself in a position to capture as much as possible,” says Matt Ten Haken, director of sports marketing for the Fox Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Northeast Wisconsin does well when it comes to tourism in general and sports tourism specifically.
Direct visitor spending topped $11 billion in Wisconsin in 2014, an increase of 5.3 percent from the previous year, according to the latest statistics released by the Wisconsin Department of Tourism. Northeast Wisconsin’s share of that was $2.4 billion.
Determining just how much of that spending is sports-related is a bit less clear. Some events are easier to tie specific dollar values to than others.
Certainly, when you think of sports and Northeast Wisconsin, the Green Bay Packers come to mind. A study from 2010 found that game day spending exceeds $13.5 million, says Brad Toll, executive director of the Green Bay Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Plus, there is the incalculable value of having the community showcased during the broadcast of home games.
“Green Bay is a city that literally has world-wide recognition thanks to our famous sports team,” Toll says. “A winning team is also very helpful as it adds to the number of nationally televised games each year and that puts our community in front of an audience of millions on a regular basis throughout the season, something we could not do with our marketing budget.”
But the economics extend well past the Packers.
The Fox Cities will host the U.S. Youth Soccer Region II Championships this month, featuring 216 of the best teams from the Midwest playing in Appleton and De Pere. The event is expected to draw more than 3,500 players and up to 12,000 spectators as teams from 14 states travel to Wisconsin to compete.
Regionally, that’s expected to translate into more than 12,000 nights of hotel bookings and $6.5 million in visitor spending. This is the third time since 2006 the Fox Cities have hosted the event.
Three factors have helped distinguish the Fox Cities from sites in the 14 states of Region II: quality facilities, an active and qualified volunteer base and the welcoming nature of the area, says Peter Mariahazy, director of technology and human resources at Modern Business Machines in Appleton and president of Wisconsin Youth Soccer.
“One thing we consistently hear from the teams and fans that come is how warm and welcoming the people here are,” Mariahazy says. “We work really hard to enhance the experience so teams feel it’s more than a tournament, but a championsip.”
The Region II Championships are part of the U.S. Youth Soccer National Championship series.
Additionally, the Fox Cities region will again host the Division III College World Series and the Wisconsin high school baseball championships, while Green Bay played host to the high school girls’ basketball tournament. Each brings visitors — and revenue — from outside the community.
During the course of the year, there are hundreds of youth baseball, volleyball, basketball, lacrosse, hockey and soccer tournaments of various sizes throughout the region. Throw in the marathons and hunting and fishing, and it’s a big marketplace to tap into.
Ten Haken says that of the estimated $11 million in sports-tourism spending in the Fox Cities, as much as 90 percent of it is related to youth sports and tournaments.
And there is an opportunity for more.
A study prepared for the Fox Cities CVB by the Huddle Up Group in 2014 found the area was missing out on opportunities to attract additional events to the region because of a lack of facilities, particularly hard court surfaces for basketball and volleyball.
The Green Bay area faces a similar challenge, Toll says.
“Our region could use additional facilities,” Toll says. “Our dream is to someday have the old Brown County Arena and ShopKo Hall (a part of the Brown County Veterans Memorial Complex) turned into one large contiguous building that could hold these types of sporting events as well as large expositions and tradeshows.”
HUG recommended a plan of action for the Fox Cities area that included using an increase in the hotel-bed tax to finance the development of additional facilities. Ten Haken says the CVB is still evaluating the recommendations and hopes to have a plan to present to the communities involved later this year.
Even with the addition of Lake Park Sportzone, there is a need for expanded and updated facilities in order to remain competitive in the marketplace. In addition to courts for basketball and volleyball, there is a need for additional ice to support hockey and figure skating as well as outdoor turf facilities that would support soccer, rugby and lacrosse.
“We need to look at what’s feasible and what the schedules and demand really are,” Ten Haken says. “We want to make sure we remain competitive.”
All that pent-up demand has Pistone thinking about growth opportunities. He has the property to nearly triple the size of Lake Park Sportzone if needed. Just doubling the courts he has now would make his facility the largest volleyball complex in Wisconsin.
“We wanted to start smaller to make sure we could fill the space,” Pistone says. “If the economics work – and I’m not sure about the tournaments yet – we’ve got space.”