When it comes to sports tourism in Northeast Wisconsin, you don’t have to go far for the gold. It’s right there next to the green.
“We draw 800,000 people each year just with Packer games and Family Night,” says Aaron Popkey, director of public affairs for the Green Bay Packers.
While the current south end zone expansion of Lambeau Field may garner most of the media spotlight, the iconic stadium is just one of several sports complexes throughout Northeast Wisconsin undergoing major renovations with the goal of drawing more visitors to our area, both in and out of the sports arena.
Beyond the ballpark
Snow still blanketed the infield as the Timber Rattlers gave local media a sneak peek of the newly expanded Fox Cities Stadium in March, just days before completion of its $6.2 million renovation.
“This gives us the opportunity to open the stadium up to concerts, festivals and other year-round events, rather than just during the April to September baseball season,” says Rob Zerjav, Timber Rattlers president and general manager.
In fact, the most significant portion of the stadium construction, the second-level addition behind home plate, will double as banquet space and be available for use 365 days a year.
Already a destination for fans from across the country with the annual Donald Driver softball game, Fox Cities Stadium owners hope the latest improvements will expand their reach even further beyond the ball diamond.
“Hopefully all the expansion is going to create more of a buzz to get more people to use the facility, possibly looking into hockey or other sports that happen in the winter,” says Zerjav.
Teaming up for success
Capitalizing on what happens in winter, Ashwaubenon’s Synergy Fields, LLC recently teamed up with the Green Bay Blizzard to become the professional indoor football team’s official practice facility. The new 13,500-square-foot all-synthetic turf field opened in December and will host the Blizzard’s tryouts, training camp and regular season practices. The field is an expansion of Don Beebe’s House of Speed, an indoor training facility for athletes of all ages, from youth sports to the professional level.
“The new field allows us to bring more athletes to our facility where they can get in and do good work during the winter months,” says Scotty Smith, owner of Synergy Fields and House of Speed.
While it doesn’t draw the stadium-sized crowds of Lambeau Field or Fox Cities Stadium, Synergy Fields does play for the same team when it comes to attracting visitors from around the state and beyond. In fact, their most recent success story involves an athlete who made his way from Alaska to the National Football League via Green Bay.
“He played for the Blizzard last year, came in and trained with us over this past winter and just signed a contract with the New York Jets,” says Smith, describing defensive tackle Junior Aumavae.
Win-win for tourism
Whether visitors are coming to Northeast Wisconsin to play, watch or just enjoy the athletic atmosphere, sports tourism scores big for the economy all around.
“In the Fox Cities we work with over 100 sporting events annually,” says Matt Ten Haken, sports sales manager for the Fox Cities Convention and Visitors Bureau. “That leads to roughly over 4 million direct visitors each year.” Ten Haken says those visitors typically travel distances stretching from Chicago to the Upper Peninsula.
To get an idea of how that traffic translates to economic dollars, tourism officials estimate that WIAA girls’ basketball fans spent about $3 million between buzzers over the tournament weekend in Green Bay last March.
By all indications, sports tourism is on a drive that’s gaining momentum.
“The culture of youth sports in America is drastically changing to a more competitive model at a younger age,” Ten Haken explains. “We’re seeing families put their traditional family vacations on the back burner and instead spend every weekend of their season travelling across the Midwest to play in tournaments. We’re drawing more teams from greater distances, especially in youth team sports.”
Those youth team sports make Appleton’s USA Youth Sports Complex the most-used athletic facility in Northeast Wisconsin.With 15 soccer fields, two Little League fields and two full-sized baseball fields, the massive complex spans 73 acres of parkland rented from the city. Last month’s announcement of a 10-year sponsorship and naming rights agreement means the newly named Scheels USA Youth Sports Complex will remain a major player in sports tourism’s future.
When it comes to hosting sporting events and the tourism that goes with it, Ten Haken says Northeast Wisconsin scores a double play by offering two key factors in the game: Facilities and volunteers.
“Our facilities are better than an average community our size has to offer,” says Ten Haken, pointing to the newly renovated Fox Cities stadium and the USA Youth Sports Complex.
“Our love of sports carries down to taking pride in showing great hospitality to visitors,” he adds.
Those two things combined make Northeast Wisconsin a strong contender in a field which Ten Haken says is only going to grow in the future.
“It’s a trend that’s taking off as communities across the country are seeing the value of promoting their sports facilities and their communities too,” he says.
A CLOSER LOOK
» 17,000 new seats (2003 and 2013 stadium renovations)
» Future Atrium renovation
Fox Cities Stadium
» Six suites and club level with 250 new seats
» Double the number of restrooms
» Double the size of team store
» Numerous other renovations
Scheels USA Youth Sports Complex
» 10-year sponsorship and naming rights agreement