When it comes to competing for sports tourism dollars, Greenville County is in it to win it

Headlines tout the NCAA and other landmark athletic events, but sports tourism in Greenville relies as much (if not more) on youth tournaments, amateur adult events, and nontraditional championships

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With more than 1,100 athletes from 48 states and five countries competing over two days, the U.S. Duathlon National Championships poured about $1.1 million into Greenville's economy.

When the U.S. Duathlon National Championships were held in Greenville County earlier this month, the venue for the running and biking event included a baseball park, a softball park, and a toll road.

Bringing running and cycling into a baseball and softball facility, and arranging for part of the race to “run up and down the Southern Connector,” made it “a unique event for all parties,” said Madison Turrentine, sports tourism manager for Greenville County Rec.

The duathlon was an event that went widely unnoticed by the general public. Especially when compared to the first- and second-round games of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament played in Greenville in March 2017, which received widespread coverage, in part because of removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse grounds made it possible.

But the duathlon had a comparably significant economic impact. With more than 1,100 athletes from 48 states and five countries competing over two days, the event poured about $1.1 million into Greenville’s economy.

The duathlon will return to Greenville again in 2019.

While marquee events such as the NCAA tournament and the Bassmaster Classic generate headlines, hosting youth and amateur adult tournaments and championships generate most of sports tourism’s economic impact in Greenville County.

“We’ll continue to pursue the NCAAs and the SECs of the world. We’ll continue to bid on the U.S. Karate Championship and Bassmaster, but those all do rotations,” said Robin Wright, a senior sales manager for VisitGreenvilleSC who specializes in sports tourism. “Having large events that are high media and ‘sexy’ is important, but you have to be able to get tournaments the rest of the year.”

That’s where youth and amateur adult tournaments and championships come in.

Big money

In 2017, sports events held at Greenville County Rec venues generated an economic impact of $29.5 million, said Jeff Poole, the department’s sports manager.

That $29.5 million doesn’t include sports tournaments and events held at other venues in Greenville, such as Fluor Field, the Kroc Center Tennis Complex, Bon Secours Wellness Arena, the TD Convention Center, Furman University, or Sirrine Stadium. With those, there are about 70 different venues that sports tourism officials in Greenville County can market.

Last year, there were 71 unique tournaments held in Greenville County Rec venues, most running from March until November. Those events included youth baseball, softball, lacrosse and soccer, adult softball, ultimate Frisbee, and swimming.

Poole wants to increase that number, but only if it can be done while maintaining quality and uniqueness.

The duathlon was a good fit, he said. Lakeside Park is big enough to handle the number of competitors and spectators, and the park’s baseball field cloverleaf setup could be utilized. Plus it was close enough to the Southern Connector, which was closed on Sunday for the race.

“It was a big deal this year. It’s the first thing of that nature that we’ve had. We want to bring in more events like that. We’ve seen we can do it. We know it’s possible,” Turrentine said.

In 2018, the department expects to have between 80 and 90 events, she said, including the U.S. Youth Soccer President’s Cup and the Prospect Select Black Bear Classic baseball tournament in June. Part of the increase will come from adding foot and bike races, she said.

“We’re reaching the point where we can’t say yes to everything. Our staff and our resources are stretched. Wear and tear on the facilities, staff, and volunteers are considered in the equation,” she said.

Rather than try to host several major events, the county is focused on medium-sized events that fit with its amenities. “We’re not trying to be Rock Hill,” Turrentine said.

Arms race

Rock Hill was one of the first cities in South Carolina to embrace sports tourism when it built Cherry Park, a 68-acre softball and baseball complex, in 1985. The facility was the second sports venue to be inducted into the National Softball Association’s Hall of Fame.

Greenville County got into the fray two decades later after a $50 million plan to build new parks and upgrade and expand existing parks across the county. The idea behind the Tourism, Recreation, and Athletics Coalition (TRAC) plan was that the new and improved parks and athletic fields would bring in tourists, who would help pay for the improvements through taxes on the dollars they spent here. Local residents benefited because they could use improved parks and facilities during the week.

Since the TRAC plan was approved, sports tourism events at county facilities have generated $95 million in spending.

But the competition for sports tourism dollars, estimated to be $9 billion nationwide, is intense.

In years since Cherry Park was built, Rock Hill has added a soccer complex, a tennis center, a BMX Supercross track, a criterium course, and a velodrome. Last summer, Rock Hill hosted the BMX World Championships, an event attended by nearly 20,000 people with an economic impact of more than $19 million. Currently, a private developer is building an indoor sports complex featuring multiple courts for basketball and volleyball, and a championship court with stadium seating for 1,200 is under construction that the city plans to lease and operate. Rock Hill expects the indoor facility to impact its economy by at least $13 million per year.

Wright said Greenville lacks a large indoor field house-type facility that would have multiple basketball or volleyball courts in one location, an Olympic-style track-and-field facility, a dedicated cross-country course, and baseball and softball complexes with more than five fields.

“If you don’t have the facilities, you’re not going to be in the consideration stage,” she said, “and if you’re not in consideration, you’re not going to be picked.”

Wright said Greenville can get around its lack of certain facilities by teaming up with adjoining counties. For instance, Greenville doesn’t have a lake, so it has teamed up with Anderson to host the Bassmaster Classic. Spartanburg has a multiuse indoor-outdoor athletic facility in the Upward Star Center, and Greenville has the needed hotel rooms, so the two cities could work together to host an event, Wright said.

“Greenville is a hotbed for sports right now,” she said. “With private-public investment, we could take it to the next level.”

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