To understand what goes into the conception and planning of mega sports complexes, consider the story of Neal Freeman.
During his 30-year-plus career with Watkins Retail Group, Freeman developed 52 Publix-anchored neighborhood shopping centers. Meanwhile, as the father of three athletes and a prolific baseball and softball coach, he traveled to dozens of tournaments and championships. His experiences were not always the best, to put it mildly.
“It was hard to find good facilities and also schedule the hotels, restaurants and entertainment for between the games,” says Freeman. “I was driving all over the country watching the traveling sports industry explode, but it was difficult as a coach to pull it all together. I started thinking: Wouldn’t it be great if you could have all the stuff you needed in one location?”
Armed with decades of experience in real estate and sports, Freeman set out to create such a place. He partnered with Rep. Earl Ehrhart, R-Ga., a successful entrepreneur who has held various leadership and executive roles in industries like subcontracting, design, construction and banking. Ehrhart is also one of Georgia’s longest-serving elected officials. Like Freeman, sports have always played an important part in Ehrhart’s life, as he’s served as both a coach and an athletic director for various summer leagues and tournaments.
Freeman and Ehrhart shared a similar vision of creating a multifaceted, state-of-the-art sports and entertainment destination. After years of planning and preparation, they unveiled the first phase of LakePoint Sporting Community in May 2014.
The 1,400-acre complex is about 35 miles north of downtown Atlanta and has venues for 32 sports. One of the center’s most noteworthy features is Terminus Wake Park, the largest wakeboarding park in the country, which uses a cable system enabling visitors to wakeboard and water ski—without a boat—through a series of obstacles and trails. With nearly 5 million square feet of available space for mixed-use commercial development, the complex will eventually have seven themed sections, including a whitewater park, a golf course, an outdoor adventure center with mountain bike trails, zip lines and a ropes course, along with multiple hotels.
“We’re creating the ultimate stay-and-play sports vacation destination,” Freeman says.
They are not alone. The rapid rise of massive stay-and-play sports complexes has opened new doors for planners. But it has also raised a significant question within the industry: Can there be too much of a good thing?
Over the last several years, a number of new multivenue sports and recreation complexes have opened in Alabama, Indiana, South Carolina and Tennessee. Local municipalities, developers and tourism officials are investing billions in these facilities. And it’s easy to see why: According to the April 2016 National Association of Sports Commissions industry report, the youth sports travel sector has grown by more than 20 percent in the past three years. In the coming years, more communities are expected to compete in the sports tourism destination race.
But many of these venues are still relatively new and untested, and some believe too many are already saturating the market.
“We are seeing an incredible explosion in the number of sports complexes being designed and built,” says Don Schumacher, NASC’s longtime executive director. “We are already at the point where there are too many of them. We’re going to have more fields and courts than we have events. You build this incredible inventory of courts and fields and think long-term that it’s going to pay out, but it’s just not.”
In looking at the increasingly crowded market, Schumacher says he’s bewildered by what seems like a tendency for some communities to leap before they look. “There are communities building complexes that are not even in the industry yet,” he says. “If nobody knows you, how in the world are you going to get events?”
But such doubts haven’t deterred the folks behind the $12.8 million Myrtle Beach Sports Center. The 100,000-sq.-ft. facility opened in March 2015 two blocks from the beach, within a thriving tourist area of South Carolina.
Jessica Vanco, general manager, says the indoor facility hosts basketball and volleyball games, as well as events like the National Archery in the Schools Program’s World Tournament, which had a $7 million economic impact. The center was financed through local government bonds; initial funding came as part of a state grant. Vanco says that while Myrtle Beach owns the building, Sports Facilities Advisory, a separate firm, manages the venue and takes care of everything from logistics and scoreboard operators to housekeeping and ticket sales.
“We are a full-service sports center,” says Vanco. “We make the coach’s job easier.”
Myrtle Beach Sports Center helps enrich what is an already thriving sports tourism destination that brings in more than $100 million of revenue each year, according to area sports tourism professionals. Industry experts like Evan Eleff, executive vice president and a partner at Sports Facilities Advisory, say Myrtle Beach Sports Center is a worthy investment because it helps the community fill hotel rooms by attracting overnight tournaments. But Eleff also warns that the Southeastern U.S. is inching closer to saturation, and new facilities must be highly differentiated to attract top-notch events.
While it’s only been open for about 18 months, Myrtle Beach Sports Center has already made a huge economic impact, generating more than $53 million, says Vanco. “Families are planning their vacations around the sports their kids play,” she says. “Especially in the summer, families come here for a two- or three-day sporting event with their kids, and then stay for an entire week. Regardless of the economy, parents want their kids to have great experiences and play sports.”
Like Myrtle Beach Sports Center, Rocky Top Sports World in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, is strategically located in a popular tourist destination. The 80-acre campus is next to Great Smoky Mountains National Park and a Hail Mary toss from Dollywood. Opened in July 2014, Rocky Top has seven outdoor fields and an 86,000-sq.-ft. indoor facility with basketball courts, volleyball courts, locker rooms and a grill.
Lori McMahan Moore, Rocky Top’s general manager, says the $22 million center is a joint venture between the city of Gatlinburg and Sevier County. “Leaders within both organizations are involved with youth sports and they thought this would be an ideal location, combining resort activities and attractions with sporting events.”
Moore says that even though some believe the market is nearing a saturation point, she doesn’t think the sports complex trend is going to slow down anytime soon. “It’s something that municipalities, perhaps more than anyone, consider a viable option,” she says, “and event planners like the convenience of knowing they can hold the majority of their events in one location and not have to ask their guests to travel back and forth from gym to gym or field to field.”
Moore also says Rocky Top Sports World has blended in nicely with pre-existing facilities. “We’re different from anything that was already here,” she says. “There are local rec leagues and community centers, but we’re not usurping their business. We’re offering more of a tournament experience and camps, so we’re not really competing.”
Another major player in the sports vacation market is Grand Park in Westfield, Indiana, which has 31 multipurpose fields and 26 baseball diamonds. The $43 million, 400-acre complex, which opened in 2013, unveiled its second indoor facility in July. Grand Park Events Center is a 370,000-sq.-ft. facility with three full-size professional soccer fields, plus office space, locker rooms, meeting rooms, a restaurant, a club-level lounge and private boxes with views of the fields. Future plans include an on-site workout room and retail. Also on campus is an 85,000-sq.-ft., privately owned basketball facility. The main campus and new events center are owned by the city of Westfield in Hamilton County.
William Knox, CSEE, director of the Hamilton County Sports Authority, says the idea for the sports campus first came up when city officials and the mayor started looking for a new economic driver to brand the community. Knox says he and a few other boosters suggested tapping into the sports tourism market. Originally they focused on simply providing local recreational facilities with additional space for programming, but Knox and a few others eventually suggested building an entirely separate complex.
“We knew if we did it right it could be a real home run,” he says.
Initially, several local recreation facility owners expressed concern a big new campus would hurt their business, but Knox says that hasn’t been the case. “Since the campus opened three years ago, we haven’t seen any attrition or losses from our other facilities.”
Knox says they started developing the center during the recession, which helped keep costs down. “We were lucky in that respect,” he says. “We were in the right place at the right time.”
Before the sports campus, Hamilton County hosted about 80 annual sporting events, and now it’s averaging about 160, Knox says. Moreover, the center has helped spur development: At least a dozen restaurants and retail outlets have been built around the campus over the last few years.
“We were already an attractive market for sports travelers before Grand Park,” says Knox, “but as far as attracting national championships and tournaments, we now have a real advantage over some of our competitors.”
Don Staley is also hoping to get a leg up on the competitors with Foley Sports Complex in Alabama, less than 10 miles from the Gulf Coast. The $32 million, 89-acre site has 16 fields, along with a concessions pavilion and children’s playground. Following various construction delays, the complex opened this summer. An indoor events facility is slated to open by Memorial Day 2017, which Staley, the executive director, says will put it in the same league as venues like LakePoint and Grand Park.
“We’re going to have the same exact thing in that we will be a sports and entertainment destination with an amusement park, retail, restaurants, an RV park, condominiums, hotels and ball fields,” says Foley. “No doubt we are going to be a major player in this market. No matter how you cut it, it’s fantastic for the kids, coaches and fans to come to these places.”
Even as Staley forges ahead with Foley Sports Complex, he says he’s aware of how crowded the market is getting with these venues.
“It’s almost like an arms race,” he says. “But some cities were forward-thinking in their decision not to build. I would advise cities to really stop and think about oversaturation.”