Savvy sports tourism officials already know that they shouldn’t limit their sales efforts to events that feature balls, but those with a more expansive vision are realizing that competitions highlighting STEAM concepts can actually make their cities smarter. Events highlighting robotics, esports, science challenges and the like can benefit local industry and boost the workforce of the future.
In July 2019, the Dallas Sports Commission announced that its city would host the VEX Robotics World Championship from 2021 to 2024, giving the event a home that will accommodate the explosive growth of robotics and provide some of those corollary benefits to Dallas-Fort Worth.
Dallas Sports Commission Executive Director Monica Paul says that when the commission was approached by the Robotics Education & Competition Foundation about hosting the nation’s largest robotics tournament, the staff did research and learned that the event would lead to new robotics programs in local schools, key partnerships with tech-based industry and the traditional economic impact that comes from greeting competitors and their families to Dallas starting in the spring 2021. (The 2019 world championship drew 30,000 visitors from 40 nations to Louisville.)
“It was something that was a little bit new for us,” Paul admits. “We learned about benefits for our community and for kids, who, even if they’re not in robotics, go to and watch and learn. Once we put all of those pieces together, we saw that it’s not your typical bat and ball type of sports competition, but it’s just as important.”
Brad Lauer has organized thousands of robotics competitions in his 13 years as the REC senior director of operations. He has witnessed firsthand the growth of an activity that offers, as robotics advocates like to say, an opportunity for nearly all of its competitors to go pro. REC sponsors more than 2,000 competitions in 60 countries, using spaces like high school gyms and community centers for many. But the VEX Robotics World Championship—“the Super Bowl, a rock concert, and a science fair all wrapped up into one,” as Lauer says—is a gathering place for the top students to compete and an aspirational destination for the countless kids joining new robotics teams every day.
“It’s a staggering thing,” Lauer said. “Robotics, in many schools in this country, has become a true sport. Every single kid at every single school can participate in an activity like this, because it’s not about how high you jump, it’s not about how fast you run.”
STEAM Is Hot
Not only are cities like Dallas welcoming competitions of the mind when approached by event organizers, some areas are actively seeking to become hotbeds for STEAM-related tournaments.
Take Raleigh, where city officials and an esports agency called Big Block created a new coalition called The Greater Raleigh Esports Local Organizing Committee to measure the impact of esports events in the area and attract future esports tournaments. Last September, Raleigh hosted an event called the R6 Major Raleigh which, according to the coalition, brought the city $1.45 million in direct economic impact, generated over 1,000 job inquiries and attracted more than 2,600 daily attendees, over 70% of whom traveled from other states and countries.
STEAM-fueled events like robotics, Science Olympiad and Destination Imagination originate with curricular or extracurricular activities inside school walls, but one organization known for its trademark bike races is going the other way—using its sports brand to promote STEAM education.
The USA BMX Foundation is a separate entity devoted to BMX-based curriculum through what foundation Executive Director Mike DuVarney calls “disguised learning concepts.” The foundation offers two educational modules—the Track Modeling Program, which allows fourth graders to design and build their own scale BMX tracks, and the BMX Stem Program, which introduces a range of STEM concepts through experiments with actual BMX bikes.
In addition to the educational objectives, the foundation hopes that its STEAM programming, which last year reached 240,000 students in 200 communities across the country, will draw more young people into BMX racing. That effect has occurred, but the opposite has also been true, with competitive BMX enthusiasts seeking out the foundation’s offerings to enrich their understanding of the sport they love. “It’s kind of been symbiotic,” DuVarney says. “It’s helped us reach a new audience, but it’s also helped our existing members find a new voice, so to speak.”
Photo Credit: VEX Robotics World