How Sweet It Is in Hershey/Harrisburg

Hershey/Harrisburg Sports Commission|Hershey/Harrisburg Sports Commission|Hershey/Harrisburg Sports Authority
The Hershey/Harrisburg (Pennsylvania) Sports and Events Authority has two obvious selling points for youth athletics. Both start with the first name in the organization headed by Executive Director Gregg Cook. This region between Baltimore, Maryland, and Philadelphia is the closest thing to a real-life Candyland. The late Milton S. Hershey assumes the role of Willy Wonka here. His legacy can’t be wrapped in a pretty wrapper, but it’s sweet nonetheless. Anything that bears the Hershey name—including luxury resorts, the world famous amusement park and of course, Hershey’s Chocolate World—gives part of its revenue toward a foundation that funds college education for children in need. It’s hard to believe the Connect Sports Executive Advisory Board did anything but indulge (it’s hard not to when even martinis at Devon Seafood & Steak come with Hershey’s kisses) when meeting there in June. But it’s safe to say the group of esteemed sports events professionals came away with a great taste in its mouth after learning how it’s taken only two years for Cook to lead the Hershey/Harrisburg Sports and Events Authority into a forward-thinking group capable of huge achievements. Here are some bite-sized sweets Connect Sports came away with.

It’s Where Stars Are Born

Perhaps only Texas can claim to live and breathe sports more than Pennsylvania. That’s especially true in Hershey and Harrisburg. Giant Center averages more than 9,000 fans per night for Hershey Bears’ AHL games. The Bears are an affiliate of the Washington Capitals, which won their first Stanley Cup in franchise history this year. That success figures to trickle down with more out-of-towners joining the rabid Bears fans in cheering on future NHL stars (about half of the Capitals spent some time in Hershey before hitting the big league). Another connection to Washington, D.C., is the Harrisburg Senators. The Washington Nationals’ double-AA affiliate play at FNB Park, a beautiful facility on Harrisburg City Island. Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper and Trea Turner honed their skills in the Pennsylvania capital. Future stars are sure to come through here, which leads us to…

The Authority Is Growing Up Fast

Cook always envisioned leading homegrown events once the sports and events authority evolved beyond the CVB. But that day is coming sooner than imagined. Cook and company took over ownership of this summer’s Big 26 Baseball Classic (Pennsylvania vs. Maryland all-stars) after the death of the past organizer. There’s no doubt this group is quickly raising its game.

Most Versatile Facilities

Just as Hershey produces more than chocolate (Twizzlers, anyone?), Hershey and Harrisburg have versatility, too. Pennsylvania Farm Show Complex & Expo Center goes way beyond horses and tradeshows. The 170,000-sq.-ft. Expo Hall holds 20 basketball courts, most famously used for an AAU Girls Junior Nationals the past 15 years. The same space also fits 29 volleyball courts. There’s a realistic hope USA BMX will bring an event to the facility in 2019. Arena football and equine events are also naturals here, as are large concerts. There are about 8,000 hotel rooms in Dauphin County to host young athletes and their families. And if there is a scheduling conflict, the Hershey/Harrisburg team partners with nearby Spooky Nook Sports in Lancaster County (we’ll have a separate report on that facility soon). The impressive facility is home to USA Field Hockey, and hosts volleyball, futsal, basketball, pickleball and more.

Esports Explosion

To say Harrisburg University of Science and Technology is not known for its sports is an understatement. In fact, it doesn’t have a traditional athletic department. That’s played into the region’s hands when it comes to esports. The school decided to go all-in on gaming, including a global search for elite players it’s awarded scholarships to. This has opened the door for small to midsize esports events (not all gaming competitions can fill Madison Square Garden or Staples Center, after all). Whitaker Center, connected to Hilton Harrisburg, will take center stage for an upcoming esports festival this fall that’s sure to be the first of many more to come. Local organizers seek the center as the Fenway Park of esports, meaning it will be a small, quirky venue with tons of character.