Richmond Is Rolling on the River

From its wide array of complexes to locals’ embrace of the outdoors, Richmond, Virginia, is putting itself on the map as an elite sports destination.

Richmond, Virginia

After the $5.5 million purchase of the 12-field River City Sportsplex in 2017, Richmond, Virginia, is positioned as an East Coast powerhouse for sports. This massive purchase in Chesterfield County isn’t the region’s only big move. Henrico County invested $11 million in the first phase of Glover Park. Over time, local officials believe these investments will pay for themselves.

The demand is there. Biking, whitewater rafting and other outdoorsy activities are a popular part of the region’s culture. Couple that with a thriving craft brew and culinary scene, and it’s easy to see why “River City” is drawing comparisons to West Coast millennial hubs Seattle and Portland. “It’s about what visitors can find both on and off the field,” says Danielle Vincenti, senior sports development manager at Richmond Region Tourism.

Five hours from Philadelphia and Charlotte, North Carolina, respectively—with Washington, D.C., two hours away—Richmond is a welcoming destination in more ways than one. Its Southern hospitality has made the region popular among LGBT groups. Richmond is the best of both worlds for someone like Ian Johnston, director of diversity and inclusion at the Sports Diversity Leadership Council.

“It’s easy to see Richmond has transformed into a cultural hub, a center of diversity and an advocate for LGBTQ rights, as well as a world-class athletic destination,” says Johnston, who attended a Connect-sponsored field trip in May.

What’s the secret to the region’s success? Its homegrown approach, including the CVB’s partnerships with other local entities, is reinforcing Richmond as a major sports tourism destination.

Hiring From Within

When it comes to teambuilding in Richmond, there’s no need to look outside the commonwealth. The relationship Richmond Region Tourism has crafted with the Center for Sport Leadership at Virginia Commonwealth University gives students and graduates a clear track to reinvest in Virginia.

Greg Burton, the center’s director of communications and engagement, preaches a strong message of getting every graduate a job—in state, preferably. With an alumni network of more than 500 graduates working in all areas of sport, it’s no wonder the CSL program has enjoyed a 98 percent employment rate for the last two years. This unique program offered at VCU is just one of the many traits that gives Richmond its sports-focused identity.

A Local Approach

Staying active in Richmond is not difficult. The region hosts a variety of activities, from conventional sports to quirky activities like archery tag and foot golf. That’s not to mention the city’s placement along the James River, making it a premier destination for exciting whitewater rafting and kayaking for all ages and levels of experience.

Beyond those natural assets is the nonprofit Sports Backers. Each year, Sports Backers puts on Dominion Energy Riverrock, an outdoor sports and music festival that rallies outdoor brands like Subaru, ENO and Keen. “The strategy is pretty simple: We want to give outdoorsy brands primarily located on the West Coast a foothold on the East Coast,” says Sports Backers Executive Director Jon Lugbill.

The three-day festival, which spans downtown Richmond, is packed with activities like stand-up paddleboarding and kayaking, as well as bouldering and slacklining competitions. The family-friendly event sums up the best of Richmond, says Vincenti. “We get to celebrate all of the sports in the region and what makes Richmond so unique right on the James River,” she says of the festival.

Sports, Eat, Play, Repeat

Because sports and outdoor living are Richmond’s primary focus, the city is littered with historical sites and attractions for young athletes’ families and friends in town for a tournament. During downtime before or after events, families can play at G-Force Karts and Kings Dominion amusement park, or take a tour aboard the RVA Trolley. Richmond’s Carytown neighborhood hosts the city’s urban retail district with streets lined with shopping, local restaurants and community events like the annual Carytown Watermelon Festival.   

Looking to draw the tension out of competition? River City Roll, a boutique bowling alley with a heavy focus on food and beverage, just arrived to the city and already attracts large groups hungry for something off the field. The lanes at River City Roll are specifically designed to be just short of those at a competitive bowling alley, keeping the spirit of the venue casual. Richmond is home to a flourishing craft beer and cidery scene with local favorites like The Veil Brewing Co. and Ardent Craft Ales, and also was chosen to be another hub by California giant Stone Brewing.