Session sets table for sports tourism


As the amateur and youth sports industry continues to grow, so does the role Grand Rapids plays in hosting dozens of events each year.

At the 24th annual National Association of Sports Commissions Symposium at DeVos Place recently, NASC Executive Director Don Schumacher announced the industry’s economic impact was $9.45 billion in 2015.

The West Michigan Sports Commission’s take of that national number was $39 million, and officials expect to gain a larger share following connections made at the symposium.

WMSC Executive Director Mike Guswiler said Grand Rapids had bid to host the event on three occasions before being named host for this year’s event.

It already seems to be paying off, as Guswiler said he was able to reconnect with event hosts that have held, or will hold, events in Grand Rapids.

Both Schumacher and Guswiler said they couldn’t have been happier with this year’s symposium, which attracted more than 950 attendees. Schumacher said he was especially pleased with how DeVos Place coordinates with hotels and restaurants in town, and he made special mention of the city’s beer scene — including a souvenir mug he took home to Cincinnati.

Schumacher said host cities take notes from previous years, as Grand Rapids did last year with Milwaukee.

“As I drove home, I had plenty of time to reflect on the event, and everything worked out beautifully,” Schumacher said. “We up the ante every year, and host cities learn to innovate and ways to be interesting and we get better at the programming. It tends to tick upward every year — but not because the preceding year did anything wrong.”

The upward trend has a lot to do with the industry growing at a steady clip. In 2014, amateur sports was an $8.96 billion industry. Schumacher said the growth in economic impact isn’t surprising because he consistently sees more people — children and adults — involved in sports and traveling because of them.

With more cities recognizing the money to be made by hosting tournaments and events, the symposium attendance grows approximately 2 percent to 3 percent each year, Schumacher said.

“This is very much a national family,” he said. “People get together and they know each other, like each other and talk to each other. The most important thing is to bring them together and give them what they need.

“Cities that have not been active are beginning to be exposed to the idea in magazines and newspapers and TV. They see cities benefiting from sports tourism and they want to get in.”

Of the more than 950 attendees, approximately 100 of them were representatives from sports-governing bodies ranging from Olympic committees to NCAA sports. Throughout the three days of the conference, WMSC had 35 meetings with governing bodies to discuss future events.

Some of the appointments were to reconnect with organizations that have events planned here, such as the Professional Disc Golf Association, which will host the Masters World Championship in August 2017, and the International Softball Congress, which will bring 1,500 players and approximately $2 million in direct spending to Grand Rapids next August.

Meetings to reconnect also were held with USA Cycling, which will host the Fat Bike National Championships in February 2017 and 2018 in Grand Rapids, as well as Game Day USA, which has 10 baseball tournaments slated this year for the Art Van Sports Complex. Guswiler said those events alone should help generate $4.3 million in visitor spending in Kent County.

He said another $5 million is on the table following discussions for potential events ranging from a USA BMX national race and USA Rowing’s nationals to the USA Triathlon youth championship and USA Ultimate Frisbee events.

On top of the potential hosting opportunities, Guswiler said organizing bodies and fellow destination marketers were complimentary of the convention setup in Grand Rapids.

“You can’t do much about the weather in April, but people saw the convenience of the city’s walkability,” Guswiler said. “Wednesday was an open night, and visitors said half a dozen restaurants had one-and-a-half to two-hour waits. We love to hear that for our restaurants.”

The event also raised the most money of any NASC symposium, which always hosts in conjunction with the NASC Sports Legacy Fund. This year, more than $27,000 was raised for the Mary Free Bed Wheelchair & Adaptive Sports program.

The money will be used to provide the program with up to nine wheelchairs for wheelchair tennis.

“If you can bring 1,000 people to town that happen to have $27,000 in their pockets to leave behind, that’s pretty cool,” Schumacher said. “As far as Grand Rapids is concerned, that’s what I’m most proud of.”

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