Baseball, softball lead sports tourism rally

While not yet back to 2019 levels, sports visitors blew away 2020’s economic impact numbers.
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Meijer Sports Complex hosted 25 tournaments in 2021 featuring 684 teams. Courtesy Courtesy Meijer State Games of Michigan

Sports is proving to be vital in reviving the tourism industry in West Michigan as it emerges from the pandemic, but not just any sports.

Baseball and softball tournaments have been at the forefront of attracting individuals back to the region this year. Meijer Sports Complex in Rockford has been the epicenter of sports tourism in the region during the April-October baseball and softball seasons.

With one final tournament to go this month, the economic impact of the 2021 baseball and softball seasons in West Michigan will have doubled that of 2020.

After the conclusion of all 25 tournaments, the newly named complex will have welcomed 684 baseball and softball teams, 8,892 athletes and 22,230 spectators who will have booked 5,973 hotel room nights, which will result in more than $5,618,365 in estimated visitor spending.

The total number of tournaments that will be hosted this year is an increase of 67% from 2020, which saw 15 tournaments, and an increase of 14% from 2019, when there were 22 tournaments.

Fifty percent of the teams that will have played this year are travel teams. Last year, 27% of the teams that played at the complex were travel teams, or 124 of 462 teams.

These teams travel from southeast Michigan, Ohio, Illinois, Wisconsin, Kentucky, Tennessee, Pennsylvania and Ontario. The travel squads resulted in a 145% increase in hotel nights booked in 2021 at 5,973, versus 2,433 in 2020, but a 7% decrease from 2019.

As the number of tournaments, teams, athletes and spectators visiting West Michigan increased, so did direct visitor spending. The estimated $5.6 million in visitor spending through hotel nights and other purchases will have jumped by 134% from last year’s $2.4 million. That number still is 8% below 2019’s pre-pandemic level of $6.1 million.

“The 2021 season at the Meijer Sports Complex has been a complete success, proving that sports tourism is leading the comeback of our regional tourism economy,” said Mike Guswiler, president of the West Michigan Sports Commission (WMSC). “The return of more baseball/softball tournaments, especially those that attract travel teams, is a bellwether of more positive change to come in the sports tourism industry.”

The 25 tournaments held this year included 19 back-to-back weekends from April through August. Among the 25 tournaments, 14 were put on by Game Day USA, a youth baseball and softball event management organization, and five tournaments were sanctioned by USA Softball, the national governing body of softball in the United States.

Game Day USA’s 14 tournaments included two preseason championships; a super regional tournament; two “Rumble in the Rapids” tournaments; a Stars N’ Strikes Showdown tournament; two Silver Series championships; a state championship; Meijer State Games of Michigan; two national championships; a “Summer SlugFest”; and an all-star tournament. 

The WMSC just signed a new, three-year operating agreement with Game Day USA and already has secured 14 dates on the 2022 calendar.

Outside of the “stunning” complex, Ryan Rosmonowski, senior director of events and operations for Game Day USA, said the organization renewed the contract because the greater Grand Rapids area has something for everyone.

“You have the city life — the cities, breweries and things for an entire family to do in downtown Grand Rapids,” he said. “When you get out to the suburbs of Rockford, if you want a little bit of open land or open space, Rockford has that as well, in addition to the complex. And 20-30 minutes away you can get to Lake Michigan and you can see everything that the state of Michigan has to offer. So, when we pick venues, we look for family-friendly destinations and Grand Rapids is exactly what we are looking for because it has something for a 7-year-old baseball player to do. It has something for his little brother or sister to do and it also has things for the parents to do — to have a night away from their children or go out with other parents on the team and ultimately that is exactly what we are looking for.”

USA Softball played five tournaments at Meijer Sports Complex this year, including two national USA Softball tournaments — the USA Softball Men’s Open East Fast Pitch National Championship and USA Softball Men’s Slow Pitch Class D National Championship — that welcomed 372 participants and garnered 600 spectators who booked 300 hotel room nights. It all resulted in more than $500,000 in estimated direct spending. USA Softball also hosted three state tournaments in 2021.

Darrin Duistermars is the Northern Territory Region 6 Vice President of USA Softball and a commissioner for USA Softball of Michigan. He said the pandemic did not affect the organization’s ability to bring teams to the complex, unlike other states where they encountered some difficulties.

“The facility was available,” he said. “We, per the guidance of state and county regulations, were able to have tournament play there when many places, especially in the Midwest, were not able to do so. Illinois had some hurdles to go through but in West Michigan, if there was a tournament going on, teams were playing, especially on the youth side. It is one thing to have a tournament to just play in, but when you are offering a quality event and you are playing at a place like Meijer, quite frankly, the pandemic really whetted people’s appetite to play and we had a lot of success with that.

“We ended up playing (adult) national tournaments and state tournaments. These individuals wanted to play so badly that it was not a problem getting them to go there. Even with the pandemic, the facility was inviting. The facility had rules and regulations in place, we followed them, and they communicated them very nicely to all the people involved and we had no issues. Despite the pandemic, we had great tournament play last year and it carried over to this year.”

Meijer Sports Complex was filled to capacity in June as all four weekends were booked with more than 50 teams playing per weekend. Some of the tournaments that were held were three Game Day USA events (including the Game Day USA State Championships) and the Meijer State Games of Michigan.

Aquinas College’s baseball team also played a full season including all its home games at the complex, after its season was delayed in 2020.

Guswiler said the calendar of sporting events is almost full for next year. After this year’s sizable increase in travel teams compared to 2020, he said he believes the number of travel teams will continue to increase in 2022.

“The 2020 ratios we saw 15% travel and 84% local participation,” he said. “People weren’t comfortable going too far outside of their local area and we saw about 50/50 this year — 50% of people traveling — which is what we’d like to see again. So, I think that is where we will see that growth in 2022, where we could get back to our average, which is about 60% of teams traveling from outside the area and 40% local participation, and I feel pretty good about that. Things continue to move ahead. In the world of the pandemic, where there is the booster shot and younger ages being eligible for it, those things are going to make a difference in terms of seeing more travel parties.”

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