Sports commission reaps record tourism numbers

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The NCAA 2019 Women’s DII Lacrosse Championships were part of a stellar lineup of events that came to West Michigan. Courtesy NCAA

The West Michigan Sports Commission had a record-breaking year in 2019.

The sports nonprofit hosted the most youth and amateur sporting events in its history. There were 99 events that attracted the most athletes and visitors in a year at 230,382. Those events generated $54.3 million in estimated direct visitor spending and filled a record 50,245 hotel room nights.

The number of events represented a 12.5% increase from 2018 and a 5% increase in visitor spending from the same year.

An estimated $1.4 million in direct visitor spending came from the Meijer State Games of Michigan. There were 62 sports between the Summer Games and Winter Games in 2019, which drew 10,441 participating athletes.

“Last year was especially strong for sports tourism in West Michigan,” said Mike Guswiler, WMSC president. “We have built a solid reputation with our Art Van Sports Complex, we continue to strengthen relationships with national rights holders such as USA Softball, and we have great partnerships with our local collegiate sports facilities and programs. All of that led to an impactful 2019, which we hope will continue.”

There were national sports events held for the first time in West Michigan last year, including the 2019 USA Hockey National Championships, NCAA 2019 Women’s DII Lacrosse Championships, 2019 USA BMX Great Lakes Nationals, USA Softball 2019 Men’s Open Eastern Fastpitch National Championship and USA Softball 2019 Men's Slow Pitch Class D Northern Championship.

The Art Van Sports Complex generated a record $6.1 million in estimated visitor spending. The complex hosted the most tournaments, teams, athletes and spectators since it started hosting events in 2015. There were 746 teams with 9,698 athletes, who drew 24,245 spectators.

There were 22 tournaments that resulted in 6,407 room nights booked and a record $6.1 million in estimated direct visitor spending, which is an 85% increase from 2018. It was the most spending generated in one year.

 

Bryan Baar, manager for the Art Van Sport Complex, said they knew it would only be a few years after opening before they would be welcoming a significant number of athletes from around the country to play at the facility.

“We knew that when we started the complex it would be two to five years before we hit our stride,” he said. “We felt that last year was when we really hit our stride with understanding how events go, understanding how the complex works, understanding our staff and also giving our partners some time to build the events that they bring. We are looking to build on that in 2020. The events are growing to a point where we are really thrilled with the numbers we are having. Our staff understands the day-to-day operations and the expectations to just grow for the number of teams and the number of visitors. We grew our partnership with Game Day USA. We actually added three or four games to our calendar. I think that strengthened our calendar a little bit because they are a strong provider. People are starting to understand the facility, trying to understand how nice it is to become a destination for people to come every summer.”

The softball championships both will be returning this year and in 2021. Darrin Duistermars, commissioner of USA Softball of Michigan, said the decision to return to Grand Rapids this year and next year was based on the organization’s experience and the entertainment options Grand Rapids has to offer.

“The maintenance staff at the Art Van Sports Complex is as good as it gets,” he said. “Two years ago, when we held what we call our men’s modified pitch national championships, there was so much rain that weekend and I don’t know how these guys did it, but they got the field playable whenever we could play. It took us a little bit longer to get the tournament in, but we did, and nobody, I mean nobody, complained about the condition of the fields because these guys did it to the best of their ability and we played, and we got the tournament in. It is amazing what can happen when you have an amazing maintenance staff that takes it personally and knows what they are doing.”

Duistermars said about 200 to 250 athletes participated in the fastpitch tournament and probably 400 to 450 athletes participated in the slow pitch tournament last year. Their age range was between 25 and 60 years old. He said there were many entertainment venues and restaurants they could visit when they weren’t playing.

“Grand Rapids had options,” he said. “You could go take in a Whitecaps game or go downtown and find any restaurants out there. You could go just about anywhere. There are brewery companies out there that you could take advantage of. You could go see a concert at Van Andel Arena.”

WMSC won the bid again to host the USA Hockey National Championships Youth Tier II 16U in 2021.

The US Rowing Masters National Championships returned for the second time since 2014. The event had 1,644 athletes from 150 rowing clubs from 33 U.S. states, three Canadian provinces, plus Austria, Guatemala, Poland and Serbia.

One of the rowing teams was from Boulder, Colorado. Marliee Bella, a rower on the team, said her team had about 30 athletes and they competed in just over 40 rowing competitions over the course of their four-day stay.

“I remember getting around the Grand Rapids area and getting equipment to the venue — because we were driving and pulling a trailer that was about 58 feet long with boats in it, which is about the length of a semi-trailer — was easy,” she said. “Getting through Grand Rapids and navigating the highway and roadways was really, really simple, which is much appreciated for a crew like us that is coming 12,000 miles.

“We thought the people were amazingly friendly. The volunteers and event staff. The people at our hotel and when we were eating dinner were really nice. There was so much hospitality and we really appreciated that.”

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