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Moving Off the Island: Your Kid’s Travel Soccer Tournament Could Be in a Mixed-Use Setting

July 10, 2024

Youth travel sports is a booming business, and that spending power is unleashing a surge in development of sports facilities. It has piqued the interest of private developers that are looking to sports to anchor projects and drive steady traffic to retail, restaurants, entertainment and hotels.

The U.S. youth and amateur sports tourism industry grew by 11% in 2023 to $52.2 billion, according to Sports Events & Tourism Association. Basketball boasted 29.7 million participants, baseball 16.7 million and soccer 14.1 million, but those aren’t the only ones. Pickleball, for example, has grown 223% over three years, including 52% in the past year alone.

Founded in 2003, The Sports Facilities Cos. helps U.S. communities plan, fund, develop and operate sports, recreation, entertainment and fitness centers. In fact, it has helped 3,000 communities develop plans — though not all have come to life — from small municipal water parks to a $100 million megacomplex, according to partner and senior vice president of marketing Ashley Whittaker. It also operates more than 60 venues across the country and has about 20 more in development.

Commerce + Communities Today contributing editor Beth Mattson-Teig talked with Whittaker about locating such facilities in and near mixed-use developments.

What has changed in sports complexes since real estate veterans were younger?

There has been an evolution that’s helpful to understand in youth and amateur sports. Historically, Parks and Recreation was responsible for local programming and tournaments. As sports have become more competitive and club sports have emerged, there has been a rise in more purpose-built facilities that started in the private sector. The clubs or teams or tournaments or individual private investors started understanding this market, and they started building single-sport assets, such as a soccer dome or two or three courts that specialized in a single sport. About 12 to 14 years ago, some savvy [public] communities understood that if they built a six- or eight-court facility, they could capitalize on this tourism boom. Elizabethtown, Kentucky, built a big outdoor complex focused on baseball and soccer, and Myrtle Beach built a [100,000-square-foot] indoor facility. Those are purpose-built for tourism, and they were the biggest of their time. Over the last decade, you now find these megaplexes that have indoor and outdoor assets that also include an entertainment component, whether that’s an amphitheater or a family entertainment component, as well as green space amenities like trails or parks.

“You now find these [youth and amateur sports] megaplexes that have indoor and outdoor assets that also include an entertainment component, whether that’s an amphitheater or a family entertainment component, as well as green space amenities like trails or parks.”

Do you see these sports complexes developed as greenfield destinations, or are they coming into urban centers or mixed-use developments?

There are many factors that go into it, land availability being one of them, but it really depends on the goals and vision of the city or the developer that’s putting it together. For instance, in Rocky Mount, North Carolina, there’s a project called Rocky Mount Event Center. It was conceived by the city to anchor their downtown redevelopment. The 165,000-square-foot facility was a brownfield project that hosts youth sports tournaments, as well as concerts, trade shows, competitions and private events. Mattoon, Illinois, is an example of a very rural community where the sports facility anchors a mixed-use development.

Mattoon, Illinois’s 150-acre Emerald Acres Sports Connection will open this year with a 140,000-square-foot field house, baseball and softball fields, multipurpose fields, walkable retail and restaurants and medical space.

Can you share examples that anchor mixed-use projects?

AdventHealth Sports Park at Bluhawk in Overland Park, Kansas, is part of a development that’s led by Price Brothers Management Co. The 260,000-square-foot Phase 1 is set to open later this year. It’s a massive indoor sports and entertainment complex that features an NHL-sized ice rink, eight basketball courts that can convert to 16 volleyball courts, as well as a cafe, sports medicine and family entertainment. Price Brothers is using this as an anchor for a much larger development that includes an outdoor entertainment space and massive retail.

The 260,000-square-foot Phase 1 of AdventHealth SportsPark at Bluhawk in Overland, Kansas, will open this year. The park will anchor a larger entertainment and retail development from Price Brothers.

AdventHealth SportsPark at Bluhawk in Overland, Kansas, will feature an NHL-size ice rink, eight basketball courts that can convert to 16 volleyball courts, a cafe, a sports medicine service and family entertainment.

What could a developer gain from including a sports tourism complex in a project’s plans?

Historically, when a public entity goes into a sports tourism complex, they’re looking at creating economic impact. [It] might subsidize a project at $300,000 or $400,000 a year, potentially for a $20, $50 or $80 million economic impact [for the community]. Translating that to a private developer, you have a very reliable and very resilient driver of traffic. [Sports tourism] was one of the first segments to respond after COVID. It also was one of the only segments that did not shrink during the Great Recession in 2008. We love our sports, and we want to give our kids those opportunities to play and get those benefits. Another benefit is that [the developer becomes] a great community partner. That’s a softer KPI, but you are providing something that has a lot of tangible community benefit. [Sports tourism] also is a proven value creator in terms of real estate, and not just for the retail components but single-family housing, as well.

What about the cons of such facilities?

They’re typically not self-sustaining. They require a subsidy, though not in every case. The ones that are self-sustaining capture the food-and-beverage or the alcohol sales or other retail, [but] when you’re doing that in a mixed-use development, you don’t necessarily want to capture all that restaurant or food-and-beverage inside the facility; you want them to go out to the larger development. So the developer has to consider how much local programming, which also is a source of revenue, needs to come into that and balance that with economic impact and how much you can capture with your tourism component.

It’s not an “if you build it, they will come” kind of turnkey asset. It really requires a mix of local programming, family entertainment and food-and-beverage to generate revenue, along with those big tournaments that drive thousands of visitors every year. You need to hire a specialized operator, just like you would see in a convention center, to make sure it is firing on all cylinders to make it work.

What ingredients or sites do you look for?

We definitely look at demographics and socioeconomics. We want to make sure that we’re building facilities that can serve everyone because it’s important for us and developers as good stewards of our assets. But traveling team families are very affluent — they have the money to spend — and so that is an important key to the economics of this. An underprivileged area works if you can pull people in to stay and play and spend, but you also want to have at least some element of local programming — such as camps, clinics and leagues for people to learn to play — to build your sports base over time, which makes these facilities more and more profitable as time goes on.

You want to look at access for sure. You need to be able to get thousands of people in and out in a weekend or a week, depending on the kind of facility. You always need space for parking and also proximity to hotels. As a traveling sports parent, I want to drive to my destination, park my car and not get back in it the whole weekend and still have a great experience. I want the sports complex, a nice hotel, multiple restaurant options and something fun for my other kids to do. That is the pinnacle of the industry right now in terms of guest experience, and people are willing to pay for that because when things are tight, we’ll cut our vacations and we’ll make those sports tournaments turn into vacations.

How much development runway remains for such sports facilities?

There was a forecast a few years ago by WinterGreen Research that projected by 2026, this industry would reach $77.5 billion. I definitely don’t think we’ve hit the ceiling yet. There’s still so much demand for places to play, and there are a lot of tournaments and program providers and municipalities that want to get into sports tourism. We do watch that density when we’re planning new projects. You don’t want to do what your neighbor is doing if they have a massive outdoor complex. We don’t want this to be a race to the bottom and have facilities cannibalize themselves, but we have a ton of room to grow, even in the places where it’s more dense.

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