Why Sports Matter to West Michigan

Organized travel sports have been a part of our country’s social fabric for more than a century, starting in the 19th century with the institution of mandatory schooling. Competitive sports leagues such as Little League Baseball were formed not long after to provide organized recreational activities for these students. Fast forward to today, when almost 7.8 million children play on a high school sports team (2014 Annual High School Athletics Participation Survey, National Federation of State High School Associations). It’s no wonder that youth and amateur sports tourism has become an almost $9 billion industry (NASC Report on The Sports Tourism Industry June 2015).

So why do organized travel sports matter to West Michigan?

Enhancing our quality of life

Sports activities keep young people and adults active and fit, contributing to the overall health of our region. They also provide a positive outlet for developing team-building skills as players work with others toward a common goal. The annual Meijer State Games of Michigan (with the Winter Games Feb. 19-21) is a perfect example of that team spirit and collaboration. And from an entertainment factor, sports are just plain exciting to watch. We all know the exhilaration of watching the Winter and Summer Olympics every four years. Locally, we’re fortunate to host many national, regional and local sporting events that hold our attention and get us on the edge of our seats, whether we’re watching the fast-paced WCHA Final Five Hockey Championships this March, the elegant fluidity of the US Synchro Masters National Championships last year at Jenison Pool, or the heart-pumping adrenaline rush of triathletes competing in one of our many area triathlons like the Grand Rapids Triathlon, Millennium Triathlon or the daunting Michigan Titanium.

Developing our infrastructure

As the adage goes, “If you build it, they will come.” We know this is true in building the Art Van Sports Complex in Plainfield Township in 2014. This championship-caliber baseball/softball complex hosted 18 tournaments in its first year alone that attracted 7,614 participants who booked 7,658 hotel room nights plus an estimated 20,000-plus spectators, generating $3 million in spending.

By driving the conversation about sports and dreaming about what events we’d like to host, it forces us to take stock of our facilities to see if we have the right stadiums, tracks, gymnasiums and other venues to host large-scale national events – and if we don’t, lead the discussion in our area to develop a plan to get there like we did with the Art Van Sports Complex. Many of our local partners in various sports clubs or organizations have a desire to offer tournament-quality facilities for their participants – whether rowing, soccer, lacrosse, field hockey, rugby or basketball, and many more.  The WMSC recently created a facility needs committee to do exactly this – ask the hard questions about what we are missing as a city, and drive the conversation about how we work together as both a sports and business community to position ourselves as a premier destination for sports tourism; thus increasing our economic impact.

Growing our economy

Sporting events generate money – and lots of it – for our community. Consider that in 2015, 86 sporting events attracted more than 114,000 athletes and visitors who booked 38,886 sports-related hotel stays, generating more than $39 million in estimated direct visitor spending. So what is direct visitor spending? It is the multiplier effect of what athletes and their traveling parties spend in a community they visit. For every athlete who participates in a sports tournament, that individual typically travels with 2.5 in their party (parents, siblings, grandparents, etc.). That group usually spends an average of two to three nights at a hotel, depending on the length of the tournament. And what else do they spend money on while in town? Restaurants. Fuel for their vehicle. Supplies like food and drinks.  And discretionary spending on a fun activity like a movie or museum if they have a free afternoon. Each family who visits the Grand Rapids area for a sporting event typically spends $846 on average, right at our local businesses that support our economy (Sports Events – 2015 Market Report).

As we embark on another exciting new year of sports in West Michigan, hopefully you’ll look at our local sporting tournaments in a new way. They are good for our health, and for a healthy bottom line as a region. Contact us at the West Michigan Sports Commission to get involved in the conversation about sports tourism, whether you’re a local business owner or a fan.


Mike Guswiler
Mike is president of the West Michigan Sports Commission.

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