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  • Rachel Von | The Journal Gazette The crowd and team members enjoy the boys' basketball games during the GymRats' Bill Hensley Memorial Run N Slam basketball tournament at Spiece Fitness. The local sports scene is a big draw for the city's tourism industry.

Thursday, June 15, 2017 1:00 am

City scoring with sports

Teams, tourneys likely to bring 120,000 visitors, $40 million

GREG JONES | The Journal Gazette

Fort Wayne has been good about getting its piece of the sports tourism pie for the last two decades by attracting out-of-town fans to the Summit City to partake in athletics, while staying awhile to spend money on the city's hotels, restaurants and attractions.

While the pie has grown nationwide in the last few years, so has the competition.

According to the National Association of Sports Commissions' 2016 report, almost $9.5 billion nationwide was generated in visitor spending because of sports events. These events are mainly associated with amateur sports, including tournaments that involved travel circuits for sports such as basketball, volleyball, baseball and wrestling.

In other words, athletics mean big business for communities these days.

Visit Fort Wayne estimates that 120,000 visitors will come to town this year to watch sports, attend 70 tournaments and events and will spend more than $40 million in direct spending. 

“This sports tourism industry has enabled communities, destination cities to champion many of their current sports facilities ... and on a regional and national level, they have discovered it also generates significant amount of economic impact from visitors spending when they come to these tournaments,” Visit Fort Wayne president and CEO Dan O'Connell said. 

The main idea, especially when it comes to youth sports, is for families to follow their children around the country to compete in various tournaments. While in those communities, the families have to sleep somewhere, eat somewhere and entertain adolescents while they aren't competing in an event.

All this adds up to dollars and makes sense for communities to attract more and more events. 

“It brings in the new dollar to the local economy,” GymRats director Todd Hensley said. “A majority in smaller cities are recycled dollar, earned there, spent there. With sports tourism it is earned outside the city and spent within our city.”

GymRats puts on the basket­ball tournaments at Spiece Fieldhouse and is responsible for a large portion of the monetary benefits to the community. 

It is not just the younger crowd that brings in the bucks either. Memorial Coliseum is becoming a destination for the NCAA, through success with the Mat Mayhem collegiate wrestling tournament in January and the upcoming additions of NCAA Division III men's basketball finals and the NCAA Division women's basketball regionals. 

“We have been very successful as a community with attracting these events to our city,” Coliseum general manager Randy Brown said. 

There are 5,000 hotel rooms in Fort Wayne and many are filled to capacity when one, if not several, of these events come to town.

“Certain times of the year you can't get a hotel room in Allen County,” Brown said. “January is an amazing over-the-top time for lodging. Two years ago, our room nights tied Indianapolis ... or something like that, but it was a pretty amazing fact we were there.”

With more and more communities getting into the sports tourism business with new and upgraded facilities, Fort Wayne has had to keep up with new additions and changes of their own. The Coliseum's improvements and additions over the years, along with the SportsONE/Parkview Fieldhouse and Icehouse, the Plassman Center at Turnstone and the plans for a downtown arena, are helping to keep Fort Wayne in the running for athletic competitions.

“If you talk to the people at Spiece or Canlan (the Icehouse), they will let you know the competition is fierce for these tournaments,” Brown said. “It is definitely a bidding war. Clearly you have to have the facilities if you are going to be successful in bidding and going after these events. I will go head-to-head with any other community when you look at Spiece to Parkview Fieldhouse to the Icehouse to the Coliseum.”

A new player in sports tourism for Fort Wayne is Turnstone, which is beginning to gain a nationwide reputation for athletes with disabilities and is the home to the U.S. Goalball team. 

“The biggest difference is you have to have venues and a community that can accommodate significant numbers of athletes with disabilities,” Turnstone CEO Mike Mushett said.

“The community is making great strides in making sure we have a disability-friendly community. All of the new projects that are being developed in town … are all amendable to conversations and discussions on how they make their facilities more disability friendly. It is a huge selling point that the community is making a conscious effort to make itself disability friendly.”

There are other events as well. The professional sports teams in town, the Komets, TinCaps and Mad Ants, also bring in a measure of out-of-towners but not to the level of the bigger amateur tournaments.

TinCaps president Mike Nutter learned that the team's attendance may not always be out-of-state residents but nearly half come from outside of Allen County. That may not have an impact on hotel rooms, but restaurants and attractions, such as the Fort Wayne Children's Zoo, can get a boost from professional sports fans coming to the city.

“We didn't even know what the numbers would be when we moved downtown ... and how many would come out of town or out of state,” Nutter said.

“So we did a study with Visit Fort Wayne in 2009 in that first year, and I think it was 40-45 percent of people were coming from outside of Allen County. What we realized over the years is people may come out on Saturday to the best children's zoo in the country and check out a TinCaps game that night.”

gjones@jg.net