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Communities investing in sports development efforts

Traditionally, tourism marketing efforts have focused on drawing individual consumers, group tours and meetings/conventions to a particular region for vacations and/or business/associational events. But in recent years, a number of Mississippi communities have expanded their efforts to include another burgeoning element of the business — sports development.

From amateur and professional events to youth and adult tournaments, sports development adds another element of economic diversity to a region’s tourism initiatives. Tourism officials say the state has a number of positive attributes to make it a natural in drawing state, regional and national athletic and sporting events. According to Janet Leach, manager of golf marketing and sports development at the Mississippi Development Authority’s Division of Tourism, Mississippi’s variety of sporting venues throughout the state and its climate make it a strong candidate for year-round sports events.

Mississippi’s friendly, hospitable atmosphere ranks as a plus and the state’s historical sites, museums and recreation/entertainment venues provide an additional draw for sports participants and/or spectators who are in the region for several days.

A number of Mississippi communities have already developed proactive sports development strategies that are yielding results. The state is also dedicated to the effort and recently expanded Leach’s role to include more comprehensive sports development responsibilities.

“We believe that the potential is huge, and we are committed to working with and supporting the efforts of our convention and visitors bureaus and park and recreation centers to bring sporting events to the state and to their respective regions,” Leach said.

“We will be visiting with Convention and Visitors Bureau (CVB) and recreation center directors and staff, we will be assessing who the competition is outside of our state and what it takes to compete.”

Interestingly, communities that are very different economically and geographically share a common enthusiasm for sports development opportunities. In a tale of two cities in the northern part of the state, both Tupelo and Tunica have realized success in this increasingly competitive arena.
Neal McCoy, sports development director with the Tupelo CVB, said that cooperation and ongoing communication with parks and recreation counterparts has been a key component in attracting a variety of sporting events.

The city has had particular success in drawing state/regional/invitational soccer, baseball, softball events. In addition to the city’s various athletic complex sites, the BancorpSouth Center is a marketing tool for events such as college basketball games, and McCoy said that the White Tail Ridge Shooting Center just outside the city provides a world-class shooting range for competitive events.

McCoy said he hopes to continue to build on areas such as tennis and gymnastics, to name a few. McCoy adds that sports development is a win-win for local communities not only because it draws visitors and provides economic impact to area hotels, restaurants and retail establishments, but because it also enhances recreational facilities for local residents to enjoy.

The economic impact of various events is significant. In statistics compiled by the Tupelo CVB, the 2004 Mississippi USSSA State Baseball Tournament June 24-27 and July 1-3 at the Veterans Baseball Complex generated a total direct economic impact of $178,117.70. In another example, the 2004 GumTree Classic Men’s and Women’s Softball Tournament June 11-13 at Eastwood Softball Complex provided a total direct economic impact of $59,816.99 according to CVB statistics.

While Tunica has established itself in the gaming industry, it has also developed a carefully crafted sports development strategy to complement its economic base.
According to Webster Franklin, president and CEO of the Tunica Convention and Visitors Bureau, success is realized when the whole community rallies behind a common goal. He said that a well-rounded destination should be diversified, and that’s what his community has aimed to do in its sports development initiatives, which are focused on amateur and professional sporting events.

Franklin points with pride that the U.S. Olympic team boxing trials were held in Tunica in February, and that Tunica served as headquarters for the Tyson-Lewis world heavyweight boxing match in Memphis in 2002.

Franklin also added that the Tunica National Golf and Tennis Complex, which opened earlier this year and boasts an 18-hole golf course and four indoor tennis courts, is a major marketing draw for the area.

Ridgeland Tourism Commission (RTC) has also recognized sports development opportunities.

Hattie Ruder, RTC executive director, said that her group has a sports development manager and that networking and research are key components in generating results. While she stressed that it is important to network with parks and recreation counterparts and key tourism support components within the community, she also added that strong communication with regional counterparts effects cooperation that yields greater potential for everyone.

She added that a strong marketing strategy provides direction for a community’s efforts, and that an understanding of various tournaments’ criteria for site selection is imperative in order for a community to utilize everything it has to offer.

Hattiesburg Convention and Visitors Bureau assistant director Patrick Bell adds that it is important to work with area sports associations. He said that his office works with groups such as the Hattiesburg Youth Soccer Association in an effort to enhance sports development tourism opportunities. Bell said that in a normal year, Hattiesburg will host three to four large soccer tournaments with an economic impact of $300,000 to $600,000 over a three-day weekend.
Bell noted that beyond statistics, local hotel, restaurant and retail establishments can clearly identify the economic impact generated from sports activities.

“When you see a group of kids coming into a restaurant to eat in their soccer uniforms, a tournament’s economic impact is right in front of you,” Bell concluded.

Contact MBJ contributing writer Karen Kahler Holliday at mbj@msbusiness.com.


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