Virginia’s Sports Tourism Boom Cannot End Well

Chesterfield County is paying $5.5 million to acquire the River City Sportsplex -- a sign that the sports tourism boom has peaked?
Chesterfield County is paying $5.5 million to acquire the River City Sportsplex — a sign that the sports tourism boom has peaked?

Spending associated with sporting events was $9.4 billion nationally in 2015, a 5% increase from the previous year and part of a steady growth pattern for at least six years. Much of the activity consists of amateur and youth athletics in which participants and family members are looking for inexpensive, family-friendly venues. Virginia municipalities have taken notice, reports Virginia Business.

The city of Salem in the Roanoke Valley is conducting a feasibility study to build a new basketball and volleyball venue. Loudoun County is reviewing the potential for a sports complex. With the goal of holding more competitions, Stafford County is spending $12 million to add a swim center, two turf fields and two synthetic fields. Chesterfield County is in the final stages of acquiring the $5.5 River City Sportsplex, notes the magazine.

And that list is far from comprehensive. My home county of Henrico is spending $10.9 million to build Greenwood Park, “a tournament quality sports complex,” with the idea of tapping into the amateur/youth sports boom.

To give you an idea of the scale of the mania, consider these two quotes appearing in the Virginia Business article:

“In Virginia, I can’t name a city that isn’t looking at taking advantage of the growth in sports tourism,” says Dev Pathik, founder and CEO of The Sports Facilities Advisory, a Florida company that specializes in developing and managing recreational assets.

“Everyone wants to be in sports marketing,” says John P. Shaner, director of Salem’s Parks and Recreation Department. “Everyone is building facilities.”

When everyone is targeting sports tourism and everyone is building facilities, everyone is cruising for a bruising. It would be one thing if Virginia localities were the only ones to have caught on to the trend — it would be a wonderful thing as they pulled in sports tourists from around the country. But they’re not. Other places are thinking even bigger. Consider this quote from the same Dev Pathik cited above in a 2014 CNBC story:

“When we started in 2003 we only got two calls a day about sport development projects,” said Dev Pathik, founder of the Sports Facilities Advisory, a planning and management firm in Clearwater, Fla.

“But now, because of the youth sports explosion, we get calls every day about projects worth $150 million to $200 million,” he said.

One of the projects that SFA is helping to get off the ground is Rocky Top Sports World, in Gatlinburg, Tenn. The $20 million, 86,000-square-foot multisports facility is scheduled to open this summer.

That sounds like a lot of competition. Pathik is only too happy to pump up interest in the industry — that’s how he makes his money. Local governments, always on the lookout for easy economic development, are eager to jump on board. Sports facilities don’t just create revenues through event fees, they fill hotel rooms, pack restaurants and generate hospitality taxes.

Now, if entrepreneurs want to launch multimillion-dollar sports complexes like the River City Sportsplex in Chesterfield or the Rocky Top Sports World in Gatlinburg, that’s jim dandy by me. But please note that the River City Sportsplex went bankrupt before Chesterfield decided to take it over. Also please be advised that the consultants who conduct market studies for proposed sports complexes tend to exhibit an optimism bias. Lastly, beware the fact that local government officials promoting these projects have no skin in the game. If the deals go bad, they lose nothing.

Amateur/youth sports may be enjoying a boom. That boom may even prove to be lasting. But when everyone is jumping into the game, you can be assured that there will way too many sports facilities and someone will lose his shirt. Everyone thinks that will happen to “the other guy.” But someone always ends up being the other guy. Voters should insist that the “other guy” is not the taxpayer.

Share this article


(comments below)


(comments below)


11 responses to “Virginia’s Sports Tourism Boom Cannot End Well”

  1. LarrytheG Avatar

    ” Much of the activity consists of amateur and youth athletics in which participants and family members are looking for inexpensive, family-friendly venues. ”

    I don’t see these as business ventures headed for a big fail.

    I see them as investments in the community for families and especially kids who you want to have opportunities to engage in healthy activities instead of getting into trouble when they have time on their hands and few venues to do something structured and beneficial for themselves – and others – really.

    Sports is an important way to learn life character lessons… in my view.

    I actually think if you had more sports venues for kids in the poorer neighborhoods – it would be a way to draw them back into more positive paths in life… even education. A coach friend of mine told me once that some of the worst students on the verge of getting kicked out of school – stayed and altered their behavior so they could play sports.

    We should not see family/kid sports venues as costs or make the mistake of equating them with sports “tourism”. We should see them as investments in people – in kids – an opportunity to steer some of them less academically inclined back to constructive things an away from destructive things.

    Yes.. they should not be wasteful boondoggles..and no they should not exceed the financial ability of the locality and yes I’d have a fee… for some of it.. at least… with help for those who cannot afford but we need many more of these and concentrated in areas where kids live in poverty and have too much time on their hands for other destructive activities.

    if that sounds “leftist” – so be it.. I just happen to believe in kids and their promise if we do them right.. and give them a chance to succeed.

  2. LocalGovGuy Avatar

    Of course, you have to also look at a locality’s needs as to how some of these facilities get built.

    If your area has a shortage of soccer fields (and with the increasing participation not only by youth, but by adults, this is common in most places), baseball/softball fields, or basketball courts….

    The Parks and Rec Dep’t may look to build a new soccer complex. The question for a Board or Council is this: Do we add a couple of extra fields, some extra stands, and a larger concessions area in order to attract more tournaments to the area?

    That’s the much more common scenario than “let’s build a brand new facility to attract sports tourism.” Obviously there are localities that do build brand new facilities for the sole purpose of sports tourism (which is a dumb idea, as you highlight). But the more common question is: Do we invest more in what we’re already going to build to attract “sports tourism”?

  3. LarrytheG Avatar

    I don’t think a locality should ever get involved in something the private sector would do except as an “incentives in exchange for a performance agreement”. In other words, the incentives are contingent on performance – after provided only after the performance agreements met.

    Putting tax money at risk – is a questionable practice in my view.

    I note in Spotsylvania – they entered into performance agreements with a Soccer Plex and a new NASCAR small track.

    quid pro quo arrangements where incentives were given only after performance was delivered.

    several million dollars in increased taxes were gained.

    any locality along I-95 (or other interstates) has a huge advantage on economic development over localities further away.

  4. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    Why do you hate organized sports so much? Did you always get cut in school? I did, but it doesn’t mean I hate sports. And, if you recall, my high school always creamed your high school.

    1. Yeah, I got cut in most sports — except track and cross country. Even then, I was hardly a standout.

      And, yeah, your school clobbered our school in football. Of course, they clobbered everybody in football!

      But I don’t hate organized sports. I don’t hate recreational athletics. I just have a problem with local governments speculating with tax dollars that they can make a profit (generating more tax dollars than they spend) on athletic tourism.

      How’d sports tourism work out for the City of Richmond and the Redskins? I seem to recall you having pronounced opinions on that subject.

  5. LarrytheG Avatar

    I actually believe that organized sports has been a disaster for our education systems. It is significant to me that all other public education in the world that beats the snot of us academically does not have organized sports as part of the school. There is still organized sports in those countries but they are stand-alone. What the schools have is sports for all – intramural where all kids have access – no matter their innate talent because the goal is for sports the same as it is for academics – a learning opportunity… to build the experience and knowledge of the kid.

    In this country organized sports have perverted our education systems in my view.

    College and even High School have become farm teams for the Pros and coaches are paid far more than teachers and are treated far differently as employees – way out of proportion to the basic mission of the school.

    That would be one giant plus of having voucher schools.. and make them more like European and Asian schools where education is the focus not physical “talent”.

  6. Peter Galuszka Avatar
    Peter Galuszka

    I think the Redskins training camp has been a disaster. Another Dwight Jones fiasco, like the city’s data system. The Skins are No.5 in wealth in the NFL. Why do they need Richmond’s assistance when the city’s schools are so lousy?

  7. We need more pools. You want to make some $$$$? In the Hampton Roads area there are a dearth of pools and more school & clubs that could use the space. If you put pools like what they have in the NoVA/DC/MD area, a 50m Olympic pool w/bulkhead and a couple of 10 lane yard pools, you’d make some bucks. Seriously, pool space is like gold. They could really make some dollars off it.

    1. You may be right that someone could make money. But if someone wants to build Olympic-caliber pools, it should be the private sector or the non-for-profit sector. Ultimately, the people using those pools should pay for them. Building pools for general recreational purposes, especially for the poor, is a different matter entirely.

      1. LocalGovGuy Avatar

        An interesting follow-up to this piece would be to determine if there is a private recreation business model that works for pools and fields.

        I know an entrepreneur in the Richmond area that explored a private Olympic sized pool as a business opportunity. She ultimately backed away because she couldn’t make the numbers work.

  8. LarrytheG Avatar

    there’s an entire panoply of sports venues from bowling centers, to hockey rinks to miniature golf, climbing walls, skating rinks, soccer fields, golf driving ranges, go carts, zip lines, rope courses, sky-diving, training courses, 4-wheel off road, paint-gun, horse riding, rodeos, mechanical bulls, raft trips (through Richmond) , etc. some waxing and some waning… some holding steady, some specific to certain kinds of locations. Some places even have whitewater courses with a balcony for spectators sipping beverages.

Leave a Reply