Sports tourism is big business. Just ask the people at the Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Sports Commission.
Last year, the commission generated more than 77,000 hotel room nights with its tournaments and sports events at South Baldwin County’s existing sports complexes. The previous year the commission hosted 102 athletic events, generating 76,024 room nights and $30.8 million in visitor spending.
Prominent tournaments like the SEC Women’s Soccer Championship and championship tournaments in NAIA soccer and softball have been hosted at the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach sports complexes. The Gulf Shores public beach will also be the the site for NCAA beach volleyball championships in May.
Just up the road on State Highway 59 in Foley, officials are hoping the Foley Sports Tourism Complex will have a similar impact in their city.
The complex, in development north of Baldwin County 20 between Juniper Street and the Foley Beach Express, will have 16 multi-use fields for soccer, lacrosse, football and other outdoor field sporting events as well as a championship field with a professional press box, television-ready lighting and stadium seats.
With an anticipated completion date in May, the complex has already scheduled the National Intramural Recreational Sports Association’s soccer championship in November.
Foley officials expect the tournament, featuring 48 intramural soccer teams from universities nationwide, to generate 1,500 hotel room nights and more than $2.5 million in economic impact.
“This complex will bring significant economic benefits to our city and region in large part because of the beach backdrop and the amenities the facility will have to offer families,” Foley’s Executive Director of Sports Don Staley said.
Officials say the complex already has 62 events lined up for 2016 including extreme sports, indoor bowling tournaments, disc golf competitions and lacrosse tournaments.
A second component of the complex will be the Foley Events Center, set for completion in 2017. It’s a 100,000-square-foot indoor facility, which will feature 90,000 square feet of floor space for indoor sports such as gymnastics, basketball and volleyball.
In 2014, the city of Foley approved $27 million in funding for the sports complex and the purchase of 62 acres for an additional $2 million. Last year, the Poarch Band of Creek Indians took over the property in which the Blue Collar Country project was located, adjacent to the City of Foley’s sports fields.
Even with the revenue reported by their neighbors to the south, officials elsewhere in Baldwin County, specifically on the Eastern Shore, say their biggest concern is providing recreational opportunities for their own residents.
Fairhope Recreation and Community Affairs Director Sherry Sullivan said the city hosts two or three baseball and soccer tournaments per year and the impact is felt in more ways than just lodging and sales tax revenues.
“We get to showcase the city,” Sullivan said. “We like to think that once someone has visited Fairhope, they will want to come back.”
Fairhope is developing a 40-acre soccer complex with nine fields at the corner of Baldwin County 13 and Manley Road east of Fairhope Middle School which Sullivan said is on track to open in May. The first tournament at the complex will likely be the Halloween Blast Soccer Tournament.
“It will certainly give us the ability to host more tournaments, but we are building it for our own league first and foremost,” Sullivan said. “In the long run, we may host more but right now we are focused on accommodating the growth in the Fairhope Soccer League.”
In Daphne, Mayor Dane Haygood said the city will soon embark on a multi-million-dollar expansion of its own recreational facilities.
“We do need some additional space for sports tourism purposes, but my primary concern is making sure we have enough fields for our children and families to use,” Haygood said. “We want to improve the quality and value of what we offer to people in Daphne.”
The city has hosted Dixie Youth baseball tournaments and youth softball tournaments in the past. Haygood said multi-day tournaments make an immediate economic impact and city officials see it when they eat at restaurants and shop on weekends.
“These athletes and their families stay in our hotels, they dine out in our restaurants and they make retail purchases while they are here,” Haygood said. “We see it all the time eating out. Kids come in wearing their team uniforms and you know they are from out of town and you can see the immediate impact it has.”
The city will use a portion of its lodging tax revenues to expand its facilities, a project the mayor expects to get underway within 45 days.
“We are victims of our own success,” Haygood said. “We know the path forward but unfortunately that is very expensive. We have to be willing to dig into our pockets and spend a little money and time on this.”
In Spanish Fort, officials are in the early stages of developing a sports complex on 26.2 acres of land on Jimmy Faulkner Boulevard.
The city will use a $5 million loan earmarked for the development of the complex, which will be located on land gifted to the city when it annexed the 11,000-acre Highlands parcel. The first phase of development will include two fields that can each be used for football or soccer. A second phase could see the development of additional baseball and softball fields.
The city does not have its own soccer league; Spanish Fort children play in Daphne and elsewhere. But Mayor Mike McMillan hopes the new fields will change that. He said the city’s football league has 10 teams that share fields, so they need more places to play and practice.
“We recognize we have a need to expand our recreation facilities,” McMillan said. “Right now some of our greatest recreation growth is in football, so the first phase will be to develop two football and soccer fields.”