BY JOHN MULLEN
Sports tourism is big business in South Baldwin county and Orange Beach is aiming to keep teams coming back with upgrades to its Sportsplex.
With nine baseball and softball fields and a soccer stadium and practice fields, the city recently voted to spend $610,000 in phase one of a three-year upgrade at the tourist-attracting complex.
This year alone, according to the Gulf Shores and Orange Beach Sports Commission, South Baldwin will host 148 sports events — up from 115 in 2015 — at venues in Gulf Shores, Orange Beach and Foley. The sports tourism market, as they say, puts heads in beds.
“Last year we finally accomplished more than 100,000 room nights and that’s a huge impact,” Orange Beach City Administrator Ken Grimes said.
Beth Gendler, vice president of pales for the sports commission, said sports tourism had a $128 million impact in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach. Initially, the goal for sports tourism was to build events in the shoulder seasons around summer. Now the calendar is pretty much full all year, with summer youth tournaments as the staple.
In phase one Orange Beach will refurbish its five oldest diamonds with pole and netting backstops, rock walls at the base of the backstops, improvements to the dugouts and an expanded shade system for the fans, among other upgrades. Phase two will bring upgrades to the four remaining fields.
Phase three will focus on improvements to the soccer stadium, which has hosted the women’s SEC Soccer Championship since 2003 and is signed on for another five years. Orange Beach is also the home of the NAIA women’s soccer national championship.
Gulf Shores has 11 baseball and softball fields, one soccer field and a football stadium that can be used for soccer. The stadium is a collegiate-level track and field venue that hosts the NAIA men’s and women’s national championships and numerous high school meets.
The public beach in Gulf Shores was the site of the NCAA women’s national beach volleyball championships in 2016-17 and recently signed to host the event through 2022.
A few miles north of the beaches, Foley upped its game with the Foley Sports Tourism Complex. It contains 16 state-of-the-art fields, including a stand-alone championship field with seating for 1,000, and a 90,000-square-foot indoor events center.
The city will host the Sunbelt Conference women’s soccer championship for the second year in a row starting Oct. 31, and the events center will host the state’s youth gymnastics season finale with the Alabama Compulsory Championship Dec. 1-3.
Foley Recreation Director David Thompson said more than 100 events are scheduled there next year in 13 different sports. The new complex had a $6.9 million economic impact in 2016, Thompson said.
Fairhope recently added a new soccer complex but does not actively recruit for outside sports tournaments, according to city officials. The city still has about six soccer tournaments and about 10 softball tournaments per year, Recreation Director Tom Kuhl said.