June 6, 2019

Let’s face it, Americans are crazy about sports. We love cheering for our team—whether it’s a professional football team, a college basketball team, or simply our kids giving it their all at Little League. Few would argue that our love of the game is in this country’s DNA and is only growing stronger. Take, for instance, the recent NFL Draft that came to Nashville. Over three days, 600,000 die-hard football fans descended on Music City, all participating in the draft in some shape or form.

This sports-centered event generated a record-breaking $133 million in direct spending—a 79 percent increase from the 2018 draft in Dallas—with an economic impact that came in at $244 million. And it got me thinking: How many of those fans were locally based? How many had traveled to Nashville from out of town? And perhaps most importantly, how did Denver Bronco fans manage to hold it together after the Los Angeles Chargers were introduced during the draft?

As a civil engineer, I have spent the majority of my career designing a wide range of land development projects, and the draft also got me thinking about the growing trend of sports tourism and how it relates to land development. In today’s post, I share some of my thoughts on how this fast-growing sector of the global travel industry is fueling and shaping the development scene in the U.S.



More Than Simply Sports

It’s hard to believe that not so long ago, going to a sporting event involved leaving your home, watching the game, and then going back home again. Today, people going to a sports event expect more of an experience. We want to make the most of our time away from home, and when the game is over, we might decide to grab a bite to eat or do a little shopping. And if our team wins—or loses for that matter—a post-game drink might just be the order of the day!

I personally believe this paradigm shift is fueling the trend toward developing zones as sports tourism. For example, Nashville’s planned Major League Soccer (MLS) stadium, which is slated to open in 2022 at the Fairgrounds site just south of downtown, isn’t simply being developed as a stadium. The $275 million project will also include 10 acres of adjacent mixed-use development that will provide sports tourists from across the country and around the globe with a variety of things to do before and after the game.



The Atlanta Braves decided to move from their historic Turner Field location to SunTrust Park, about 10 miles northwest of downtown, largely because it provided the opportunity to develop parcels of land surrounding the stadium. Likewise, the Braves didn’t want to build just a ballpark, but rather a sports destination that included a mixed-used community next to the stadium and featured entertainment venues as well as residential and commercial development.

In keeping with this trend, Nashville Mayor David Briley recently proposed a $1.3 million study to explore development near the city’s existing NFL stadium—Nissan Stadium—with an eye on expanding the footprint of land around the downtown football arena to include mixed-use spaces.



Combining Baseball with a Family Getaway

Youth sports is moving in a comparable direction in that a number of cities across the U.S. are developing youth sports complexes as a tourist driver. A prime example of this is the Cal Ripken Experience baseball complex in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. The project is the brainchild of baseball Hall of Famer Cal Ripken Jr. and his brother Bill. Their vision was to draw tourists into their community by creating a baseball destination for kids—and they succeeded. While in town, families can also frequent local restaurants, stores and theaters, and of course nearby Dollywood, for a complete Smoky Mountains vacation.

Similarly, a growing number of smaller communities that live off seasonal tourism are scheduling youth sporting events at a variety of venues during their off-season when visitors can be sparse. This is where these smaller towns—cities that otherwise would not enjoy tourism-based income due to their size or location—can generate tourism tax revenues from families that book a hotel stay over a weekend to watch the kids play in softball, baseball or soccer tournaments. In between the games, they can also enjoy other tourist activities, making it a big win-win for the community as well as vacationers.



Designed to Have a Relationship

Ultimately, the general trend of sports tourism is changing the development patterns of old, where football stadiums and baseball parks were built as standalone facilities surrounded by a parking lot, and visitors had to drive from use to use for other leisure activities. Today, spurred by our increasing desire for an overall sports experience, many of these facilities are being designed to have a relationship with their surrounding uses and the community.

It’s important to note that creating a mixed-use destination with a sports facility serving as a tenant anchor is an extremely complex undertaking that requires thoughtful planning and execution on multiple levels. But it’s a trend that’s not going away anytime soon—if ever. And in the case of Nashville, if you listen closely, you can almost hear the sound of cheering soccer fans mixed with pedal steel guitars and fiddles echoing across the city.