For years, sports tourism has been recognized as the fastest growing segment within the travel industry, generating a major economic impact for those destinations with the facilities to host regional and national games, tournaments and playoffs. Since 2013, experts estimate a 37% increase in direct spending related to sports events and consider the industry to be worth $11.4 billion, according to the National Association of Sports Commissions (NASC).

Destinations across the country have recognized this vital source of potential revenue and as a result, they have chosen to invest in the proper resources to secure sporting events of all types. Unfortunately, when the coronavirus pandemic hit the United States with full force, the sports tourism industry, along with all travel, came to an abrupt halt. However, as states and cities have slowly begun to reopen, destinations have found an unparalleled demand for sports tourism and with it, a distinct opportunity for acquiring crucial revenue for recovery.

Sports Tourism Amid COVID-19

Panama City Beach, Fla., most known for its 27 miles of sugar-white sand beaches and emerald-green waters, has experienced firsthand the increasing popularity and financial impact of sports tourism thanks to the destination’s new, world-class $37 million Panama City Beach Sports Complex. The sports complex, which opened in July 2019, was almost completely booked prior to coronavirus, hosting 80,000 visitors resulting in 120,000 room nights in the destination for a $56 million-dollar direct impact in less than a year.

As the state of Florida eased restrictions on sporting events and Panama City Beach reopened, the destination discovered that the demand for sports tourism had already returned. The sports complex and destination quickly identified the sports and areas of need and then worked to book the resulting games and tournaments in search of a host site. Following a two-month closure due to COVID-19, the sports complex hosted its first tournaments on May 29 – the USFA Softball and Perfect Game Baseball tournaments – bringing a combined 100 teams to Panama City Beach. One week later on June 5, the destination’s older complex, Frank Brown Park, hosted 54 softball teams and 30 adult kickball teams. In November, it will host the 40th annual USA Field Hockey National Hockey Festival, which will fill an estimated 5,000 rooms.

This is not the first time sports tourism has positively impacted Panama City Beach after a crisis. In 2010, summer tourism received a direct hit from the BP Oil Spill. Visit Panama City Beach President and CEO Dan Rowe wholeheartedly believes that youth recreational sports helped Bay County tremendously. That summer, Frank Brown Park hosted both youth and adult sporting events, and families traveling with their student athletes still came to Panama City Beach regardless of the spill’s impact on the beach. In the end, Panama City Beach saw their numbers drop only 15%, while others dropped 40% or more.

Ten years following the BP Oil Spill, Panama City Beach is weathering a new kind of storm with COVID-19. However, with an estimated $80 million annual impact, sports tourism is once again setting Panama City Beach apart and leading them on speedy road to recovery.

Destinations Are Planning for the Future

Similar to Panama City Beach, Collier County, Fla. has been an established destination for youth sports for years. Recognizing the important role of sports tourism in the area, local officials made plans to enhance their resources by building an $80 million county-owned Paradise Coast Sports Complex. Opening in July 2020, Southwest Florida is now home to one of the greatest sports facilities in the country. Once the entirety of the project is completed in 2021, the complex will feature 19 full-size artificial turf fields and a 3,500-seat stadium. This new complex will further enhance Collier County’s appeal as a year-round tournament and event destination and is expected to attract youth sports tournaments on a national scale.

Just this month, Paducah, Ky. unveiled brand-new multipurpose sports courts with the goal of bringing sports tourism dollars to area. Located inside the Paducah-McCracken County Convention and Expo Center, this upgraded, 40,000-square-foot facility includes both basketball and volleyball courts. Local officials hope the new facility will attract student athletes and their families from St. Louis, Nashville, Louisville and other neighboring cities, encouraging them to stay overnight in the destination’s hotels and dine at local restaurants.

As the country continues to reopen, sports tourism will continue to surge, with more youths looking to get back on the field for games and tournaments. Regardless of the size or scope of resources, destinations should continue to actively invest in this industry and reap the economic benefits.