‘Hybrid’ sports tourism and community recreation facility development increases 33%
The Sports Facilities Companies (SFC), a national consultancy, developer, and operator of sports, recreation, and events properties, predicts that the $39.7 billion youth and amateur travel sports and the $218 billion parks and recreation industries are colliding, signaling a major transformation in the operations of local government. This prediction is based on SFC’s analysis of 2,000 communities over the last 20 years, including analyzing parks and recreation budgets, sport and recreation funding mechanisms, political pressures, the rise of sports mega-complexes to drive tourism, and the budget constraints of municipal government. SFC predicts that assets traditionally operated by local government through their parks department will require new types of operating and management models to keep pace with private sector demands and to ensure local citizen activation.
Numerous factors are impacting the way parks and recreation departments are structured, operated and how they deliver services to communities. What has gone unchanged is the popularity and significance of parks in the political landscape at the local level and as a proven amenity that impacts the quality of life, health and social outcomes, community engagement, and revenues for the cities where parks and recreation are prioritized. According to the National Recreation and Parks Association (NRPA) 82% of U.S. adults agree that parks and recreation is essential and 72% of U.S. adults are more likely to vote for local political leaders who make park and recreation funding a priority.
“What many community leaders don’t realize is that this shift is already underway. Now is the time to get strategic with your sports, parks, and tourism assets – or get left behind,” said Mike Kelly, former CEO of the Chicago Park District and NRPA chair, now executive vice president of community development for SFC. “In my 30-year tenure serving the City of Chicago, we chose to privatize 20-plus properties – particularly those with an emphasis on sports, tourism, or those where driving revenue was an important factor.”
According to SFC Partner Evan Eleff, who oversees the firm’s planning and advisory services, evidence of this shift is clear during the pre-development phase. Eleff’s team, which performs 150-plus studies each year, reports a 33% increase in studies for facilities from municipal clients that combine multiple tourism, recreation, and events components since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“Community leaders are challenged with meeting the needs of their cities and growing consumer expectations around sports and events, balancing the multitude of municipal infrastructure needs, and driving economic growth,” said Eleff. “With the rising cost of construction and materials, it means the average project cost is upwards of $30 million. For parks and recreation, which have been traditionally heavily subsidized, this means more pressure on revenue generation and cost recovery. This is a paradigm shift for most parks departments.”
The rise of sports tourism since the early 2010s has been a major contributing factor to this impending shift. According to a 2015 Industry Report by the Sports Events and Travel association (now called SportsETA), the youth and amateur sports tourism industry was valued at $9.45b. In their latest report from 2021, that figure is now $39.7 billion, a 320% increase in six years. That growth has predicted to continue to rise and reach $77.5 billion in 2026, according to Wintergreen Research, Inc.
New hybrid facilities are being developed and opened in cities large and small. The City of Albertville, AL (population ~22,000) opened its $58 million Sand Mountain Park and Amphitheater in 2021 with a mission to serve both local residents with camps, clinics, and leagues and to drive economic development through sports tourism by hosting large sports tournaments and live entertainment. With two new hotels opened or under development, big-name quick service restaurants like Buffalo Wild Wings and Beef O’Brady’s, and $23.2 in direct economic impact, the venue, operated by SFC, is outperforming original forecasts and driving economic development.
“It’s tough for the traditional government approach to work in this dynamic environment. Developing and operating such diverse assets with such high expectations is not something with which most municipalities have experience,” said Jason Clement, CEO and co-founder of Sports Facilities Companies. “It’s why we purpose-built our team over the last twenty years to serve public entities. Our mission, to improve the health and economic vitality of the communities we serve, lives most vibrantly when we balance the competing needs of social equity and access, revenue generation, tourism development, emotional, physical, and mental health, and combatting the obesity epidemic. These are key elements of a flourishing community and operating partnerships with professional management firms are the way to maximize those results.”
There may be no better example of this transformation than in Hoover, AL with the Hoover Met Complex. Forward-thinking leaders in Hoover re-imagined their existing Double-A baseball stadium, former home to the Birmingham Barons and current host of the SEC baseball tournament, into a sports and recreation mecca. In 2017, the City opened the 155,000-square-foot indoor sport and event facility, the Finley Center and expanded RV Park. In 2019, the second phase of the project opened including an accessible playground, splash pad, outdoor baseball fields, rectangle fields, and tennis center. The operation has provided more than 10,000 hours of free community access annually, hosted premier tournaments like Perfect Game Baseball and community events including Market Noel and Vintage Market Days while providing financially for additional programming and capital investment projects. Additionally, the complex generated $68 million in economic impact in 2021 alone supporting the residential and commercial real estate development surrounding the Hoover Met Complex property. The City of Hoover oversees the SFC team, who manages daily operations and partners closely with City parks leadership to collaborate, not compete, with well-established programs and team members.
“It’s examples like Hoover and Albertville demonstrating that not only can communities balance the multitude of outcomes demanded by residents, but they don’t have to do it alone,” said Kelly. “Communities of all sizes – as large as the City of Chicago and as small as 20,000 – have the opportunity to adapt now. The proverbial train has left the station. Change is coming. Now is the time to re-think old models and embrace what is next.”