Sporting Strategy

Local tourism officials placing more emphasis around attracting, catering to sporting events to increase visitor spending

Story by Lee Marie Reinsch

Everybody knows going to a Green Bay Packers game can be an expensive weekend.

Of course, the big body-slam comes from the ticket price, but along with that luxury bleacher seat, you’ve got some other significant outlays. Before you even get inside the stadium gates, there’s gas, parking fees and the run to the grocery store for tailgating eats, charcoal and paper plates. And don’t forget to count the bucks you spend on rain ponchos, parkas and hand warmers.

Once inside the gates, there are nachos and Brat’chos and the detour to the Packers Pro Shop. Post game, there’s drinks, pizza and tips while you wait out the traffic, and maybe a hotel if it’s late or you’ve over-enjoyed the alcohol. It adds up.

And the northeast Wisconsin tourism economy loves it all.

So important is sports tourism to its economy that Green Bay officials estimate that the Packers’ not hosting a playoff game during the recent 2016 post-season cost the area $14 million in travel spending.

Beyond the gridiron

But sports tourism is more than just Packers tickets.

“It’s people traveling to a destination for involvement in some sort of sport,” said Wendy Hielsberg, executive director of the Oshkosh Convention & Visitors Bureau.

Whether it’s youth or adult, individual or team activities, sports tourism counts money people spend pursuing their favorite activities, from getting there to what they do afterward. It encompasses professional sports like the Packers, college and high school sporting events, and a slew of youth sporting tournaments and participation-based amateur activities. Those can include ice fishing, marathons, bowling, cycling, birdwatching, golfing, hunting, fishing, disc golfing, even – wait for it – cornhole. Oshkosh is home to the Wisconsin Cornhole Tournament, which drew 500 people last year.

“The range of sports is what makes this market so crazy,” Hielsberg said. “It’s a growth market. It’s grown enough that we put dollars toward it, we go to tradeshows for it, and we actually dedicated a staff person for it.”

Carrying the ball

Whereas the tourism industry used to handle sports travel as an afterthought, in recent years many convention bureaus have dedicated full-time staff to handle their sports tourism demands. Oshkosh hired its first sports specialist two years ago.

Fox Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau got in the game in 2001, the first destination marketing organization in the state to do so, according to Matt Ten Haken, director of sports marketing at Fox Cities CVB.

“We work to bring new events to the area through competitive bids, work with local organizations to create new events, and we assist established local events to ensure a successful experience for all,” Ten Haken said.

He slots sports events into three categories: annual events hosted by local groups; events created with the hopes they’ll become annual; and what he calls bid-on events, which are regional or national championships on which convention bureaus bid to try to bring to the area. An example of the latter is the Youth Soccer Midwest Region Championships at Scheels USA Youth Sports Complex in Appleton, which drew some 214 teams from 13 Midwestern states this past year, according to Ten Haken.

An event that became an annual affair is the two-day Cheesehead Invitational wrestling tournament, which has drawn dozens of high-level high school teams and their supporters from around the Midwest and the country to Kaukauna since 1999.

Ten Haken estimates that the Fox Cities CVB works with around 150 sporting events per year.

Go, soccer moms

Sports tourism is a $7.68 billion-a-year industry, and it’s growing 3 to 5 percent a year, according to the National Association of Sports Commissions. Some 23.9 million people partake in competitive sporting-related activities each year. Which means, “ka-ching.”

“Any team sports is a growth market, especially youth team sports, because the parents travel with them,” Hielsberg said. “There are more spectators, and they typically stay overnight. We really like to target youth sports.”

Last year’s Oshkosh On the Water Soccer Classic drew 4,000 people to Oshkosh, and the Wisconsin Football Coaches Association All-Star game drew 5,000. The Waupaca Boatride Volleyball Tournament propelled 11,000 people to the greater Oshkosh area, and the Gus Macker 3-on-3 Basketball Tournament attracted 18,000.

On average, Hielsberg estimates, a multi-night general visitor to Oshkosh spends $180 per day, estimating one traveler per room, with daytrippers averaging $50 per day. Oshkosh CVB doesn’t break down spending by tourist categories. Hielsberg said the convention bureau industry does a less than adequate job of standardizing metrics, and CVBs often measure disparate values.

Keeping stats

Fox Cities CVB does break down its tourism-spending categories. Using a slightly different formula – each sport athlete or spectator traveling with three others and sharing a room – Fox Cities CVB calculates that each spends $108 per day, according to Ten Haken. Fox Cities CVB estimates sports tourism generates 22,000 hotel room nights a year.

“That equates to roughly $7 million per year in direct visitor spending,” Ten Haken said.

He defines direct visitor spending as dollars going directly from the pocket of the traveler into the hands of local businesses: hotels, bike repair and bait shops, restaurants, cafes, gas stations and gift shops.

Economic impact is another way to measure tourism spending and involves indirect dollar growth from induced spending – spending prompted by increased business. The soccer team goes out for pizza, the pizzeria orders more mozzarella, and the mozzarella factory expands and attracts bigger clients.

Although the direct visitor spending number is lower than the economic impact number, Fox Cities CVB prefers to use it. “It’s more conservative, but we feel it’s more fair,” Ten Haken said.

Rattling cages

The Wisconsin Timber Rattlers’ 70 home games are the bread and butter for Fox Cities Stadium in Grand Chute, attracting some 25,000 people during the playing season, according to Timber Rattlers Vice President Aaron Hahn.

Most come from the Fox Valley and northeast Wisconsin, but a significant crowd travels up from the southern part of the state.

“A handful come from out of state – we get California, New York, Texas – but a lot come from Milwaukee and Madison, and we do quite well with the areas south of Fond du Lac,” Hahn said. “Mainly we draw from a 60-mile radius.”

The Fox Cities Stadium also hosts the three-day Wisconsin Interscholastic Athletic Association high school baseball championships, which drew around 10,500 people last year.

“It’s always great for us if there’s a little more local involvement because we’ll get more attendance here, and the same is true with the NCAA Division III World Series,” Hahn said. “If we have one of the UW schools qualifying, our attendance is much higher.”

Last year, UW La Crosse played in the NCAA championships, which meant in-state fans and families traveled to the Fox Cities for the games and spent money on hotels, food and a host of other expenses.

The NCAA Division III World Series baseball championship games are one of the “bid-on” events Ten Haken helps secure. Although Fox Cities Stadium has hosted the pinnacle baseball championships for the past 17 years with hosting rights through 2018, it’s never a sure bet. It’s Ten Haken’s job as director of sports marketing to sell the area as the best host site. This year he’ll work on a bid for the 2019 through 2022 term.

Another big event for Fox Cities Stadium, the Jordy Nelson Charity Softball game, drew 8,000 people last year.

But outside softball and baseball season, Fox Cities Stadium doesn’t sit fallow. Its banquet facility holds weddings, holiday parties and business functions for groups of up to 250, Hahn said. It also hosts charity walks, such as the Fox Cities Heart Walk and the Walk to End Alzheimer’s.

Coming up with a game plan

Hielsberg started noticing the growth of sports travel in the Oshkosh area almost a decade ago, and it took the demise of the former Oshkosh Convention Center around 2007 to underscore it.

“I said ‘We’ve got to sell something. We don’t have conventions, we don’t have a convention center,’ and we went after the sports market,” Hielsberg said.

So well did they see the possibilities that they did something unusual for a CVB: pledged $1.5 million over the course of 10 years to help UW Oshkosh’s Titan Stadium upgrade its facilities to help attract big events to the area.

“We believed in tourism, we believed in the potential,” Hielsberg said. “Some of our room-tax dollars go to the convention center, and since we didn’t have a convention center, we were able to reallocate those dollars.”

So far, it’s panning out.

“We held some state football championships here and some national track meets, and we were able to host the college football playoffs,” Hielsberg said.

The stadium also hosts numerous soccer, track and field, basketball, baseball, volleyball, wrestling and cross country camps for boys and girls during the summer months.

“If we didn’t have a good facility, we wouldn’t have been able to host any of these events because it’s a very competitive business, so it worked out,” she said.

The debt will be paid off in a little over two years, and the CVB is already looking on to its next project: a sports facility assessment feasibility study.

It asked organizations involved with football, baseball, soccer and softball about the condition of the facilities they use in the community.

“We’re trying to evaluate what we have, how often is it being used, and what could we do to make it better,” Hielsberg said. “We’re looking at the big picture – do we need another facility, do we need to upgrade our current facilities to keep this momentum of sports tourism going?”

Fox Cities CVB is asking the same questions.

“There’s a finite number of events we can host in the facilities we have,” Ten Haken said. “We’ve worked with two consultants to determine what could be of value to the Fox Cities in terms of renovated or brand-new facilities.”

In November, all Fox Cities municipalities with lodging establishments increased their room tax to 10 percent to funnel dollars toward building a new exhibition center in downtown Appleton. A portion of that increase – 1 percent – goes to a grant to fund sports tourism efforts.

“We’re looking at facilities with indoor ice or indoor hard-court facilities (volleyball, basketball, etc.) so we’re working with organizations and facilities to get them to apply for grants through our tourism development grant fund to assist them with building or renovating facilities,” Ten Haken said. “We’re hoping in 2016 to have some grants approved to assist with funding for facilities that will have a major impact with our efforts to bring more and bigger events to town.”

After bonds for the Performing Arts Center in Appleton are paid off in 2017, another 3 percent of the total 10 percent Fox Cities room-tax collection will be put into the grant fund.

Joining forces

Not that leisure travelers and sports travelers are on opposing teams, but Fond du Lac’s latest bash marries the two. Sturgeon Spectacular: A Celebration of Winter and a Really Big Fish coincides with sturgeon-spearing season. It provided family-friendly activities citywide, from concerts and a chili crawl downtown, to restaurant specials to ice hockey and kite racing on Lake Winnebago, said Craig Molitor, executive director for Fond du Lac Convention & Visitors Bureau.

“Our objective is to get visitors into town, and we hope over the years we can get some folks interested and bring them to Fond du Lac, not necessarily to sturgeon spear, but we want to create a family-friendly festival of stuff all over the community, both indoor and outdoor,” Molitor said.

Speaking of ice sports in Fond du Lac: The Foot of the Lake Synchronized Skating Classic each January at Blue Line Family Ice Center draws hundreds to the city, booking nearly all its hotel rooms.

When it comes to sports attractions, Blue Line is Fond du Lac’s No. 1 sports asset, Molitor said.

As for room nights generated, EAA AirVenture Oshkosh takes first place, followed by Road America in Elkhart Lake, with Blue Line third in generating hotel room nights. Its many ice-sport events attract visitors from miles away.

Much as he loves Walleye Weekend – the summer festival that includes the Mercury National Walleye Tournament – Molitor said it’s not a major tourism-revenue generator but more of a family reunion.

“People don’t necessarily spend time in hotels, because if they’re coming from out of town, they’re staying with their families,” he said.

And for the most part, eateries don’t profit from the noted summer event, either.

“They’re doing their eating at the park, not in the local restaurants, whereas our model for Sturgeon Spectacular is that we do want to begin from the very beginning with the idea that this is something the local business community should benefit from.” n

Lee Reinsch of Green Bay worked 18 years at daily newspapers before launching her freelance business, edgewise, in 2007.