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Market Strength

How five cities and regions across the country have built a visitor following through sports.

By David Broughton
university of oregon

Eugene, Ore.

 

No. of hotels: 80
No. of rooms: 5,228
Lodging taxes: 11%

Recent wins: NCAA Division I Men’s and Women’s Outdoor Track & Field Championships, 2024-27; 2022 Toyota USA Track & Field Outdoor Championships (10th time hosting)

Résumé: U.S. Olympic trials for men’s and women’s track and field (2016 was the sixth time); NCAA Division I Men’s and Women’s Outdoor Track & Field Championships (2021 was the
17th time for men, 13th for women)

Who to know: Kari Westlund, President and CEO, Travel Lane County

Westlund has led Lane County’s destination marketing (which includes Eugene) since 1996, navigating significant changes in travel trends, technology and growth in visitors to the area. She serves on the board of the U.S. Travel Association and was on the steering committee for multiple U.S. Olympic Team Track and Field Trials. The University of Alaska-Fairbanks graduate began her tourism career with the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau, and was CEO of convention bureaus in Kodiak and Juneau before coming to Oregon.

Snapshot: Baseball players dream of playing at Fenway Park or Wrigley Field, tennis players have Wimbledon, golfers have Augusta, and track and field athletes have Hayward Field (right).

Built in 1919 for University of Oregon football, the stadium is one of the revered venues in its sport, and the sole asset of a unique destination marketing campaign.

Hayward Field will be the site of the World Athletics Championships for 10 days in July, marking the first time in history that the event, which will include approximately 2,000 athletes from more than 200 nations, has been held in the United States.

The host of the event is TrackTown USA, a nonprofit entity created to lure major non-collegiate events to the town of 178,000. The organization, which already has multiple U.S. Olympic Team Track and Field Trials under its belt, gains most of its funding from the events themselves, said Michael Reilly, the organization’s CEO.

The trials, for example, “are about a $10 million event,” he said, driven primarily by ticket sales but complemented by sponsorships, private donations, grants and merchandise sales.

Residence halls on the university’s campus will provide an athlete village, and media and event operations will take place in buildings and spaces surrounding Hayward Field.

“The university becomes a subcontractor of TrackTown with host events like this,” said Oregon Athletic Director Rob Mullens. “We take the lead on collegiate events. But we work together with all the events.”

Mullens said the school, which has hosted more NCAA track and field championships than any other college, doesn’t bid on the events as a revenue source, but as a generator of economic activity for the region. And now that a $270 million renovation of Hayward Field is complete, he expects more collegiate events to come along.

Greensboro Area Convention & Visitors Bureau

Greensboro, N.C.

No. of hotels: 82
No. of rooms: 9,936
Lodging taxes: 12.75%

Recent wins: 2022 AAU Junior Olympics; 2023-25 Division III Men’s and Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships; 2023 Division I Men’s Basketball Championship First and Second Rounds; 2022 Division III Men’s and Women’s Soccer Championships Semifinal and Final Rounds

Résumé: U.S. Figure Skating Championships (2011, 2015, 2020); 2021 Division I Men’s and Women’s Soccer First and Second Rounds; 2021 Division I Men’s and Women’s Swimming and Diving Championships; Division III Men’s Golf Championships (1998, 2011, 2014, 2015, 2018); USA Gymnastics Championships (2015, 2018); USA Swimming Short Course Winter Junior National Championships (2013, 2014, 2018); YMCA National Short Course Swimming Championships (2012-20); AAU 2019 Junior Olympic Games

Who to know: Rob Goodman, Executive Director, Greensboro Sports Foundation

The Asheville, N.C., native brought 25 years of sports media and marketing experience to the city’s organizing committee when he joined in 2018. The Guilford College alum worked as a sports anchor and reporter at Greensboro’s WFMY for five years, and spent a decade in the sports marketing unit at R.J. Reynolds Tobacco, before founding 3-G Sports to provide media relations services to motorsports and PGA Tour clients. He continues to serve as the media relations director for the Wyndham Championship, the PGA Tour’s annual Greensboro stop.

Snapshot: Henri Fourrier, president of the Greensboro Area Convention & Visitors Bureau, will be celebrating his 25th anniversary with the organization this summer at the same time the town is hosting its second AAU Junior Olympics in four years. The event, the largest multisport youth event in the U.S., is projected to generate 34,000 room nights.

The country’s biggest pool facility, the Greensboro Aquatic Center (below), will generate at least 18,000 room nights by hosting national YMCA championships and the NCAA Division III Women’s and Men’s Swimming & Diving Championships.

The heads in beds are crucial to the 15-person organization, as it is funded through 3% of the city’s and 3% of the county’s occupancy tax revenue.

And while the area is known in the sports world as the frequent home of ACC basketball postseason tournaments (it has hosted the men’s event 28 times, and the women’s 21 times), Fourrier said it was soccer that kept the organization afloat during the pandemic.

“We did $40 million in soccer business this past year,” he said, as tournament directors throughout the East Coast sought replacement sites for their canceled events. And that revenue stream is only going to grow, he said.

“Of the 20 fields at Bryan Park, 12-14 have lights and we’re working on getting the rest of them lit, too. We now have two turf fields, and we’re looking for more land to build two more fields.”

Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance

Raleigh/Cary, N.C.

No. of hotels: 114
No. of rooms: 14,150
Lodging taxes: 12.75%

Recent wins: Multiple NCAA  events, including: Division II Baseball Championship (2023-26); Division I Men’s Soccer Final Four (2022, 2025); Division I Women’s Soccer Final Four (2022, 2023, 2024); Division I Women’s Lacrosse Final Four (2023, 2024); 2023 Division I Women’s Golf Regionals; 2025 Division I Men’s Basketball First and Second Rounds; NHL 2023 Stadium Series Game

Résumé: 2021 MLB Draft Combine; 2021 Toyota Minor League Cricket Championship Finals; 2019 NCAA Women’s Basketball First/Second Rounds; 2019 NCAA Women’s Tennis First and Second Round; 2019 USA Cycling BMX Freestyle National Championships; multiple USA Baseball championships

Who to know: William Davis, Sports Venues Manager, Cary (N.C.) Parks, Recreation & Cultural Resources

Dubbed the “athletic director” of Wake County by those who work with him, Davis has been overseeing Cary’s athletic venues — which include WakeMed Soccer Park, the USA Baseball National Training Complex, Cary Tennis Park, and Sk8 Cary, a lighted, 12,000-square-foot, outdoor street course designed for skateboarding, in-line skating and BMX biking — since 1994.

Snapshot: The Greater Raleigh Convention and Visitors Bureau launched its sports-specific marketing efforts in 1998, as PNC Arena (below) was being built for N.C. State basketball and the new Carolina Hurricanes. Since then, sports have grown to make up nearly 50% of all room nights booked by the CVB, according to the organization’s 2019-20 annual report. Those rooms generated $23.3 million in hotel occupancy tax collections and $28.46 million in food and beverage taxes, which is crucial to the CVB, as it is funded primarily by a 6% share of the rooms tax and 1% share of the restaurant tax.

Wake County in 2019 launched a 10-year Destination Strategic Plan that calls for investment in current and new sports venues that can host nearly every sport imaginable. For example, approximately $1 million was spent to increase capacity at Cary Tennis Park, which boasts the only covered courts in the region.

“There is no algorithm when it comes to determining what events we go after or how much we are willing to invest in it,” said Scott Dupree, executive director of the CVB’s Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance. “The very first question is always ‘How important is this event to the community?’ For us, it has to provide us with some combination of visitors, room nights and media exposure and branding opportunities.”

The GRSA books 90-100 sports events per year, Dupree said. Last year, for example, the region success-
fully hosted the entire NCAA men’s and women’s Division I soccer postseasons — 84 teams playing games at nine sites — simultaneously. 

Additionally, the town of Cary recently began soliciting bids from architects and construction firms for a 4,000-seat multipurpose indoor complex, which would eliminate what Dupree said is the “biggest weakness in our inventory.” The proposed 100,000-square-foot building would have space for 12 basketball courts or 20 volleyball courts and have everything needed to host world-class esports events.

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Orlando

No. of hotels: 488
No. of rooms: 129,292
Lodging taxes: 12.5%

Recent wins: Multiple NCAA events, including four Men’s and Women’s Tennis Championships; 2024 Men’s and Women’s Division II Golf Championships; 2023 Division I Men’s Basketball Championship First and Second Rounds; 2024 Division II Softball Championship Finals; 2024 Division II Women’s Lacrosse Championship Final Four

Résumé: 2021 Concacaf Gold Cup; NCAA 2019 Division I Men’s and Women’s Tennis Championships; 2018 USA Table Tennis U.S. Open Championships; NCAA 2017 Division I Women’s College Cup; 2017 USA Synchronized Swimming Masters National Championships; 2017 Call of Duty World League Championships; 2017 USA Canoe & Kayak Sprint National Championships

Who to know: Jason Siegel, President and Chief Executive Officer, Orlando Sports Commission

Since taking the reins in Orlando in 2016, Siegel has helped grow the organization’s corporate partner portfolio from four to more than 125. He is leading Orlando’s pursuit of host city status for the 2026 FIFA World Cup. He spent five years as managing partner and CEO of the ECHL Orlando Solar Bears, and four years as senior associate athletic director at his alma mater, Binghamton University in New York.

Snapshot: Before the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex opened 25 years ago, Central Florida was known as a great place for golf and tennis.

Now, more than 200 sporting events take place each year at the 220-acre development (and elsewhere on Disney property), including baseball, basketball, cheer, football, soccer and, yes, tennis and golf. The site received considerable exposure during the pandemic as the host for the return of MLS and the NBA.

The region’s ability to host large national sporting events has expanded beyond the Disney borders, and diversified in its venue offerings. More than 107,000 spectator seats have come on line in the past 25 years, as new venues have opened on the University of Central Florida and Rollins College campuses; Amway Center and Exploria Stadium (left) were built; and Camping World Stadium has undergone more than $267 million in recent renovations as it hopes to serve as a 2026 FIFA World Cup venue.

The market was awarded 11 NCAA championships during the most recent selection cycle, from six sports.

In June, the Special Olympics USA Games will bring in more than 4,000 athletes, 10,000 volunteers, 1,500 coaches, and 20,000 families and fans from across the country. The multisport event will be held primarily at the ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, the YMCA Aquatic Center, and the U.S. Tennis Association campus in Lake Nona.

Around 2005, the Orlando Magic made a concerted effort to focus on tourism and began talking to experts in the travel business, such as the Orlando CVB, Visit Orlando, and the U.S. Travel Association.

“People assume that because Orlando is so dependent on tourism, that everyone here’s an expert,” said Magic CEO Alex Martins. “We dipped our toe in the water, but we didn’t have real, specific strategies on how to get in front of tourists. So we developed relationships with concierges at area hotels.”

Approximately 20% of occupied seats at any given Magic home game are now sold through tourism channels, he said, and 30% to 40% of those sales are to international visitors. As soon as the NBA season schedules are released, the team sends group sales representatives to Europe and South America to meet with tour operators that handle international travel.

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Omaha, Neb.

No. of hotels: 158
No. of rooms: 15,752
Lodging taxes: 18.16%

Recent wins: 2022 NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Finals (the fifth time the city has hosted the event, the most of any host site in history); 2024 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball First and Second Rounds

Résumé: College World Series (since 1950); U.S. Olympic swimming trials (2008, 2012, 2016, 2021) and curling trials (2017, 2021), NCAA Division I Women’s Volleyball Final Four (2006, 2008, 2015, 2021); 2013 U.S. Figure Skating National Championships

Who to know: Roger Dixon, President and CEO, Metropolitan Entertainment & Convention Authority

Since Dixon joined MECA in 2000, the nonprofit organization responsible for the operation of CHI Health Center Omaha and Charles Schwab Field Omaha, those venues have hosted, among other things, NCAA championships, Olympic championships and the first MLB game ever played in the state (Kansas City Royals vs. Detroit Tigers in 2019). The facilities took in $61.5 million in revenue in fiscal year 2019-20, according to Form 990 documents filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Previously, Dixon developed and managed Enterprise Center, home of the St. Louis Blues.

Snapshot: It sounds like a suspicious answer to a trick question: In 2021, which U.S. city became the first to host Olympic trials for both a summer and a winter sport?

The answer — obviously — is Omaha, Neb.

While sports fans are likely to associate the Midwest town as home to the College Baseball World Series, USA Swimming last June returned for its fourth consecutive trials, this time to help decide who would go to Tokyo a month later. The trials are operated as an equal-share joint venture between the Omaha Sports Commission and USA Swimming, and it takes a month to build the pool inside the CHI Health Center Omaha (left). The competition filled more than 20,000 room nights in 2016 (and nearly 13,000 last year, despite pandemic-related attendance restrictions), but more importantly, prominent Omaha-branded signage inside the arena, including on the center-hung video board above the pool, gave the city a week’s worth of national, prime-time exposure on NBC Sports Network telecasts.

The U.S. curling team visited in November for its second straight trials to finalize the team that competed in Beijing.

Adding to the growing diversity of the region’s résumé was the 2020 USA BMX Mid America Nationals, which brought in 719 athletes from 34 states. Additionally, Visit Omaha, the city’s official destination marketing organization, announced in January a partnership with the DoubleTree Downtown Omaha to host 900 youth hockey players from around the world this fall at the OneHockey World Invitational Omaha at Liberty First Credit Union Arena.

Mark Rath, Visit Omaha’s director of sports, said that with the city’s strong reputation for hosting large amateur indoor events ingrained among national governing bodies of indoor sports, soccer is next on the list.

A proposed $36 million project at the 340-acre Tranquility Park would add lights, convert most of the site’s 17 soccer fields to artificial turf, build 12 youth baseball/softball fields and two multiuse fields that could be used for soccer, football or lacrosse.

Rath, who has been with the organization for nearly 25 years, said the upgrades will help stop the steady flow of families who now drive two hours east to Des Moines, Iowa, or three hours south to Overland Park, Kan., and position the city to attract national tournaments that are played in other Midwwest markets.

Visit Omaha receives 2.5% of lodging tax revenue to fund its operation.

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