The Amonte Sports Camps Wildcat Elite Club faces the Long Island Top Guns in the Intercollegiate Women’s Lacrosse Coaches Association’s Capital Cup tournament in July at the River City Sportsplex. The event is one of the larger sports tourism draws to metro Richmond. (Photo courtesy Gothard Lane)
When you think of tourism, you may not think of vans of teenagers in soccer cleats.
But each year, they arrive by the thousands in the Richmond region to play soccer — or lacrosse or field hockey or rugby — with parents, siblings and friends in tow. Hotel rooms fill up, and credit cards fly.
That’s sports tourism.
And Chesterfield County has jumped in with both feet.
The county closed out 2016 by acquiring the 115-acre River City Sportsplex off Genito Road to boost sports tourism, while adding an additional public park to its portfolio. The Sportsplex is one of the nation’s largest groupings of synthetic turf playing fields, and those synthetic fields are in high demand for tournaments because games don’t get rained out on account of soggy turf.
“It’s a tremendous investment for Chesterfield, a very wise investment. It will pay dividends, ensuring that tournaments keep coming to the area for a long time,” says Neil Amin, CEO of Shamin Hotels.
Shamin is Richmond’s largest hotel operator, with 33 properties in the region, and Amin says no one is happier when a sports tournament arrives than hotel operators.
One of the major benefits, he says, is that tournaments usually are held on weekends or holidays when business travel is down and hotels are sparsely occupied.
“When the hotels are full, it creates tax revenues for the counties and cities,” Amin says, referring to the hotel/motel transient lodging tax paid by hotel guests on room rentals.
Henrico, Chesterfield and Hanover counties and the city of Richmond all have lodging taxes of 8 percent.
According to Richmond Region Tourism’s most recent annual report, sports events generated 45 percent of local hotel room bookings. The second largest draw was religious functions, which accounted for 19 percent of bookings.
For the whole Richmond region during the past fiscal year, a variety of sports events in Chesterfield produced an economic impact of $76.7 million, sports officials have said.
“It’s taken the industry by surprise,” Amin says of the surge in sports tourism. “It’s something that’s gained acceptance over the past few years.”
An aerial view of the River City Sportsplex (Photo courtesy Chesterfield Economic Development)
In prior years, Chesterfield County leased fields at the River City Sportsplex, formerly named SportsQuest, contributing $4.3 million about the time that the facility opened in 2011 to help develop the complex and to rent eight lighted, all-weather fields.
The original owner of the Sportsplex went into bankruptcy, and its lender acquired the property in 2012.
In mid-December, the county’s Board of Supervisors authorized acquisition of the Sportsplex property for $5.5 million, against an appraised value of $13.8 million.
The county has indicated it will make about $4.6 million in site improvements to the property, and in future budget cycles expend up to $7 million to replace some of the turf fields. The county’s purchase of the property, along with future investments, could total $21.4 million.
It is anticipated that the improvements could be financed by rental payments made for the facility, and through the portion of local hotel tax receipts dedicated to tourism.
With Chesterfield as the owner, county officials believe the Sportsplex provides a potentially transformational economic engine in a booming industry, not only for the county but the region.
“It is the single most important sports tourism facility in the region and accounts for the most room nights booked per year in the region’s hotels,” says Garrett Hart, director of the county’s department of economic development.
Chesterfield didn’t begin tracking the impact of sports tourism until several years ago, and since then the numbers have nearly doubled. Sports tourism generated $20.4 million in fiscal year 2011-2012 and soared to $37.8 million in fiscal year 2015-2016.
Hart emphasizes that sports tourism in Chesterfield is a shared endeavor.
“Promotion of the county’s sports tourism assets is a coordinated team-approach with Richmond Region Tourism professional sales staff as the driver,” he says.
Other support comes from Chesterfield County Parks and Recreation, and private facilities such as SwimRVA (the Collegiate School Aquatic Center), which also is located in the county and draws major swimming events.
Jon Lugbill, executive director of Richmond Sports Backers, says the Sportsplex has been a big driver helping to dynamically increase sports tourism throughout the region over the past five years.
The Capital Cup lacrosse tournament in July in past years has drawn 15,000 participants and fans to metro Richmond. (Photo courtesy Chesterfield Economic Development)
But he says the Sportsplex faces stiff competition from other parts of the country that are building athletic complexes with “real parks” so that participants and their families will have low-cost options for entertainment and relaxation between games, or after the competition has ended.
That’s just what Chesterfield plans to do, county officials say, building more fields to increase the value of the property for sporting events, and making it more parklike.
They expect much of the money for operations and maintenance to come from the taxes paid by out-of-towners who attend the sporting events and stay in area hotels.
Lugbill points out that the region already hosts some of the largest sports tournaments in the country.
For example, the Colorado-based Intercollegiate Women’s Lacrosse Coaches Association stages two events in Chesterfield, the Champions Cup in June, which in past years attracted 14,000 participants and visitors; and the Capital Cup in July, which in past years has attracted 15,000.
The tournament is billed as the largest showcase of women’s lacrosse talent in the country.
In addition, the Jefferson Cup, hosted by the Richmond Strikers soccer club in March, is one of the top-rated youth soccer tournaments in the country and in the past has attracted upward of 28,000 players, coaches and spectators.
Games are played at the Sportsplex and other venues in Chesterfield and Henrico counties. This year, the Jefferson Cup will expand from three to four weekends, adding to its economic impact.
“We’re talking major events,” Lugbill says. “Thousands of people are checking Richmond out.”
Lugbill adds that during the recent recession, sports travel was one of the few sectors in the travel industry that didn’t decline.
“The future of sports tourism is incredibly bright,” he says.
The Collegiate School Aquatic Center plays host to a number of events, including a Virginia High School League conference swim competition in early February. (Photo by Jay Paul)
James Worsley, Chesterfield’s director of parks and recreation, emphasizes that the county’s acquisition of River City Sportsplex is not just about promoting sports tourism.
He says county residents will receive more use out of the property. Under the county’s previous lease, local residents had four days of usage per week on eight of the facility’s 12 fields, nine of which have lights.
With the property under county control, residents will enjoy seven days of usage and four more fields.
“You get about 50 percent more usage out of the facility than you had before,” Worsley says.
He says his staff also will be working hard to make the Sportsplex more affordable for the tournaments that play there.
Teams and participants, he says, “will be pleased with the model we’re setting up, as opposed to the previous model and what they paid.”
Danny Bonifas, sports tourism coordinator for the parks department, says he hopes to attract more tournaments to the Sportsplex as improvements are made and the price structure becomes more attractive.
He says he’s already received favorable comments from existing sponsors who have brought teams to the Sportsplex, and like the idea that it will be under public ownership with the same high degree of customer service.
“There’s a lot of excitement out there,” Bonifas says.