Serious Play: Hoover Met, Birmingham Crossplex Score Economic Wins with ‘Sports Tourism’

On a Saturday morning in Hoover, high school girls jumped and spiked, as coaches and parents cheered in an assortment of volleyball games in the annual Juanita Boddie Tournament, an event that draws teams not just from metro Birmingham, but from surrounding states.

The tournament used to be a fixture at Homewood High School but now calls the Finley Center its home. And what a home it is — a dozen or more courts in action at any given moment, more available for warm-ups, plus a snack bar, trainers’ facilities and much more.

Just steps away, you’ll find a new group of ball fields with high-tech lighting, artificial turf fields and the capability to hold up to a dozen games at once. There’s another baseball diamond with natural grass, built to the same field size as the original facility in the complex, Hoover Metropolitan Stadium. The Met is the former home of the minor league Birmingham Barons, twice host to the NCAA Men’s College Cup soccer championships and still home to the Southeastern Conference Baseball Tournament and Hoover High School’s nationally famous football team.

Still under construction nearby are five more fields for football, soccer, lacrosse, or rugby — basically any sport using a rectangular field — and 16 tennis courts. The complex has all of that plus an RV park in the middle, an original part of the complex.

Hoover Buys in to Burgeoning Industry

The Hoover Met Complex expansion marks the city’s major buy-in to a burgeoning industry that’s generally known as sports tourism. It’s sometimes referred to as “tourno-cation,” which is a combination of “tournament” and “vacation.” That’s generally applied more to mega-complexes located in areas already known as tourist hotspots, such as Gatlinburg, Myrtle Beach or Orlando. The idea is to draw large tournaments with dozens, even hundreds, of teams.

John Sparks moved to Hoover a couple of months ago to manage the new complex, after a stint as a manager with the Citrus Bowl in Orlando. He says the complex is already one of the top two or three of its kind in the Southeast, based on the size, the types of fields, and the ability to deal with wet weather thanks to artificial turf.

“Nationwide, I think it ranks in the top 10 or 15 complexes,” Sparks said. “There are a lot of added elements here. You may go to a very large baseball-centric park or a soccer-centric park, but you’ve got soup to nuts of everything here. I’ve even got plans and specifications that we’re looking at for cricket.”

Metro Birmingham has been home to several large tournaments. On the high-school level, the area has hosted the Boddie volleyball tournament, the Red Diamond Classic soccer tournament and the Dan Anderson Lacrosse Classic, plus many smaller tournaments. The larger events are often divided among several locations across the metro area and that will continue to be the case even with the Hoover Met Complex expansion.

Feeding the demand is the continued rapid growth of high-level youth sports, with the events that draw thousands of athletes and their families, filling up local hotels, restaurants and shops. The money they bring into the local economy is enough that the Greater Birmingham Convention & Visitors Bureau has a part of its staff devoted to promoting that segment of the economy.

“Clearly sports is huge for us, so it takes a team,” said David Galbaugh, the vice president of sports sales and marketing for the Visitors Bureau. “We have hundreds of youth sports events coming into our area each year.”

Besides the Hoover Met, several other local facilities see heavy use from events that attract out-of-town athletes. The Visitors Bureau website lists more than six dozen available sports venues on its website, from smaller municipal facilities to well-known sites. Barber Motorsports Complex is known worldwide for its annual Indycar race and lesser-known sports car and motorcycle races, but it’s also played host to diverse sports events, including cross-country running. Legion Field continues to attract events, despite its age and condition.

Birmingham Crossplex, a Full-fledged Hit

Perhaps the most successful new sports venue in the metro area is a project from former Birmingham Mayor and Jefferson County Commission President Larry Langford’s list of big ideas, one that became a full-fledged hit. The Birmingham Crossplex in the Five Points West neighborhood has hosted multiple NCAA championship events in its Olympic-size swimming and diving pool and its indoor track, which is known as one of the best in the world. The facility also hosts volleyball, basketball and wrestling tournaments for the Alabama High School Athletic Association, among others.

The Birmingham Crossplex in the Five Points West is one of the most successful new sports venues in the metro area. (Source: Robert Carter)

The Crossplex and its adjacent Bill Harris Arena have been successful enough to turn around Five Points West, once a well-regarded shopping center that had fallen on hard times. Now the Crossplex has added its own just-opened hotel plus additional shops and dining at the old Alabama State Fairgrounds site.

Revenue figures for sports tourism in metro Birmingham are hard to find.  The Visitors Bureau doesn’t have total numbers, partly because not all event organizers or venue operators work through the bureau. But the Red Mountain Classic alone brings in about $7 million over two weekends each spring, and the recent East Coast Pro baseball event at Hoover brought in several million as well, according to Galbaugh. The Hoover Met Complex is so new that it doesn’t have annual figures yet.

“Seventy-five percent of our tournaments now are local or regional, and the rest are wider (in scope), plus non-sports events like gun shows,” Hoover Met manager Sparks said. “We don’t have too many ‘dark days’ around here. We are staying extremely active. Enough people have now been here that word has gotten around about us, and we’re doing a presentation for a national event next week. We’ll have about 200 events in the first year, and that’s a conservative estimate.”

The concept of a sports mega-complex was invented by The Walt Disney Company, though it was successfully sued by someone who said he presented the concept to that company. The ESPN Wide World of Sports Complex, named for the iconic television series produced by Disney-owned ABC, is considered the first sports mega-complex with dozens of athletic fields and indoor courts. Located in the Disney World area near Orlando, the complex includes a minor league baseball stadium with room for 7,500 spectators and smaller stadiums and arenas for other sports.

Opened in 1997, the Wide World of Sports Complex is still considered the granddaddy of the genre, and it has inspired numerous others in tourist locales:

  • Rocky Top Sports World, just outside the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Gatlinburg, Tennessee
  • Sports Force Park at Cedar Point Sports Center, near Cedar Point theme park in Sandusky, Ohio
  • Myrtle Beach Sports Center, near its namesake beach in South Carolina
  • Panama City Beach Sports Complex, slated to open in May 2019

But a mega-complex doesn’t have to be next to a tourist area, and the town of Emerson, Georgia, 40 miles northwest of Atlanta, is proving it. They’ve built a mega-complex called Lake Point, which opened its first phase in 2014. The complex was featured in a New York Times story earlier in September, which noted that more than 3 million visitors had gone since the opening. The economic impact for Bartow County is estimated at $97.4 million, county officials told The Times. That’s for a county with a population of about 103,000, less than half that of Shelby County. Lake Point is in the middle of new construction that will double its current size.

Sports Mega-Complex Race On

There’s a bit of a race when it comes to sports mega-complexes. Disney has expanded Wide World of Sports several times over the years, and the Times said it attracted more than 385,000 athletes in 2016 — not counting parents, coaches, officials and recruiters. Another mega-complex has been announced in an eastern suburb of Atlanta that would be heavy on soccer use (including a 15,000-seat stadium) but could handle everything Lake Point can, and then some.

In fact, the Hoover Met Complex, when it is completed to current plans, would still not be the largest such complex in the Southeast, and it may not even be the largest in Alabama. Already, a new project in Foley has been built with 16 regular soccer/lacrosse fields plus another in a stadium, and an indoor facility with multiple courts. The Foley Sports Tourism Complex does not feature baseball/softball diamonds, but those have been available at the nearby Gulf Shores Sportsplex for many years, along with a football stadium that has hosted AHSAA Track and Field Championships for more than a decade.

Birmingham’s Convention & Visitors Bureau sees the trend and has commissioned a study to see what metro governments need to do to handle the growth. That report will be released later this week. Galbaugh says no one local facility can handle really big tournaments, even with the new fields at the Hoover Met.

“Unfortunately, we’re still a little lacking in that respect. We can piecemeal it together, but it makes it a little tough. Look at how many fields the (Red Diamond Classic) Vulcan Cup has to use all around,” says the Visitors Bureau’s Galbaugh said. “If you asked their promoters, they’d love to have it all in one spot.”

So why the big push to build more and more sports mega-complexes in the past few years? Because there’s money to be made and not enough capacity.

The rebounding U.S. economy has helped fuel a trend of parents paying up to give their child-athlete a better chance for a coveted college scholarship, but the sector thrived even in the midst of the Great Recession. During that downturn, the pro sports world, where Sparks worked at the time lost 10 percent to 15 percent of its business, while sports tourism gained 6 to 8 percent.

“Since then, it has probably doubled,” Hoover’s Sparks said. “It is on the rise significantly. Kids are pursuing that dream earlier in life, so travel ball programs are starting earlier … . Those kids are starting at age 8 or 9.”

A Multibillion-Dollar Industry

A report by the consulting firm Wintergreen Research pegged the overall youth sports market in the United States at $17 billion, but that figure includes local recreation “just for fun” leagues. When it comes to travel sports, the report found, “League travel teams are gaining traction because they provide family vacation fun while improving skills of a youthful player. This is a nascent market; there is no end to growth in sight. Markets are expected to reach $57.8 billion by 2024.”

Travel teams have been common in basketball for decades, and in soccer, they often predated varsity high school teams, especially in Alabama. Softball has seen exceptional growth in travel teams, whose play begins just days after the AHSAA championships end in Montgomery. The result of that growth can be seen in NCAA teams that have reached — and in the case of the Alabama Crimson Tide, won — the Women’s College World Series.

To chase that dream, parents can shell out as much as $20,000 a year for the right equipment, the best travel team organizations, and the travel costs. Go to a travel softball tournament and you may think you’ve been diverted to the local Camping World RV dealership, as motor homes are commonplace for families on the tournament circuit.

“It’s huge, and (that money) goes into metropolitan pockets,” Sparks said.