Why sports tourism could be the next big economic engine of Kent County

In recent years, greater Grand Rapids has seen an influx of investment and development which has allowed the region to blossom into a major tourist destination. New shops, restaurants, hotels, events, and attractions have helped the area build and sustain a thriving service economy, fully equipped with the infrastructure to feed, lodge, and transport huge influxes of visitors. As the region continues to grow and invest in key infrastructure like this, residents can expect further interest from investors, including major athletic events. 
 
Already Grand Rapids has demonstrated its capacity to host national and even global-caliber athletic events. In the past, Grand Rapids has hosted Olympic-style and United States Olympic Committee (USOC) national tournaments, and has for 10 years now hosted the Meijer State Games, a state-level competition that attracts thousands of top athletes every year. Not only does the city have a solid track record of large events, but it boasts a resume of huge variety, with successful examples of major events varying from boxing, volleyball, table tennis, rowing, hockey, softball, and even BMX, to  name a few. This notable capacity gives Grand Rapids and the surrounding area great potential for hosting events, potential that organizations like the West Michigan Sports Commission hope investors notice. 
 
The West Michigan Sports Commission began as a public-private partnership championed initially by local businessman Peter Secchia, who had a passion for sports and saw an opportunity in Grand Rapids. He began working with the Kent County Board of Commissioners to help create incentives to attract new athletic events that would be mutually beneficial to the local business interests and the city itself. Over time, this effort resulted in the West Michigan Sports Commission, a nonprofit founded to act as an economic engine utilizing sports tourism to increase the county's tax revenue.
 
The rational was that such events would increase hotel visitation, increasing county revenue from the lodging tax, which could then be invested to create even more opportunities that further enhance the region’s appeal. As Mike Guswiler, President of the West Michigan Sports Commission, says, “If we do our job of putting heads in beds, it's going to enhance the lodging tax.” Those tax dollars are then invested in strategic initiatives to make the city more attractive to visitors and investors, investments on which the county collects returns through the resulting increases in their tax base. It is this public and private partnership between the county, investors, hotel, and other tourism infrastructure owners that has created this sustainable and mutually beneficial arrangement that has contributed to Grand Rapids’ growth and continues to win major bids for prestigious events. 
 
Mike Guswiler, President of the West Michigan Sports Commission.Over their 12-year history, The West Michigan Sports Commission has seen incredible success. The Commission has grown from a team of three to eight, and has hosted 832 athletic events in West Michigan since 2007, according to their most recent count. These events involved nearly 1.5 million athletes and brought in an estimated $396 million dollars in direct spending to the region. This estimated spending figure was compiled by the WM Sports Commission, does not yet include spending from 2019, and also excludes the 45 thousand hotel room nights that the commission estimates were sold this year. 
 
When the WM Sports Commission began in 2007, the average hotel occupancy across the county was around 47 percent now it is nearly 67 percent, a statistic that the commission cannot claim total credit for, but does find encouraging. Sports tourism, thanks in part to the hard work of organizations like The West Michigan Sports Commission, is adding value and creating new investment opportunities all over Kent County. 
 
According to Mike Guswiler, and the WM Sports Commission In order for Grand Rapids and Kent County to attract bigger, world-class athletic events, it must invest in key infrastructure and build a resume that demonstrates clear experience, expertise, and capacity. Many sports have widely varying needs, different fields, equipment, and spectator capacity, and many tournament-style events require multiple fields to function properly. These needs represent a significant material investment to have the capacity necessary to host major events. Thankfully, as the county’s past success demonstrates, there is already a great deal of capacity and investment present. And infrastructure investments — like the recently completed Art Van Sports Complex, managed by the West Michigan Sports Commission, and the recently purchased South Christian High School campus in Byron Township, that is to be renovated by the Special Olympics Michigan into the world's largest sporting facility of its kind — each create new opportunities for the hosting of different athletic events.
 
Equally important to the material concerns, is a track record of demonstrating expertise and capacity. Each sport requires a particular management expertise to operate. The larger and more complicated the event, the greater the skill needed to manage it. It was exactly this need to build and demonstrate capacity, that helped the West Michigan Sports Commission launch their signature event, the Meijer State Games. 
 
Now entering its 10th year, The Meijer State Games boasts 60 different sporting events and anticipates over 10,000 participating athletes yearly. With all ages and abilities welcome at both Winter and Summer games, it creates an Olympic-style event celebrating sportsmanship that entire families can join together. “You don't need to be an Olympian to compete in this Olympic-style event. It's more about participation, getting out and competing,” says Eric Engelbarts, Executive Director of the Meijer State Games. Complete with an opening ceremony and medals for winners, the games were initially launched to give Michigan a state-level amateur competition, and to help Kent County demonstrate its capacity for major athletic events. “Its grown like wildfire,” says Engelbarts. And it was the success of these state games that has allowed the WM Sports Commission to attract the Masters Games, a national competition, which will be hosted by the WM Sports Commission in 2020.  
 
The Masters Games alone are estimated to attract 2,500 athletes and $1.9 million in visitor spending, and represents a major accomplishment for the WM Sports Commission and the county. This competition for athletes 21 and over is focused on athletes looking to engage in national level competition, and is one of the biggest and most complicated bids that the WM Sports Commission has been able to win.
 
Engelbarts, who is also charged with hosting this event, says, “this event will allow local athletes to compete with people from all across the country, at a national level, without having to travel or qualify.” The event has an open registration for any over 21 who are interested in a serious athletic competition, offering an opportunity for many to get involved in the competition. Attracting this type of event is a major success for the GR Sports Commission, as it demonstrates the counties capacity for hosting, and is exactly the type of participation-oriented sports tourism the commission is hoping to attract. 
 
Grand Rapids and Kent County is in the midst of phase of growth that is resulting in major investments in tourism infrastructure.. Given the profitable return and increased tax base inherent to participatory sports tourism, investment in accommodating participant-oriented athletic events are most likely to be the first priority. How these investments will evolve exactly still remains to be decided, with several exciting ideas, but not much confirmed. What’s next, at least in the opinion of Mike Guswiler for the county is most likely to be a simpler investment with a steady return, something like perhaps a rectangle field complex, similar to the Art Van Sports Complex.
 
While the exact details of future sports tourism investments remain to be seen, sports fans in the area can be sure that, no matter what, new opportunities to get into the competition are on the horizon.

Photos courtesy West Michigan Sports Commission. 
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