To see how hosting sporting events can impact a community, all you have to do is take a look at flurry of development in northeast Wichita near K-96 and Greenwich.
There’s been a wave of new hotels, restaurants, retail stores and attractions there that coincides with the opening of the Wichita Sports Forum in late 2015. About 1.3 million people visited the 148,000-square-foot multi-use complex during its first year of operation. In 2017, 1.8 million used the facility.
“We had a very good increase from our first year to our second year, and our 2018 calendar is already booked more than the last two years,” Brian Hargrove, general manager, said in mid-February. “We have 48 of the 52 weekends in 2018 booked with some sort of tournament and we expect to fill the remaining.”
The main part of the complex has enough hardwood for six full-size basketball courts that can convert to 10 volleyball courts, a full-size turf field that can be used for soccer or as a softball or baseball infield, eight batting cages and indoor sand volleyball courts.
On any given weekend, you’ll find events featuring local teams, athletes from surrounding states or even teams from across the country. There are the traditional activities the developers expected to use the facility most often, along with off-brand sports that they hoped to attract with flexible space. That has included national roller derby and wrestling competitions, as well as Ultimate Frisbee and a local boxing event featuring law enforcement that drew the facility’s largest crowd of 3,500 spectators.
National business picked up, Hargrove said, after the Wichita Sports Forum was included in SportsEvents magazine’s 2017 list of top 10 multi-use sports facilities in the country.
“Because of that publication, we’ve received many calls from people across the country wanting to bring tournaments or camps here,” he said. “These are people who didn’t know about our facility or that a place like Wichita would have a facility like this.”
Similar to meeting planners, organizers of sporting events are generally looking for facilities that meet their event’s requirements and good hotel options, said Moji Rosson, vice president of sales for Visit Wichita. Additionally, they are looking for a community that offers a great experience for their athletes on and off the field.
“They want to make sure their competitors are happy, healthy and enjoy the time they have here,” Rosson said.
Rosson leads the sales and service team that works to attract conventions, meetings and sporting events to Wichita. The sports market is big and unique enough that one sales manager, Josh Howell, dedicates all of his time to recruiting athletic events.
Visit Wichita is just one of many entities working to bring in these events. The city of Wichita, Sedgwick County, the Greater Wichita Area Sports Commission and local universities all work alongside venues and local sports organizations.
Wichita has unique facilities that help secure events, these groups said. For example, Mystic Lakes Ski Club, just northwest of Wichita, has world-record capability water ski lakes that attracted the USA Waterski and the American Water Ski Association National Championships coming in August. Having three sheets of ice within about eight blocks (Intrust Bank Arena and the Wichita Ice Center) landed the Midwestern and Pacific Coast Synchronized Skating Sectional Championships that brought more than 2,500 athletes and their families to Wichita two months ago.
They also said the city is missing out on opportunities due to facilities and amenities. For example, some youth events only choose communities with theme parks or large water parks for their athletes to enjoy during downtime. Some need space Wichita doesn’t have.
“We have some great baseball fields but we don’t have a giant baseball complex,” said Troy Houtman, the city’s director of Parks and Recreation. “Another one we are missing is a competitive swim location. We have some great pools but nothing to the caliber of hosting large swim meets.”
Public and private projects to address facility needs are in various stages of development. A major reconstruction of the 60 acres near Wichita Sports Forum is underway to turn the city’s Stryker soccer complex into a 10-field, multi-sport complex with artificial turf, lighting, seating and an indoor component. According to a study by the Wichita State University Center for Economic Development and Business Research, the complex should draw 100,000 to 150,000 visitors and generate $16 million to $24 million in economic impact annually.
Houtman said progress should speed up during the next two to three years, as projects like these are completed and begin to attract more athletes and a wider range of sports.
“We can and we should be hosting more of these types of tournaments,” he said. “It saves our residents from having to travel to other places and it brings revenue into our community.”
The economic impact is significant. Visit Wichita touts that the four major sports events in Wichita this year will bring in more than $14 million alone: January’s synchronized skating event ($3.4 million), NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship first and second round games in March ($10 million), August’s waterski national championships ($500,000) and United States Bowling Congress’ U.S. Open in October at Northrock Lanes ($375,000).
The convention and visitors bureau said beyond the immediate economic boost, hosting the NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship games for the first time since 1994 legitimizes Wichita as a sports city among visitors and planners.
“It’s a very recognizable event, so when you say that you’re hosting the NCAA basketball tournament it puts you on another level of competition,” Rosson said. “We’ve entered the big leagues and we’re ready to play ball.”