SANDUSKY, Ohio – The youth-sports travel industry in the United States is worth an estimated $7 billion a year, fueled by millions of young soccer and softball players and their parents, who travel to tournaments near and far.
Officials broke ground on the first phase of the $23.5 million project this month, which includes a sports center capable of hosting major amateur competitive events in several sports, including softball, baseball, lacrosse and soccer. It is scheduled to open in spring 2017.
Jim Arnold, director of business development for the Sports Force & Fields, said his staff is already working to put together a schedule of tournaments and events that will draw tens of thousands of new visitors to Ohio’s north coast. The first contests should be announced in June.
“Sandusky is the perfect market for this type of facility,” said Arnold, citing the variety of attractions available here to young players and their families, including Cedar Point, the water parks, the Lake Erie shore and more.
“Everybody has been waiting for it to happen,” he said.
The facility will feature nine multi-purpose, synthetic turf fields; four NCAA-regulation baseball fields; eight NCAA-regulation soccer and lacrosse fields; plus a championship baseball/softball stadium, training areas and an ADA-accessible field.
It will be located on 57 acres on Cleveland Avenue (Ohio 6) just east of downtown, with Sandusky Bay to the north and views of Cedar Point to the west. It’s the site of the former Griffing-Sandusky Airport, which closed in 2013.
“The development of that land is critical to us,” said Jason McClure, Cedar Point’s general manager. “Folks from Cleveland drive by there when they come to the park. We didn’t want it to remain vacant.”
The park bought the land last year, and then finalized the deal with Sports Force and Erie County.
Also last year: The Erie County commissioners voted to increase the county’s bed tax — from 5 percent to 7 percent — which will pay for a majority of construction costs. Cedar Point and Sports Force also are pitching in.
An economic impact study conducted by Sports Force estimates that the complex, after it’s been operating for a couple of years, will bring 110,000 new visitors to the area, generate 80,000 additional overnights, add hundreds of new jobs and millions in new spending.
Said Bryan Edwards, marketing director for Lake Erie Shores & Islands, the region’s tourism bureau, “With tournaments being held in the spring, summer and fall, as well as week-long tournaments that begin on Sunday and end on Friday, this will help attract tens of thousands of new visitors to the area each year, increasing demand for rooms, dining, entertainment and more during the ‘shoulder seasons’ and generating a significant amount of incremental revenue for local businesses.”
In addition to the fields, the park will include a large area designed to entertain young athletes and their families when they’re not playing in a game.
The “great lawn” area will include an 18-hole miniature golf course, trampoline park, ropes course, food vendors, inflatable screen for movies, playgrounds and more.
The goal, said Arnold, is to keep whole families entertained for days.
Don Schumacher, the executive director of the National Association of Sports Commissions, said the youth-sports travel industry has exploded during the past 20 years. According to one study, nearly 35 million people traveled in 2014 to participate in or watch an amateur sporting event.
In many cases, families gear their entire summers around their kids’ sports schedules – often taking vacations to destinations where tournaments are held.
“The younger the player, the more people come with them,” said Schumacher.
And unlike many other forms of travel, these kinds of trip are largely recession-proof, said Schumacher. “Our research shows that if your daughter qualifies for a team, you’re going to go watch her play,” he said. “You’ll sacrifice other things.”
If done right, he said, the complex in Sandusky will attract young athletes from neighboring states and compete with other well-known sports parks including popular venues in Myrtle Beach, Indianapolis and Cooperstown, New York.
The key to making such a destination successful, he said, is offering plenty of opportunities for non-sports forms of fun.
To that end, participating athletes will receive a free pass to Cedar Point for the duration of their stay, said McClure, and visiting families will receive discounts.
McClure said the Cedar Point Sports Center is a response to would-be guests who say they can’t fit in a trip to the amusement park because their summers are too busy with youth sports.
“We feel really strongly that they’re going to love to play their tournaments here,” he said.
A second phase of the project includes space more publicly accessible — a new Erie MetroParks park on the waterfront acreage, with bird-watching boardwalks, boats for rent and more. The park should be ready in 2018, according to Erie County Commissioner Thomas Ferrell.
In addition, he said, if all goes well with the sports park, Ferrell anticipates a possible expansion that could include an indoor facility for sports including basketball and volleyball.
“And maybe an ice rink,” he said. “There’s enough land there for expansion.”