MYRTLE BEACH — Most visitors to Grand Strand might look forward to its flashier attractions: the blinking carnival rides at Family Kingdom or the pocket of late-night clubs at Broadway at the Beach.
But a growing number of travelers are instead bound for the baseball fields and basketball courts tucked away across the Myrtle Beach area. Sports tourism is becoming a crucial strategy to keep visitors coming to the beach, even if they don’t end up lounging on the sand.
“We found that sports tourism is perhaps the most recession-proof part of tourism,” said Brad Dean, president of the Myrtle Beach Area Chamber of Commerce.
“(If) times get tough and the family budget gets crunched, you cut out the golf vacation, you scrap the girlfriend getaway, you cut back on the family vacation, but if your 12-year-old is playing in that 12-year-old championship, Mom and Dad will move mountain and earth to get there.”
Myrtle Beach collected $3.8 million in fees and city taxes paid by visitors traveling for sports events last year, and city staff estimate that sports tourism had a $186 million economic impact within the city limits in 2016. The Grand Strand is attractive for tournaments, tourism officials and event promoters said, because it offers a competitive market for hotel rooms as well as scores of restaurants and attractions.
But the area is also facing competitive pressures around the state as cities rush to build their own facilities. And in Myrtle Beach, like other cities across South Carolina, sports venues rarely break even on their own. City staff estimate that Myrtle Beach’s sports facilities will operate at a deficit close to $850,000 in the current budget year.
‘First to the game’
Rock Hill was one of the first cities in South Carolina to jump into the sports tourism world when it built Cherry Park, a baseball and softball complex on 68 acres, in 1985.
The town was looking for ways to goose its economy as its traditional base of textile manufacturing waned, and the park offered something new: a single location where multiple teams could play in the same tournament, according to Mark Sexton, the operations supervisor for Rock Hill Parks, Recreation and Tourism.
Since then, the city built a soccer complex, tennis center and a velodrome, an indoor cycling venue that hosts events similar to “NASCAR on bicycles,” Sexton said.
Rock Hill also has attracted specialized events with international competitors, like the BMX World Championships. The city was ultimately selected over Bangkok, Sexton said, and Rock Hill officials estimated the event had a roughly $19 million economic impact.
Part of the city’s success is its early entry into sports tourism, according to Bob Brookover, a senior lecturer in the department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management at Clemson University.
“They were first to the game, so they’re always at the front of people’s minds, and they’ve got long-term relationships,” Brookover said. “It’s a whole lot harder for people to break up with them and go to the next guy.”
Many towns have tried to replicate that success. Charleston City Councilwoman Kathleen Wilson pushed for building a natatorium, an indoor swimming complex, next to Citadel Mall in West Ashley, but funding has yet to materialize for the $38 million proposal.
Charleston hosts some larger sporting events that draw athletes and spectators, like the annual Cooper River Bridge Run. But the city doesn’t have the capacity for large groups of visitors that more seasonal destinations do, said Kathleen Cartland, the executive director of the Charleston Area Sports Commission.
“We just don’t have major sports complexes that have been built in other areas just for the tourism aspect of it,” Cartland said.
Greenville hosted the USA Karate National Championships and Team Trials this year, and it will host the Southeastern Conference Women’s Basketball Tournament in a three-year deal starting in 2019.
“Especially when you’ve hosted a year successfully, (promoters) look back at what the community did,” Robin Wright of Visit Greenville said.
Brookover also said the Upstate has been successful in attracting events because tourism officials can tout the redevelopment of downtown Greenville and Spartanburg.
Myrtle Beach has long focused on youth tournaments, assuming that young athletes bring many family members with them and that all of them will patronize local hotels and restaurants.
Mayor John Rhodes won his first term in office in 2005 after running on a platform that focused on expanding sports tourism. Rhodes is also one of the organizers of the Beach Ball Classic, an annual high school basketball tournament that started in 1981 and is now held at the Myrtle Beach Convention Center.
Because of that tournament, Rhodes said, “We realized the sports tourism thing in Myrtle Beach had an opportunity to grow and be something successful.”
But families with children in travel sports may have to make significant sacrifices to travel with their child. Dean said many families with children in travel sports have forgone a traditional weeklong vacation in favor of several smaller trips scheduled around tournaments. Parents often shuttle their children to venues between two and four hours away for a game or tournament, Brookover said.
Will they come?
In past decades, many cities erected sports facilities with a simple mantra in mind: build it and they will come. That has changed, however, as baseball diamonds, soccer fields and basketball courts have sprouted in cities from Columbia to Spartanburg to Irmo.
Dean said nationally, sports tourism facilities are overbuilt, though Myrtle Beach is somewhat insulated from that issue because it also offers the amenities of a vacation destination.
But with so many options, sports organizers can pick and choose, often striking multi-year deals for reduced facility rates.
“The organizations that would be bringing tournaments to you, they’ve been in the driver’s seat for a bit in terms of being able to ask you for a lot,” Brookover said. “It’s always best when you’re thinking about developing facilities that you develop the right thing for your stakeholders that live in your community first.”
Myrtle Beach has spent millions on new and improved sports facilities in the past decade, including a $5.5 million renovation of its high school football stadium and track this year and a $14 million indoor sports facility that opened in 2015, equipped for basketball and volleyball.
There is also a private venue inside the city limits, the Ripken Experience, a complex of nine artificial turf fields that opened in 2006 to host tournaments and practice camps for youth baseball players.
But cities continue to jump into the market, and the city of Florence is moving forward with a soccer complex. Established venues like Rock Hill continue to expand — the city is planning to lease a new indoor facility from a private developer.
At the same time, Myrtle Beach lost two significant tournaments to North Myrtle Beach this year: the Saltwater Highland Games, a series of Gaelic events, and the Grand Strand Softball Classic, a youth event.
Lawrence Jones, the organizer of the softball classic, said Myrtle Beach’s new pricing structure changed his usual $3,500 fee to roughly $30,000. In North Myrtle Beach, he said he paid less than $3,000, and he’s since signed a three-year contract to use that city’s sports complex.
The classic had been held in Myrtle Beach for the past 24 years.
“I think the City Council now is of the understanding … (that) they want to readdress the payment plans of the facilities now,” Jones said.
Rhodes said the city faces a balancing act between recouping the operating costs of its facilities while still attracting tournaments.
“I don’t have a problem with us losing some money, but I don’t want us losing a lot,” Rhodes said. “We don’t mind helping (promoters) make money, because we look at making money off the tourist that comes in Myrtle Beach.”