It may not seem like it today, but there's more to sports in these parts than the New England Patriots.
Look across Essex County and you'll find plenty of examples, from the packed hockey rinks of the Merrimack Valley to the busy youth soccer fields of Danvers and the sail-dotted coast of Marblehead. There's wooden-bat summer baseball in Lynn, cyclocross racing in Gloucester and polo in Hamilton. If you're crazy about a sport, there's more than likely a local spot to suit your interest.
Increasingly, local businesses are trying to tap into the growing enthusiasm for "sports tourism," where athletes of all ages and their families travel for tournaments, races and other special contests, extending their stay beyond the event itself. It's a different kind of tourism to be sure, different from the more traditional attractions: Salem with the legacy of the Witch Trials, Gloucester with its historic fishing port and the sprawling, sylvan Maudslay State Park for those visiting Greater Newburyport.
But there is growing evidence sports tourism can bring a real boost to local economies. Spending on youth sports travel alone totals nearly $10 billion a year nationwide and is growing by about 20 percent a year, HBO's "Real Sports" reported in 2017. And it's not just traditional sports. One of the biggest recent sports draws in Rhode Island, for example, was for a bridge tournament that resulted in bookings for 12,000 hotel rooms.
True success, of course, will take more than throwing up a handful of sporting venues across the region. It will take cross-border cooperation between communities — and in the case of the Merrimack Valley, between states. A regional sales pitch is a must: Danvers, for example, may have excellent soccer fields, but its attractiveness is multiplied when visitors realize they can also pop over to Salem or Rockport between tournament games. And local and state leaders will need to figure out not only how to attract deep-pocketed sports aficionados to their communities, but how to handle the crowds when they arrive. Residents appreciate the revenue boost sports tourism brings; they are unforgiving, however, when out-of-town visitors clog the usually calm streets with traffic.
State Rep. Brad Hill said such challenges make a collaborative approach vitally important.
"This is going to have to be a regional thing that we are going to have to talk about if we want to bring these big events to the area," Hill said. The Ipswich Republican favors getting an inventory of the sports-related venues across the North Shore. Let's not stop there. The time to talk about things like traffic — especially between neighboring communities like Salem and Peabody — is now, not when an event is right around the corner. And make no mistake, a big event in one community affects life for its neighbors. Just ask a Peabody resident about Halloween traffic from Salem.
When planned properly, large events can go smoothly. Witness the 2017 U.S. Senior Open at the Salem Country Club in Peabody. The four-day event brought 7,000 hotel bookings, 7,000 car rentals, $11 million in visitor spending and $1 million in tax revenue, according to Ann Marie Case, executive director of the North of Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Experts on the topic, speaking at the bureau's annual summit in Peabody last week, say opportunities abound to replicate that kind of growth.
People like Michael Gorman are betting on it.
Gorman is the man behind a plan to build a $55 million sports complex in Amesbury, complete with six NHL-sized hockey rinks and fitness and training areas. For the project to succeed, of course, it will take more than skaters from Amesbury. The idea is to draw hockey tournaments from across the East Coast, year round. And those players and their families will need places to stay, and to eat — hopefully for more than a day or two.
"The reality is the ice isn't going to be enough," Gorman told the summit crowd. "When somebody comes to a hockey tournament, they are on the ice, they are in the hotel room. That's not enough for a three- or four-day vacation. They need to experience what makes Amesbury, the North Shore, Massachusetts great."
Done correctly, it's something everyone can benefit from.