PEABODY — Sports tourism could draw thousands of visitors to the North Shore, but that does not mean pros have to be in the game to score an economic lift, members of the tourist industry were told at a summit Friday.

One of the biggest sports draws in Rhode Island, a tourism official said, was for a bridge tournament — it resulted in bookings for 12,000 hotel nights, and quietly drew the likes of billionaire Microsoft founder Bill Gates.

This and other anecdotes were part of the discussion at the sold-out 13th annual North of Boston Tourism Summit held Friday morning at the Boston Peabody Marriott. The summit, run by the North of Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau, featured panel discussions — including one on sports tourism — and a keynote speech by Dave McGillivray, a runner and race director of the Boston Marathon.

Direct spending on sports-related events, from hockey tournaments to college games to tree-climbing championships, generated $11.4 billion in direct spending across the country in 2017, up 9 percent year over year. And this number excludes professional sporting events.

The panel focused on the ins and outs of sports tourism, which includes travel to play or watch sports, attend a sports business event, or visit a sports attraction. 

Sports tourism is not some mythical creature, said Tom Fitzmaurice, executive director of the Greater Merrimack Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau.

“More importantly, sports is sexy,” Fitzmaurice said. “Sports is very sexy, people like sports. People like sponsoring sports, People like being associated with sports.”

He called it “a significant driver to the state and to Greater Boston, and one that is very important to us as well.”

Crossing borders

John Gibbons, executive director of the Rhode Island Sports Commission, noted that sports can benefit an entire region, not just the city or town where an event takes place.

“If you have a community with a good venue, good hotels, you’ve got to realize you are going to bring events that are going to cross borders,” Gibbons said.

“We are blessed to host a little bit of the New England Patriots business. So every time a team comes to play the Pats, typically they stay in Rhode Island. And when the playoffs kick in — you know you can’t plan for that, luckily the Patriots seem to be in it every year — we get some of that business, as well.”

But the major bridge tournament Rhode Island hosted in 2014, he noted, was even bigger than the Patriots.

“My largest client ... American Contract Bridge League,” Gibbons said. “They are not building bridges, they are sitting down at tables like these playing cards. ... They rent our convention center for 12 days. They contract 12,000 room nights.” 

Hosting the league’s championships in 2014 also opened up business for a regional bridge tournament that goes to a Rhode Island hotel every summer. And the state will host the championships again in 2021.

The morning sports tourism panel was sponsored by what could be a major player in the local industry, the approximately $55 million Atlantic Sports Center, which has just gone through a two-year permitting process in Amesbury.

Michael Gorman, the owner and president, said the complex will accommodate six NHL-sized hockey rinks, plus fitness and training areas, a hotel and function rooms on 55 acres at 56 S. Hunt Road.

The plan is to run hockey tournaments year-round, bringing an estimated half million visitors to the North Shore each year.

“It’s folks like you that will help our project get off the ground,” he told the crowd, “because the reality is the ice isn’t going to be enough. 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.” 

Gorman expects to break ground in the early spring.

A boost from Senior Open

The North Shore has already had some success with sports tourism. Ann Marie Casey, executive director of the North of Boston Convention and Visitors Bureau, cited the 2017 U.S. Senior Open at the Salem Country Club in Peabody. 

The golfing event’s administration reported an economic impact of 7,000 hotel bookings north of Boston, an additional 3,000 room nights in the Greater Boston area, 7,000 car rental days, $11 million in visitor spending, and  $1 million in tax revenue generated, Casey said. 

State Rep. Brad Hill of Ipswich, who attended the convention, said taking a regional approach to this kind of tourism will be key — including, he said, getting an inventory of venues on the North Shore.

“This is going to have to be a regional thing that we are going to have to talk about,” he said, “if we want to bring these big events to the area.” 

Staff writer Ethan Forman can be reached at 978-338-2673, by email at eforman@salemnews.com or on Twitter at @TannerSalemNews.

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