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The Irwin Belk Complex at Johnson C. Smith University in Charlotte hosted the U.S. Paralympic Track-and-Field Trials in July before the 2016 Paralympic Games. Photo courtesy of Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

Along the southeastern seaboard, the culture combines a little bit of the East Coast and a whole lot of the South. And regardless of whether the city is pushing 1 million residents or barely breaking 100,000, in the South-Atlantic, the general consensus is that sports rule. Big cities boast big-name professional teams and a roster of large-scale sporting venues, but those cities aren’t so big that youth sports and amateur events aren’t still important to their markets. On the flip side, smaller towns are big enough to offer new-construction venues and state-of-the-art facilities—and they all come with plenty of small-town friendliness.

Charlotte: A Sports Town and More

Charlotte is a tale of two cities. Or, more accurately, two perceptions of one North Carolina city. “I love describing the city to people who have never been here,” said Thomas Lee, Visit Charlotte’s senior national sales manager for sports. “There’s definitely perception versus reality. We’re a small-town feel, but when they get here, they realize we have big-city amenities.”

Those amenities include one of the nation’s largest airports, a light-rail system and a slew of major sports venues, including the 75,419-seat Bank of America Stadium, the 20,200-seat Spectrum Center (formerly the Time Warner Cable Arena), the 17,000-seat American Legion Memorial Stadium and the 8,600-seat, newly renovated Bojangles’ Coliseum. The Charlotte Convention Center, which has 280,000 square feet of contiguous exhibit space, is often used for volleyball, basketball and other sports, and its two large ballrooms have hosted cheer and dance competitions.

That big-small juxtaposition applies to the city’s sports markets as well. Charlotte is home to the NFL’s Carolina Panthers, the NBA’s Hornets and Major League Lacrosse’s Hounds. Those professional teams, and the massive venues they call home, shine a spotlight on the city. In addition to hosting Panthers games, Bank of America Stadium has hosted the collegiate Belk Bowl several times as well as several international soccer matches, including the International Champions Cup in July. Charlotte has also welcomed NCAA basketball tournament games over the years, most recently in 2015, and in August, its Quail Hollow Club will host the 2017 PGA Championship.

While “those are great newspaper-headline events that do garnish attention,” youth sports are just as important as the big-name teams and attention-grabbing events, Lee said. “We really do well with outdoor sports,” he said, mentioning youth baseball, softball, soccer, lacrosse, rugby and flag football.

In the southeastern suburb of Matthews, the Mecklenburg County Sportsplex is scheduled to wrap up an expansion and renovation this month. The complex added four synthetic-turf fields (for a total of nine) as well as two grass fields, a two-story field house and a grass championship field with a 2,700-seat stadium. This summer, the Mecklenburg County Aquatic Center finished an $8.6 million renovation, which added seating, updated locker rooms and retiled the pool. The center hosted the 2016 U.S. Paralympic Swimming Trials in June and July.

The only challenge Charlotte faces is finding more intimate venues for indoor sporting events, Lee said. Plans are in the works for a new, 100,000-square-foot indoor sports complex that will have eight to 12 courts. Officials estimate it will attract 30 weekend tournaments a year. “In the next few years, there will be a facility—if not two—that will be able to host indoor amateur sports on a weekend weekly basis,” Lee said.

Seminole County: Invested in the Game

In Florida’s Seminole County, just northeast of Orlando, facilities are the name of the game. That’s not to say organizers and athletes don’t appreciate the area’s nature, nice weather and the fact that the Walt Disney World and Universal/Orlando resorts are a short drive away. “But we use sports facilities as an engine to drive tourism,” said Danny Trosset, director of sports tourism for Orlando North, Seminole County Tourism, which is based in Lake Mary. “What makes us a great sports destination are our facilities. Our county has invested a lot in terms of infrastructure and building new facilities but also maintaining existing facilities.”

The new Seminole County Sports Complex in Sanford features 15 lighted athletic fields, nine of which have synthetic turf. Since its opening in May, the complex has hosted a tournament every weekend, Trosset said. The complex is designed so that up to three separate tournaments can be played simultaneously, one on each of the three “field hubs” that has its own entrance.

A $6 million project is underway to transform Soldiers Creek Park near Longwood into a new, six-field women’s fastpitch facility that will attract collegiate and youth softball as well as 12-and-under baseball events. Girls’ fastpitch is one of the county’s “hot markets,” Trosset said, noting that big tournaments are already lined up for Soldiers Creek, expected to reopen in May. Also in Longwood is Candyland Park, with three more lighted softball/baseball fields (as well as other sports facilities).

Tennis is another huge sport for the region. In Altamonte Springs, Sanlando Park’s 25 lighted hard-surface tennis courts have attracted past Atlantic
Coast Conference Championships,
USTA tournaments and the NCAA Division II Men’s & Women’s Tennis Championships, which will return to the park in May. The county also hosts the state high school tennis championships at Sanlando Park, Sylvan Lake Park in Sanford and Red Bug Lake Park in Oviedo, which offer more than 50 tennis courts combined.

Soccer rounds out the county’s trifecta of sports markets (although the sports commission is hoping to make lacrosse its fourth big market). The Elite Clubs National League (ECNL) Winter National Tournament returned to the county in late December for the seventh consecutive year with 176 teams and 400 coaches, making it “single-handedly our biggest event” in terms of room nights and its estimated $3 million in economic impact, Trosset said.

The tournament uses three facilities in Sanford: the Seminole Soccer Complex, with 11 fields; Sylvan Lake Park, with another six; and Moore’s Station. The Orlando City Soccer Club owns the Seminole Soccer Club, which plays at the complex, and the professional club’s youth arm is an “important piece of our success,” said Trosset. The complex hosts three or four big tournaments every year, some of which draw more than 100 teams.

Morgantown: Mountain Magnetism

Jamie Summerlin ran his first marathon in November 2009. Three years later, he ran across the country to raise money for veterans. And he’s the force behind the Morgantown Marathon in West Virginia, which began in 2015 with more than 1,100 racers. The event “really put Morgantown on the map,” said Dave Plevich, sports and special events manager for the Greater Morgantown Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We call it our ‘Almost Heaven’ race because you’re running through the mountains around Morgantown.”

The course’s design is more of a mountainous one. It gains about 1,700 feet in elevation as it winds through all seven city wards and heads through the surrounding mountains before the final uphill stretch to the West Virginia University Coliseum, a 14,000-seat arena where the 8K, half-marathon and marathon all start and end. “You definitely earn your medal,” said Summerlin, the race’s founder and director.

The city’s surrounding mountains—part of the Appalachians—and the Monongahela River draw many to enjoy all of the recreational possibilities, which include rafting, fishing and rock climbing, but so does the presence of WVU, one of the city’s major attractions. “There’s so much tourism coming through that’s related to the university, which helps us on the tourism side and on the sports side,” Plevich said.

The year-old Monongalia County Ballpark is home to both the minor league West Virginia Black Bears and the WVU Mountaineers. It has a synthetic turf field, 2,500 seats and standing room for another 1,000. The city has worked with ballpark officials to hold fun runs and a craft beer festival there, and Plevich said the CVB hopes to use it for baseball tournaments and championship games this year, if it works for the resident teams’ schedules.

Event organizers often use West Virginia University’s facilities for basketball, soccer and football, but community venues are also plentiful—and expanding. The 300-acre Mylan Park is home to a turf athletic field for rugby, lacrosse and soccer as well as four lighted baseball/softball fields with grandstand seating for up to 660 spectators. Also at the park is the 53,000-square-foot Hazel & J.W. Ruby Community Exposition Center. It has space for four basketball courts and seating for up to 4,500 people for roller derby bouts or taekwondo tournaments. In May, it served as the site of the Stihl Timbersports Pro Lumberjack Competition.

In addition, a $25 million project is underway to build an aquatics center and track facility on 20 of Mylan Park’s acres called the Mountaineer Center. Plans call for a one-mile cross-country course, a 400-meter track and stands for up to 1,200, as well as recreational pool facilities, a 50-meter competitive pool, a diving well with a 10-meter springboard and additional viewing stands for up to 1,200 spectators. When complete, “it will definitely open up our market,” Plevich said, adding there’s already interest in hosting the Big 12 swimming championships there.

Another choice option is the Morgantown Event Center at Waterfront Place, a 30,000-square-foot facility that has been used for everything from boxing matches to the finish line of a couple of races, Plevich said. Morgantown and University high schools also both welcome events.

Norfolk: Coastal Charm

The coastal city of Norfolk, Virginia, is nearly surrounded by water, making it the ideal home of Naval Station Norfolk, the world’s largest naval complex. Although both the waterfront and the military are major factors in the city’s economy and tourism market, neither plays a huge role in Norfolk’s sports markets. “Interestingly enough, basketball, field hockey and boxing are our major sports,” said Donna Allen, vice-president of sales and marketing for Visit Norfolk.

Norfolk is also a college town, home to Old Dominion University, Norfolk State University and Virginia Wesleyan College, arguably the three largest engines driving the city’s sports markets. “Each of those has very strong athletic programs, from field hockey to basketball,” Allen said.

Old Dominion plans to expand and renovate its football stadium, Foreman Field at Ballard Stadium. The $55 million project will add about 2,000 seats, for a new total of 22,130, and is expected to be complete in time for the 2019 season. ODU also boasts complexes for tennis, baseball and softball and for field sports such as soccer, field hockey and lacrosse. The school’s basketball teams play at the 9,250-seat Ted Constant Convocation Center, which also offers a 9,100-square-foot room that can be split into five sections. Most tournaments that come to town play there or at the Scope Arena downtown, which can seat up to 10,250 for basketball (or more for other sports). Scope Arena has hosted the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference Basketball Tournament every March since 2013.

Norfolk State’s William “Dick” Price Stadium can seat up to 30,000 and does double duty for football as well as track and field with an all-weather, eight-lane rubberized track that circles the grass field. At Virginia Wesleyan, venues include an eight-lane natatorium, the eight-court Everett Tennis Center and the year-old, synthetic Birdsong Field, which is home to the school’s soccer, lacrosse and field hockey programs. The recently renovated Trinder Center is home to Foster Field and is also used for soccer and lacrosse.

Boxing is deeply rooted in Norfolk, which has produced contenders and nationally ranked boxers and is the hometown of two Olympic coaches, including Gloria Peek, who became the first woman to coach male boxers at the Olympic Games, which she did in 2012. In November, the city opened the new Norfolk Boxing Center at Harbor Park, a 13,000-square-foot facility with two USA Boxing, regulation-size competition rings and stadium seating for 300 to 400 spectators, depending on the setup. The center will allow the city to host larger events and championship bouts. “We’re hoping very much to get more (boxing) events,” Allen said. “Having a facility that’s geared specifically toward that will allow us to pursue both state, regional and national opportunities.”

Columbia: Capital Appeal

The South Carolina capital of Columbia (population 133,000) is small enough and Southern enough “to be friendly to anyone, but we’ve come a long way,” said Scott Powers, executive director of the Columbia Regional Sports Council. “We’re as urban as a lot of places. We’ve got a good mix of urban and rural.”

In addition to Columbia’s friendly feel and year-round (or nearly) nice weather, “facilities are a big driver for hosting events,” he said. Having the University of South Carolina’s main campus in downtown—and having access to its Southeastern Conference-level facilities—is a major bonus. Williams-Brice Stadium has been expanded several times since first being built in 1934 and now seats 80,250 people. Popular for basketball, Colonial Life Arena can seat 18,000 for games and 19,000 for other events, although city officials often partner with area high schools for most basketball tournaments, Powers said.

Powers said that the Columbia community has a huge passion for baseball. A recent addition to its many ballparks is the $36 million Spirit Communications Park, which opened in April with seating for up to 9,000. It hosts the minor league Fireflies but can also accommodate soccer and football games. Also notable is the $3 million, 2,500-seat Lexington County Baseball Stadium, which opened 20 miles west of town in Lexington in 2015 as the new field for the Blowfish of the Coastal Plain League. In May, it hosted the 2016 Big South Conference Baseball Championship with eight teams, and the event is scheduled to return this year and in 2018. “Those type of facilities allow us to go after events where athletes want to feel special,” Powers said. In addition, the Lexington Sports Complex (across the street from the county stadium) has five youth baseball fields, four softball fields (as well as tennis courts) and regularly hosts the Dixie Youth Baseball World Series; the Oak Grove Softball Complex, also in Lexington, has four lighted fields; and the Pine Grove Softball Complex in West Columbia offers another five lighted softball fields and two soccer fields.

Soccer is probably the largest generator of both events and teams every year, Powers said. The two largest annual soccer events, each drawing more than 200 teams, are the South Carolina United FC’s Carolina Cup and the St. Patrick’s Day Cup. Both are held at more than a dozen sites around the area including the 12-field BB&T Complex.

In August, Saluda Shoals Park opened an expanded athletic complex with six multiuse fields for soccer and lacrosse (one of the city’s emerging markets) and 10 tennis courts. And this spring, a new park in Chapin (20 miles northwest of Columbia) is expected to open with six baseball fields, eight tennis courts and two multiuse fields.

Tennis is also a strong market, Powers said. The city has hosted the USTA Junior Team Tennis 18 & Under National Championships five years in a row, most recently in October. Teams take over the 30-court Cayce Tennis & Fitness Center and the 21-court Lexington County Tennis Complex.

Flooding temporarily washed out one of Columbia’s niche markets: rowing. Several collegiate rowing teams used to travel to the city for spring training until October 2015, when floodwaters on the Broad River washed away the Columbia Rowing Center’s dock. However, with the dock’s scheduled reopening this spring, three teams are already interested in coming back in 2017 and the market is something the city hopes to build back up, Powers said.

Savannah: Making it Happen

Marketing Savannah, Georgia, as a sports destination isn’t the most difficult job. “It’s a destination people want to come to,” said Ben Wilder, director of the Savannah Sports Council. “It has a lot to offer: the beach, historic tours, ghost tours, dolphin tours. A lot of people who come here hope to have free time to explore and do things rather than spend all weekend playing their event.”

But that doesn’t mean city officials sit around waiting for events to come to them. Since its foundation in 1993, the Savannah Sports Council has created its own events to attract players, coaches, families and spectators. “It’s a chance to put events in your markets where you know you need them and a way to expose people to certain types of sports,” Wilder said.

Among its signature events are the Enmarket Savannah Bridge Run, which celebrated its 25th year in December; the Publix Savannah Women’s Half Marathon & 5K, whose courses head through the oak-lined streets and city squares of the Historic District; and the Savannah Tire Hockey Classic, a collegiate tournament that features teams from Georgia and Florida.

And the council is still at it. In November, the city hosted the inaugural Savannah Invitational, a five-day tournament that brought 14 Division I college basketball teams—six women’s and eight men’s—to the Savannah Civic Center’s Martin Luther King Jr. Arena, which can accommodate up to 9,600.

Running is also key for the city. The Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon will return in November 2017 for its seventh year. And some of Savannah’s biggest room-night generators are soccer tournaments. But with its main markets clearly doing well, the council has been focusing on destination championships in sports such as gymnastics, cheerleading and dance. This summer, the 330,000-square-foot Savannah International Trade & Convention Center will host the 2017 YMCA National Gymnastics Championships in its 100,000-square-foot, divisible exhibit hall. Wilder said participants can stay downtown, walk to restaurants and then ride the free water taxi across the Savannah River to the convention center. The council is about to sign a large indoor volleyball event at the convention center as well, he said.

Savannah also works closely with its three universities. Armstrong State University is a Division II school with all of the corresponding athletic facilities. Savannah State University has “the nicest football stadium in town,” he said in reference to the 8,500-seat T.A. Stadium, which also serves as its track facility. And the Savannah College of Art & Design boasts a 100-acre equestrian center and a field complex for soccer and lacrosse.

For the past nine years, the EVP (Extreme Volleyball Professionals) Tour has brought the Beach Bum Open to Tybee Island, where about 300 athletes compete on more than 20 sand volleyball courts during the tournament every Mother’s Day weekend. “We call it ‘the triangle,’” said EVP Tour Commissioner Ross Balling of the city’s appeal. “Basically, you can stay, play and eat and drink without driving. All our staff want to work the event.”

The South-Atlantic:
All the Right Reasons 

In the South-Atlantic states, event organizers will find it all: big-city amenities, small-town friendliness and just-right facilities. With a temperate climate, most destinations tout their 365-day availability for outdoor sports. But one of the region’s major drivers is that communities invest heavily in building new venues and updating existing facilities, whether it’s continually expanding a decades-old football stadium, building a multimillion-dollar minor league baseball stadium, opening a new boxing arena or retiling the pool at an aquatics center.