Ocean City Officials Continue Youth Sports Market Talks

OCEAN CITY — Part of redefining Ocean City’s brand is aggressively going after the growing youth sports market, an issue that arose again during this week’s strategic planning sessions.

Throughout the day on Tuesday and much of Wednesday, the Mayor and Council along with department heads and other key staff worked on an update to the town’s strategic plan last revised two years ago. The discussion turned toward an aggressive plan to go after the ever-growing youth sports market, a growing multi-billion-dollar industry. Ocean City has been exploring ways to tap deeper into it.

There has been considerable debate about maximizing the resources the town already has at its disposal and even a larger debate about developing a sports complex either on the island or out in the county to further exploit the growing market. Last winter, Ocean City commissioned private sector consulting firm Crossroads to conduct a feasibility study, which has not been completed. Meanwhile, Councilman John Gehrig, who has championed the youth sports marketing cause, renewed the debate during this week’s marathon strategic planning sessions.

“I think we’re out of touch in a lot of ways,” he said. “The youth sports deal is the real thing. We spend 100% of our marketing budget targeting 50% of our audience. For many families, vacation days are dedicated to sports. We have what so many of these destinations don’t have, and that’s our beach, our Boardwalk and other amenities. I think we can dominate this.”

City Manager Doug Miller said the effort to tap into the youth sports market was proceeding a parallel path.

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“We need to determine two things,” he said. “Do we have a commitment to do this? It will be a major endeavor. It will have to be built from the ground up and it will likely have to be a public-private partnership. If it is a priority, we need to invest more time and resources into it.”

Clearly, there is a will to proceed with it, as evidenced by the commissioning of the feasibility study last year. Councilman Matt James said there is a will, but advised his colleagues to see the results of the ongoing study first.

“I think we’re all on board,” he said. “We know what it can do for our economy. We need to see what the study comes back with and that will dictate our next step.”

Councilman Tony DeLuca agreed the study would likely dictate some of the particulars involved with developing a sports complex.

“We’re talking about building a sports complex, but the question is where?” he said. “Is it Route 90, Route 50, along Route 113 somewhere. Also, the question is when? In my mind, this is something that’s three- to five-years out. What’s the next step?”

Gehrig, meanwhile, said the town’s elected officials and its staff are more than capable of advancing plans for going after the youth sports market even before the study is complete.

“I think we’re smart enough to know what’s best for our community,” he said. “What if the study comes back and says it isn’t feasible? Is that the end? Around 150 million kids play youth sports and it’s an $80 billion industry. Kids travel 30 weekends a year for sports and anybody with kids ages six to 17 knows that. Waiting is not an option. We shouldn’t be on the sidelines.”

Mayor Rick Meehan said the intricacies involved with garnering county, state and even private sector partners in a future project made the study a necessity.

“In order for us to attract partners, in order for us to get money from the state or the private sector, we need that tangible study,” he said. “I believe it will come back positive. I’m just disappointed it’s taken 10 months.”

Gehrig agreed Ocean City can and is already effectively going after the youth sports market. The Northside Park complex is bustling with activity all year long, the convention center is hosting more and more sports events all the time and there are more beach soccer, volleyball, lacrosse and other events than ever before.

“We’re doing it already to some degree,” he said. “We’re expanding this building and that will allow us to bring in soccer and volleyball events. We have a wrestling tournament in here this weekend. We already have a foundation. We have a huge market that wants to come here. The sports complex comes later. We don’t need to wait for that.”

Meehan agreed the town already has some significant resources to expand youth sports marketing and pointed to the Ocean City Baptist Church’s growing Upward youth soccer program in West Ocean City as an example.

“We have inventory to sell right now,” he said. “We have a beautiful Northside Park complex, we’re expanding this convention center. There are options we can sell right now. There are seven beautiful soccer fields behind the White Marlin Mall and they’re amenable to opening opportunities for us to bring in tournaments and events. Let’s take a look at the resources we have already.”

About The Author: Shawn Soper

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Shawn Soper has been with The Dispatch since 2000. He began as a staff writer covering various local government beats and general stories. His current positions include managing editor and sports editor. Growing up in Baltimore before moving to Ocean City full time three decades ago, Soper graduated from Loch Raven High School in 1981 and from Towson University in 1985 with degrees in mass communications with a journalism concentration and history.