Every time I attend a youth sports tournament outside the area I see a missed opportunity for our marketplace.
Over the last couple years, sports tourism has gotten a lot of talk in Ocean City. Ocean City Councilman John Gehrig is a huge proponent of it and addresses it often in tourism meetings. At this point, it’s being studied, but it seems to me it’s gotten too complicated.
I was in Lancaster, Pa. last weekend for a huge soccer tournament. The Hempfield Fall Classic is in its 34th year. It’s grown in recent years to include hundreds of teams. The growth resulted in the boys and girls teams being divided into separate weekends for their tournaments. This is the fifth year in a row our team has played in the tourney, and its growth is startling. The tourney, hosted by a large soccer club in the region, is nothing special. The outdoor games are played on recreation fields of ranging quality throughout the area as well as at schools. There is no huge singular home for the tournament. The games are spread over a dozen different sites all within a 30-minute drive of Lancaster.
While staying in our hotel in Lancaster last weekend, I spoke with a lot of families. Our hotel was at full capacity with our club’s soccer teams, a soccer club from New Jersey and a handful of basketball teams playing at the nearby SpookyNook sports complex. Each family I spoke with had an average drive of three hours from home. When I asked the general manager what happened to the hotel last year when snow forced the event’s cancellation at the last minute and refunds having to be issued, he said the occupancy went from 100% to 10% and the average room rate dropped from around $200 a night to $80. The hotel had 80 rooms, meaning the nightly gross went from $16,000 to about $640.
Youth sports is a huge market. Lancaster, Pa. has embraced it and is thriving as a result. The hotel general manager I spoke with estimated 30 weekends a year his hotel features young athletes and their families. While not possible to that degree, the Ocean City area should be a player in this market. Currently there is the softball world series in the summer, but that’s largely it as far as major events. There are other smaller events, but they are not the game changers we need to have as regular features on our calendar of events. For many years, Ocean City businesses received a huge off-season boost from the annual St. Patrick’s Day soccer tournaments spread out over several weeks in February and March. That event no longer exists because the teams who traditionally came to Ocean City have been lured to other tournaments. North Ocean City restaurants and hotels miss it.
Though there has been a lot of talk in Ocean City about directing room tax funding to sports marketing, nothing concrete has come of it yet. I’m not sure that’s even necessary. I think it just takes an organized effort and patience as tournaments grow over time. Ocean City has contracted with a consultant for a feasibility study of a potential sports complex with indoor capabilities. I like this concept because I think our area could do what the Hempfield folks do and spread outdoor games out over existing inventory of fields in Ocean City as well as Worcester County when the weather cooperates. When it’s too cold, an indoor tournament could be held with games played at Northside Park, Snow Hill, local schools and the potential new venue.
Back in 2017, on the heels of a market study showing a need, Worcester County contracted a consultant to conduct an economic analysis of a sports complex featuring eight tournament-quality turf fields for soccer and lacrosse. If the county were to move forward with a project on a property of at least 40 acres, the report found four people would need to be hired by the county and the complex may operate at an estimated loss of $136,000 annually. The consultant estimated between March and November as many as 21 tournaments could be held, attracting about 30,000 players and around 80,000 spectators. Direct and indirect annual spending by families was calculated around $35 million. The county is not interested in pursuing any sort of private-public partnership to make it happen. Therefore, it’s in Ocean City’s court.
It’s going to take a leap of faith by the government. It’s a difficult situation with public dollars at the risk. Ocean City seems intent on reviewing the survey results before moving in a direction. My guess is the study will raise more questions than answers, but it shouldn’t deter the effort. It will take a public-private partnership of some sort to accomplish a new complex, similar to what took place in Frederica, Del. with the massive DE Turf complex. The recipe for success is out there. It just takes the commitment.
City Manager Doug Miller recapped the current situation well last month, saying, “We need to determine two things. 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.”
Mayor Rick Meehan said, “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. I believe it will come back positive. I’m just disappointed it’s taken 10 months.”
The good news is the study results are expected to come before Ocean City in December.