From baseball tournaments to Ironman races, sports tourism is taking off in James City County and the area’s economy is benefiting as a result.
“It’s a huge industry,” said Ruth Larson, a member of the county’s Board of Supervisors. “The thing that is so appealing about sports tourism is that it can be recession-proof because when the economy is bad, adults will still go to things for their children. They’ll still travel to see their children play sports.”
The topic is one that Larson said she is particularly excited about because it feeds into more than just a growing athletic presence for the community—it helps build the economy.
“There’s definitely extra money brought into Williamsburg with these teams from outside the area,” said Kyle Loving, operations manager with the county’s Parks and Recreation Department. “You can see the benefit outside the actual field rentals and fees.”
During the recent Virginia Association of Counties’ annual conference, Larson said sports tourism was a big topic that was covered because it has become a billion-dollar industry across the country.
But in James City County, Larson said there’s something special.
“If a child has a baseball tournament in Williamsburg, [the family] is going to come and participate,” she said. “Which means it’s bringing people here for Busch Gardens or Water Country or Colonial Williamsburg. It feeds into all the different things we have here as well.”
Larson said she is a “well-experienced” traveling sports parent with two daughters who are involved in athletics growing up. When she would travel with their teams, she said she would go to an area’s malls, restaurants, and stay in local hotels. She said that’s something that will happen here too as more families come to the area for sports.
“Sometimes if you go to a restaurant by the WISC, you might have to wait an extra five minutes because they’re busy,” she said. “But that means they’re eating in our restaurants, contributing to local taxes.”
There are a number of fields, trails, lakes and parks in James City County that provide adequate venues for sporting activities. Larson said frequently, she hears of many of the county’s Parks and Recreation services being booked because it is so popular.
Loving said the Warhill Sports Complex, which he oversees, typically has about 20 to 30 various tournaments each year. These usually are booked in advance and fill up quickly. He said the most common tournaments are lacrosse and soccer.
In addition, Larson said a focus on sports tourism benefits locals in more ways than just economically — it allows the area to continue adding new resources that better local teams and provide healthy options for residents.
“I think the more venues you have that encourage healthy habits, the better,” she said. “When people see something like a triathlon here, it peaks your interest and you think about participating…Anything you’re doing that helps people get out and moving, the better.”
Larson said there aren’t any county initiatives for sports tourism at the time, but the county is looking at the topic with keen interest.
Loving said last year, the county spent approximately $3 million on replacing all seven turf fields at the Warhill Sports Complex.
“It’s a large expense but I think localities that make that investment would see that impact on the entire region,” he said.
She added the topic is brought up in Tourism Council meetings and other various committees, but there haven’t been any decisions made on how to best approach the topic going into the future.
“For me, it’s an evolving conversation,” she said, adding the county is looking at and working with surrounding localities in order to gauge the best direction.
“We can’t necessarily get wrapped up in where ownership is,” she said. “We have to look at a bigger picture and see how we would all benefit. There’s hotels and restaurants in all three localities. Frankly, we wouldn’t have sports tourism in this area if it weren’t for regional cooperation.”
Moving forward, Larson said the county will continue to consider the ways it can expand into sports tourism as a tool to strengthen the local economy.