With its white sandy beaches, imperial mountains and serene lakes, Alabama has long been known as a vacation gem.That secret, evidently, is out, as Alabama tourism spending reached an all-time high of $14.3 billion in 2017 with a record 26 million travelers having visited the state according to a report released by the state tourism department. The $1 billion surge in tourism spending is the largest dollar value increase the state has seen.
While there are a variety of reasons Alabama’s popularity continues to swell, its sterling reputation among sports tournament planners certainly helped pay for generous portions of the hospitality industry’s $627.5 million generated in state taxes, $251.6 million in local revenue and $70 million in lodging taxes.
“Our destinations throughout Alabama offer rights holders the opportunity to host large events or tournaments of all sizes,” said Don Dukemineer, deputy director of sports tourism for Foley Sports Tourism and chairman of Sports Alabama. “This state has a lot to offer and people are surprised when they visit. They have an event, attendees have a good time and they want to come back.”
Dukemineer is an expert in the state’s sports tourism industry, having been chairman of Sports Alabama since 2008. The Alabama Sports Initiative, also known as Sports Alabama, was created in 2006 to help members of the Alabama Association of Destination Marketing Organizations participate in sports tradeshows to position Alabama as a superior sports destination.
Sports Alabama was funded and established as a cohesive team of convention & visitors bureaus from around the state, working together to attract tournaments, conferences, and sporting events to Alabama. By helping offset costs and creating promotional marketing pieces for the organization, Sports Alabama allows its members to partner together to attend trade shows and explore opportunities for future business.
“Our mission is first, to promote the state of Alabama,” Dukemineer said. “We’d rather see sporting events played in Alabama, than to choose another state to visit. Our team works well together. For example, if an event can’t work for one destination, they’ll send the information to another partner that might be a better fit. We like to give our members the chance to work with rights holders to highlight the great facilities, destinations and communities we have in Alabama.”
“My No. 1 key objective for the team is to not be selfish and think bigger than yourself,” Dukemineer said. “If an event can’t be hosted in one community, where could it work in Alabama? How can we continue this great partnership that is beneficial for all, while continuing to attract visitors to the state? Because once they get here, once they put their feet on the ground, they are blown away. They can’t wait to come back as soon as possible.”
Sports Alabama members include Huntsville/Madison County CVB, Visit Florence, Decatur Morgan County Tourism, Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Sports Commission, Auburn Opelika Tourism, Visit Dothan, Montgomery Chamber/CVB, Visit Mobile, Tuscaloosa Tourism & Sports, Foley Sports Tourism, Greater Gadsden Area Tourism and Cullman Parks & Recreation. That group’s close-knit relationship has helped Sports Alabama thrive in its efforts to promote the attributes of its member destinations as well as the entire state.
“We’ve continued to build upon and strengthen Sports Alabama throughout the years,” Dukemineer said. “We strive to be self-sustainable by utilizing our membership fees and financial support from the Alabama Tourism Department strategically. We allocate those funds towards show sponsorships and hosted events at conferences that offer us our best return on investment.”
“We have some smaller DMOs within our team, and Sports Alabama provides them an opportunity to attend shows to meet with rights holders. It enables them to meet with people face to face, while hopefully opening the door for them to be a part of the game.”
While football is the No. 1 sports income producer in the state (the most recent economic study showed the University of Alabama and Auburn University’s football teams alone combined to generate $500 million in economic impact), Alabama has increasingly become a haven for numerous other sports as well. Soccer, baseball, softball, basketball, lacrosse, fishing, Ultimate and disc golf have all shown considerable growth in the state. This uptick in athletic participation gives Sports Alabama extra ammunition in its efforts to promote the state’s sporting assets.
“Football is always going to be big here, whether you yell “Roll Tide” or “War Eagle,” Dukemineer said. “But we’re also seeing growth in new sports to our areas from families that are moving here. When people visit, they think they are going to be charged an arm and a leg, but once they’re here, they realize they can host an affordable event. That reality is a huge asset for us. Our destinations affordability and willingness to bend over backwards to help, makes people happy and eager to bring their events back, regardless of the sport.”
Sports Alabama’s growth mirrors that of the state’s tourism numbers as the organization has increased from six original members to its current 12 with other CVBs showing potential interest to further the organization’s expansion. But while the state and Sports Alabama are enjoying considerable prosperity, Dukemineer wants more.
“One goal for me is for (Sports Alabama) to never rest on our laurels,” Dukemineer said. “We are always asking how can we improve our marketing and our mission and how can we continue to attract events to the state. We have a lot of different sports being played throughout Alabama. We would like to have a huge event that brings in a large number of people who will be able to experience all this state has to offer.
“We don’t just say we’re ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ for nothing,” Dukemineer added.