America’s smallest state is a big player on the athletic scene

Like every state in the Union, Rhode Island was hit hard by widespread event cancellations brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Ocean State suffered losses of around $7 million in economic impact as a multitude of events ranging from cheerleading to NCAA tournament men’s basketball games were canceled.

While 2020 was bleak, 2021 and beyond is showing signs of optimism for America’s smallest state.

“I feel confident that our outdoor season this summer should be intact, at least on a limited scale,” said John Gibbons, executive director of the Rhode Island Sports Commission. “We are prepared to be up and running. Our venues will be prepared and our convention center will be ready to go sometime this spring.”

Rhode Island Sports Commission

Traditionally, Rhode Island has proven itself to be an impeccable host, having accommodated such prestigious events as the aforementioned NCAA men’s basketball tournament, NCAA men’s ice hockey regional play and the popular WaterFire Providence, which presents groundbreaking art experiences on the rivers of downtown Providence.

One large reason this coastal New England state has earned such a sterling reputation is the work of the Rhode Island Sports Commission, whose mission is to enrich the state’s economy and community through the attraction, promotion and development of sporting events and associated meetings. The commission, a division of the Providence Warwick Convention & Visitors Bureau, helps planners choose which venues and cities are best suited to host an event.

Given that Rhode Island is often lauded as one of the most alluring states in the country and its capital city Providence consistently lands on “Best Places to Live” lists, it’s no surprise planners often make a beeline to the state. Rhode Island is also blessed with an excellent location as Providence resides a scant 50 miles from Boston, 183 miles from New York City and 273 miles from Philadelphia.


Providence is also home to a slew of quality facilities including the Dunkin’ Donuts Center, a multi-use 14,000-seat arena that offers 31,000 square feet of arena space, a 25,000-square-foot concourse and underwent an $80 million renovation in recent years. Another top-flight venue is the Rhode Island Convention Center in downtown Providence, which features 130,000 square feet of exhibition space and houses a 100,000-square-foot exhibition hall, 20,000-square-foot grand ballroom and 23 multipurpose meeting rooms. The Providence Career and Technical Academy contains some of Providence’s most state-of-the-art athletic facilities and offers seating for around 1,800 in a 65,000-square-foot fieldhouse. Inside the majestic steel and glass building is space for events such as track and field meets, basketball games and tournaments, cheerleading competitions and more.

Brown University, also in Providence, is one of the nation’s most prestigious Ivy League schools and has also proven to be an excellent host for athletics. Renowned for its academics, Brown is home to a variety of outstanding venues that host regional and national events. The university offers four newly renovated multipurpose outdoor fields, a pool rental in the new state-of-the-art aquatics center and a 20,000-seat stadium.

With a wealth of top facilities to choose from, it’s no surprise the NCAA, in its most recent round of awarding championship host sites between 2022 and 2026, awarded Providence four future events including men’s basketball and hockey.

“It’s a blessing that we were awarded those events,” Gibbons said. “(The NCAA men’s basketball tournament) is scheduled to come back to Providence in March of 2025. I’m thrilled to have it back. It’s nationally televised, people love it, it’s always a sellout. We hosted the NCAA tournament in 2010 and 2016 and both were a huge success.”

More than just a hoops haven

Hockey is another sport that has an exceptional relationship with Rhode Island.

“We’ve also always had a very good track record with NCAA men’s ice hockey,” Gibbons said. “We will typically host an East or Northeast regional and we had a cycle where we were getting it every other year.

“The hockey people are chomping at the bit and ready to go,” Gibbons added. “I have three summer hockey tournaments signed and ready to go the first three weekends in June.”

While Rhode Island has proven itself to be an exceptional host for traditional sports, its multifaceted nature makes it ideal to host less-conventional sports. Like Bridge, for example.

“The biggest event I book is the National American Contract Bridge League,” Gibbons said. “We are scheduled to host their summer championships this July. They contract out our convention center for 12 nights and they book, on average, 1,200 room nights per night. It’s got an economic impact in the $6 to $7 million range. I hosted the event in 2014, it was a huge success. They hosted WaterFire, the last time they were in town.”

WaterFire draws a crowd

Perhaps Rhode Island’s most popular festival, WaterFire is an award-winning fire sculpture installation on the three rivers in downtown Providence. Created by local artist Barnaby Evans, WaterFire has become a must-see for visitors as it centers around a series of nearly 100 bonfires that blaze just above the surface of the three rivers that pass through the middle of downtown Providence. The string of fires illuminates nearly two-thirds of a mile of urban public spaces and parks as residents and visitors gather to stroll along the river, listening to music and watching performances. Boats pass quietly before the flames, as black-clad performers tend to the fires from sunset to midnight.

Typically, WaterFire is held May through November, usually on Saturday evenings about twice a month. The event is free and the public is encouraged to attend. Its popularity is a huge boon for visitors who come to town when a tournament is taking place.

by Jason Paha