Group attracts sports that create a sizable economic impact for Illinois

When it comes to hosting sporting events, few states can rival what Illinois has to offer.

The Land of Lincoln is not only home to Chicago, the third-largest city in America and a sports-crazed town, it also houses a diverse array of smaller cities that enthusiastically embrace competitions.

Each year, Illinois hosts events for hundreds of organizers, rights holders and governing bodies. These include amateur tournaments, regionals, qualifiers, championships and professional competitions.

Sports Illinois, the official event planner resource for hosting a sporting event in the state, is the catalyst behind attracting these competitions. Sports Illinois’ goal is to attract, recruit or retain state, regional and national events that increase travel and overnight stays in Illinois. The organization does this as it creates innovative, strategically driven direct sales and marketing and promotional campaigns. They also generate leads through tradeshow partnerships and provides educational opportunities to its members and partners. Membership of Sports Illinois is comprised of sales personnel from all certified Illinois convention and visitors bureaus tasked with selling their communities to national governing bodies and rights holders of varying sporting events.

“As a key and integral part of recovery in the economic development of our state, Sports Illinois has been a huge partner in bringing sporting events into the state for attraction recruitment and retainment for those events,” said Greg Mihalich, Illinois Department of Commerce & Economic Opportunity, Office of Tourism. “Sporting events increase travel and overnight stays in our state and that’s been vitally important to us.”

Sports Illinois’ humble beginnings can be traced back to 1994 when the Illinois Department of Commerce and Economic Opportunity, Office of Tourism laid the foundation and committed resources for Illinois communities to capture a share of the sport tourism niche market. That year, the department recognized the importance and financial impact sports travel could have on communities thanks to the overwhelming success of the 1994 Men’s World Cup, which was partially held in Illinois and recorded an estimated economic impact of $230 million.

At that time, many convention and visitor bureaus focused on securing bus groups and meetings and conventions, but Illinois identified the sports market as a growing, untapped resource of visitors in the state. Research showed communities that attract, create and host organized sport-related events benefit economically through booked room nights, maximize use of sports facilities and traditional tourism infrastructure (hotels, restaurants, stores and gas stations, to name a few). It was then DCEO/IOT laid the foundation and committed resources for Illinois communities to capture a share of the sport tourism niche market though the formation of the Sports Illinois organization. Since then, Sports Illinois has evolved in partnership with the Illinois Council of Convention and Visitors Bureau to what it is today with 37 Convention and Visitor Bureau partners.

“Sports Illinois has been and continues to be a force to reckon with in the sports tourism industry,” said Joan Kranovich, chair of Sports Illinois. “Illinois contains a multitude of diverse, quality and affordable facilities for sporting events, but our real treasure is the family of individuals who represent their respective destinations and make sure that all sporting events, big or small, have success and grow.”

“As one of the first state-led sports tourism organizations in the country, Sports Illinois has been a leader in Sports Tourism for almost 30 years,” said Pete Garlock, director of sales of the Aurora Area Convention & Visitors Bureau and former chair of Sports Illinois from 2007 to 2013.

“Sports Illinois can be easily found at many national sports tradeshows in a collective front, whether as a group in a large booth on the convention floor, as a sponsor of one of the many amenities offered at the show or hosting rights holders to a fun night out on the town.”

Illinois is considered a Tier 1 destination due to it being centrally located and easily accessible by most any mode of transportation. An integral part of the way it does this is through a premier event held within the state, the Sports Illinois Huddle.

First held in 2009, this semi-annual event has taken on a new level of pride for the Illinois sports market. The Sports Illinois Huddle is an educational conference and tradeshow created, designed, and produced by Sports Illinois to showcase the state and region’s sports facility assets to sports event owners, rights holders and major decision makers.

The Huddle has been a sizable contributor to bringing amateur events to the state, generating well over $13.2 million in economic impact according to the Illinois Office of Tourism. It has helped the state attract such major sports organizations as Airsoft Republic, Game Day USA, the United States Specialty Sports Association, the Professional Disc Golf Association, USA Ultimate, the American Cornhole Association and NXT Lacrosse. The 2019 Sports Illinois Huddle yielded more than 15,000 contracted hotel room nights and a projected economic impact of $3,345,792 for the 16 Illinois destinations who attended.

The Sports Illinois Huddle was held at the formerly named U.S. Cellular Field, home of the Chicago White Sox. Photo courtesy of Illinois Office of Tourism

The Sports Illinois Huddle was held at the formerly named U.S. Cellular Field, home of the Chicago White Sox. Photo courtesy of Illinois Office of Tourism

“During my time as Chair of Sports Illinois, having established ourselves as a force in sports destinations, we had many states reach out asking for advice on creating sports tourism groups in their own states,” Garlock said. “In 2009 we held the inaugural Sports Illinois Huddle as a way for NGB’s and Right Holders to not only learn about what great venues Illinois has to offer, but to also see them first-hand.”

With the Sports Huddle going strong and Illinois’ 37 Convention and Visitor Bureau partners working together harmoniously, Mihalich is excited about the state’s future as it continues to attract bigger sporting events.

“We’re working together trying to figure out how to continue to invest in the sports market,” Mihalich said. “Through conferences, trade shows, marketing promotions and grant opportunities for event owners or CVBs, we’re going to continue to see how we can help from that perspective. We are certainly looking forward to achieving new goals and continuing to drive tourism through sporting events.”

By Jason Paha