Why you should care
When done right, large sporting events can be cash cows for small towns.
On a rainy October afternoon in Buchanan, Michigan, a crowd of people cheering and waving flags from dozens of countries stood in the mud. Motocross racers in uniforms as colorful as the flags zipped around the track at RedBud MX, the host site of the 2018 Monster Energy FIM Motocross of Nations (MXoN).
MXoN is considered the Olympics of motocross. Three-member teams represent their country against other nations — 31 in all — drawing fans from far and wide. This year, an estimated 80,000-plus people visited the track, making it the largest-ever motocross event in the United States, according to MXoN organizer Youthstream. Not bad for a city of fewer than 5,000.
“Motocross is a sport for the passionate and has its roots in the countryside, not in a big city. For those reasons, we are very proud to have brought the MXoN to Buchanan,” says David Luongo, vice president of Youthstream. But just because Buchanan is particularly well-equipped for an international motocross competition doesn’t mean other towns can’t host sporting events of this magnitude. In fact, they should.
As an event or tournament grows, it can eventually balloon into something massive.
According to Stacy-Lynn Sant, a Michigan University professor with expertise in sports management, the Olympics and marketing, research suggests sporting events in small cities are less risky because those cities often commit only to events they can reasonably host. “You’re not building a facility that cost 10, 20 million dollars, and then trying to figure out what to do with it to recoup the cost,” Sant says. That’s a stark contrast to major international sporting events, such as the Olympics, which reportedly lose money for its host city, or the upcoming World Cup in Qatar, which has already sunk $200 billion into building the necessary infrastructure.
While the Ritchie family, which owns RedBud MX, did invest in VIP grandstands and purchased additional land for MXoN, Amy Ritchie confidently says it was a financially successful event for the track. The overall benefit to Buchanan and the surrounding communities was likely massive. An economic impact report is not yet available, but the local government didn’t have to subsidize the event, so its restaurants, campgrounds and grocery stores reaped the benefits with little financial risk to the community.
“This is huge. It really puts Michigan on the map, if you’re going to look at it on a broader spectrum,” says decorated motorsport athlete Travis Pastrana, who participated in MXoN after 12 years of retirement from motocross racing. According to the Visit South Bend-Mishawaka tourism office, 1,400 hotel rooms were booked in the South Bend area over the weekend — an impressive feat considering Notre Dame’s football team was on the road. About 1,600 RVs parked on RedBud’s campground, with another 170 at Bear Cave Campground down the road — well over its capacity. According to Ritchie, the county fairgrounds also filled up with a couple hundred campers. “There was a bigger demand for camping than we anticipated. My gosh, I should have had an RV rental company!” she says. Ritchie had assumed the international visitors would stay in hotels rather than rent RVs.
While MXoN was a hit for the Buchanan area this year, it moves to the Netherlands in 2019, and there’s no guarantee it will return to RedBud. Per Sant, the more often a town or city can host an event, the better equipped and more efficient it becomes at running it.
Take Aspen, Colorado. Its population is fewer than 7,000 people, yet it has been the home of the Winter X Games for 17 consecutive years and counting. Today, the games draw roughly 100,000 people annually and provide the community $17.8 million in economic impact, according to Michael Popke of Sports Destination Management.
Aspen may be the pinnacle, but another route small towns can take to attract large sports gatherings is to host large recreational sporting events. “Look at these multisport, multi-facility fields that are kind of being built in the middle of nowhere for all these youth teams,” says Tim Otteman of the Central Michigan University Department of Recreation, Parks and Leisure Services. “From a tourism standpoint, it has completely changed the vision of those little cities.”
While this might seem like small potatoes compared with MXoN or the X Games, these small-scale sporting events can provide consistent streams of tourism revenue, according to both Sant and Otteman. Plus, as an event or tournament grows, it can eventually balloon into something massive.
Gus Macker 3-on-3 basketball tournaments started in Lowell, Michigan, in the mid-1970s in Scott McNeal’s driveway. As the tournament grew, he moved it to Belding, Michigan; at its apex, in 1992, the tournament drew more than 5,000 teams and 100,000 tourists. Belding is a town of about 5,700 people. “It put Belding on the map, and that’s kind of its legacy now,” Otteman says. “It’s the home of Gus Macker.”
Of course, these events don’t always go off without a hitch. At the 1998 U.S. 500 at Michigan Speedway in Brooklyn, Michigan, a one-car crash sent a tire and other parts flying into the nearby grandstand, killing three and injuring six. Proper safety precautions are essential to small sporting events’ success and replicability.
Towns looking to ramp up their tourism and media coverage with sporting events should start small and find events that fit their communities. Located by the ocean? Try hosting surfing tournaments. Have a lot of open, flat land? Youth soccer tournaments could be perfect. “If that’s [your city’s] plan, you don’t have to go for the major events,” says Sant. ”You just have to find a couple of niche events. If a population is interested in particular sports, it’s easier to host.”
From there, the event could snowball into a destination, attracting visitors from all over. Just ask the Ritchies. “I don’t think in the beginning we ever thought [RedBud] would lead to something like Motocross of Nations, but I guess it makes sense,” Ritchie says. “If you’re going to continue to upgrade and make things better, somebody is going to notice and good things will happen.”
Just because the towns are small doesn’t mean the revenue has to be.