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Sports tourism big game for city

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Today’s Big Ten rugby championship is one of 105 sports events projected to generate nearly $12 million in sports-tourism revenue this year for Columbus.

That’s up from 65 sporting events last year with an estimated economic impact of $8.9 million.

Columbus’ sports tourism events this year are expected to draw 2,070 teams and more than 97,000 athletes and spectators to the area through the fall.

They include an American Junior Golf Association Tour event and several United States Specialty Sports Association tournaments. Other scheduled sporting events include biking, cricket, go-kart racing, kickball, running, swimming, tennis, soccer and trap shooting.

Visitors are expected to spend 15,700 room nights at area hotels, while also dining at local restaurants and visiting local stores and attractions.

The Big Ten College Rugby 7s Championship is being held at the Wigh Stadium Field at the Parkside Complex, where the boys and girls state championships also have been conducted.

While it is a bit unusual for a city without a Big Ten team or a major university to host a league championship, “people have commented on how great our facilities are,” said Jim Dietz, director of tourism for the Columbus Area Visitors Center.

Host Big Ten school Indiana University decided to conduct the championship in Columbus, Dietz said.

Big Ten Universities Rugby Conference commissioner Marcus Hurley, a Columbus resident, was instrumental in that decision, he said.

Columbus started focusing on sports tourism in 2003 with just a few tournaments, but through aggressive networking and word-of-mouth, the number of events and the economic impact have grown steadily.

“We probably spent more than we should have on those first few events, but we had some success, and that established a standard and a reputation for us,” Dietz said.

“We became known as a place with nice hotels, great facilities and a good volunteer base where event sponsors and participants would be treated well.”

With the exception of the venues that actually host tournaments, hotels and restaurants benefit most from the sporting events.

Matthew Schwartz, frontline manager at the Texas Roadhouse on East 25th Street, said the impact from softball events at Lincoln Park, located right across the street, is huge.

“We get a lot of teams and larger parties and we do some advertising through them also,” Schwartz said. “When they do have the big (United States Specialty Sports Association) tournaments, we take care of the umpires and try to get them lunch and they send people over. We definitely see a jump in parties and guest counts when they have events.”

This year Otter Creek Golf Course on the city’s east side will again host the American Junior Golf Association Under Armour/Jeff Overton Championship, another high-profile local event.

Otter Creek last year hosted an AJGA event for the first time since 1990.

Dietz said Under Armour was so impressed with last year’s event, it doubled its support for this year’s tournament to $20,000.

Overton, a PGA tour player with more than $11 million in career earnings, has strong ties to the region. The Evansville native played golf for Indiana University and won the 2003 Indiana Amateur at Otter Creek, where his round of 64 is still the course record.

Cindy Waddle, regional manager for Dora Hotels, said sports tourism is one of the most lucrative business initiatives the Columbus area has pursued.

“The impact is phenomenal,” said Waddle, who is property manager for Hotel Indigo. “Since we have been working with sports tourism, we have all seen benefits from the growth.”

She said the city “really throws out the red carpet” and makes the teams feel important and special, which is what they look for.

“The only downside is that we would like to see more of it year-round,” she said.

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