Athletics are big business, and Fort Worth wants to grow its slice of the pie.
This weekend’s NCAA women’s gymnastics championship at the Fort Worth Convention Center was expected to bring more than $2 million to the local economy, but that’s a tiny piece of the market. Fans spend more than $10 billion annually traveling for sporting events.
Jason Sands, Visit Fort Worth’s director of sports, thinks the city can tap in to a large chunk of the growing sports tourism market, especially with the 14,000-seat Dickies Arena opening this fall.
The $540 million arena will play host to three years of the collegiate gymnastics finals as well as the first- and second-round games of the NCAA men’s basketball tournament in 2022. Dickies will also host the American Athletic Conference men’s basketball championships from 2020 to 2022.
Plus, Texas Motor Speedway in far north Fort Worth hosts two NASCAR weekends and an IndyCar race each year, bringing tens of thousands of visitors to the city.
Sporting events, like conventions, draw thousands from across the country and are Fort Worth’s chance to introduce itself to a national audience. Between those who visit and those who see Fort Worth locales on ESPN, sports can be the city’s introduction to tourists, Sands said.
“This stuff is immeasurable in terms of elevating Fort Worth in the national conversation,” Sands said.
These events are just the beginning of Fort Worth as sports destination, Sands said.
At the end of May, Visit Fort Worth expects the results of a study that specifically looked at youth athletics. The study could recommend new or enhanced facilities to attract more tournaments, Sands said.
He pointed to Omaha, Neb., which has made a name for itself hosting youth and college baseball tournaments as an example of Fort Worth’s ambitions, either with gymnastics or another sport.
“When you think of baseball you think Omaha,” Sands said. “That’s what we’re trying to build here.”
The gymnastics final brought teams from across the country including LSU, UCLA, Oklahoma and Oregon State for the Friday and Saturday meets. By Thursday morning, fans had bought about 20,000 tickets.
Those fans included Scott Monson, a University of Utah supporter from Los Angeles who said he hasn’t missed a national gymnastics meet in 30 years. Typically Monson and his partner have just enough time to “eat, drink and go to the next meet,” he said Thursday morning during the tournament’s open practice.
But that doesn’t mean they weren’t spending money in Fort Worth. Monson said he almost never sets a travel budget.
“We have disposable income, so we just go for it,” he said. “We like to eat well, so we’ve got to get a steak. We’re in Texas after all.”
A change in the way gymnastics tournaments are held may shorten meets by as much as two hours, he said, giving them more time to explore. The historic Fort Worth Stockyards and the Cultural District were on the list.
Other sporting events in Dallas-Fort Worth also draw folks west.
Becky and Lori Thomsen came from northern New Jersey with their nephew Marc Garcia to watch family friend Nicolas Palangio play in the Dallas Cup. Seeing Fort Worth was worth the trek from their hotel in Addison. The group walked around the Fort Worth Water Gardens Thursday morning before heading to the Stockyards.
They enjoy Fort Worth’s history and approachable atmosphere, they said.
“This feels like real Texas,” Lori Thomsen said. “Everyone is just so friendly.”
The community benefit goes beyond money and introducing outsiders to Cowtown, Sands said.
Besides the gymnastics tournament promoting local gymnastics clubs, the meet was used as a prize for Fort Worth schools’ Readers Become Leaders challenge. Elementary student finalists in the reading competition were able to attend Thursday’s open practice.
“These are kids who may never have seen gymnastics and they got a chance to see world class athletes,” he said.