The impact of sports on the local economy and quality of life in the Peoria area is vast and multi-faceted.
Peoria has long been known as a dedicated sports town. Several years ago, a SportsBusiness Journal survey ranked Peoria sixth in the nation among minor league sports markets. Another study from a few years back calculated the annual financial impact of sports on the Peoria-area economy at a cool $61 million. Certainly, there is no question that sports is a major part of the local economy—and in ways that the average person may not consider.
At the professional level, the Peoria Chiefs and Peoria Rivermen, affiliates of the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Blues respectively, are the region’s most visible sports clubs. At the college level, Bradley University sports offers a strong legacy, most notably with its men’s basketball program, but also in softball, baseball, soccer and more.
There is, of course, the IHSA Boys’ Basketball Tournament, one of the nation’s premier scholastic sporting events, which has drawn tens of thousands of spectators to the Peoria Civic Center for each of the past 16 years.
Each June, the Steamboat Classic attracts athletes from all over the world. Several of the elite runners at Steamboat have gone on to set world records and win Olympic medals—garnering international recognition for Peoria.
And this August, nearly 35,000 spectators will attend the Grand National TT Motorcycle Races, injecting hundreds of thousands of dollars into the local economy.
Major sporting events are a magnet for attracting visitors—and those valuable tourism dollars. Our professional teams create a direct economic impact with their paid staff and the athletes who live here. Our high schools, colleges, universities and other organizations that conduct sporting events support staff and facilities, and make purchases from local sports retailers. And there are many other, less quantifiable benefits of sports on the region—ranging from quality-of-life issues to the introduction of Peoria to outside visitors—all of which aid local employers in their recruiting and retention efforts.
In considering the impact of sports, the natural tendency is to focus on the highly visible events. Just about everyone understands the significance of the IHSA basketball tournament, for example, but even within the realm of high school sports, other events may well have an equally large impact on the region—and in particular, the tourism and hospitality industry.
One event that has been close to my heart for many years is the IHSA State Cross Country Championships, held at Peoria’s Detweiller Park every November since 1970. This event is unique because it’s the only IHSA sport that includes all three classes and both genders competing at the same venue on the same day. That adds up to nearly 1,200 competitors—far more participants than a 12-on-12 game of basketball.
These 1,200 kids—along with their coaches, parents, friends and other supporters—will visit central Illinois, with estimates of total attendance ranging from 20,000 to 25,000. Many will stay overnight, and some will stay for multiple nights. While the event is on Saturday morning, quite a few will come to town on Thursday afternoon. And while they’re here, they will visit local restaurants, purchase gas at local stations, and patronize area retailers.
In the months leading up to the championships, area schools host four large high school invitational meets, which also draw significant numbers of visitors. The Woodruff Invitational and Notre Dame Invitational each bring more than 3,000 participants to the area. Peoria High hosts an invitational with almost 600 participants, while Peoria Heights hosts an event for the smaller schools with another 600 participants. These events thrive because teams from across the state want to gain exposure to the course at Detweiller.
During each of these events, significant numbers of people will fill area hotel beds. But even when there are not overnight stays, just about everyone will eat a meal or two at restaurants and fill their cars with gas before leaving town.
Success Begets Success
The great success of the IHSA Cross Country and Boys’ Basketball Championships has helped attract other collegiate events with their own significant impact on the area economy. In the past decade, Bradley has hosted the NCAA Regional Cross Country Championships, with close to 500 athlete participants. Schools participating in the event include half of the Big 10, half of the Big 12 and nearly all of the Missouri Valley Conference.
Under the leadership of Athletics Director Sue Sinclair, Illinois Central College has been very active in hosting National Junior Collegiate Athletic Association (NJCAA) championship events, from women’s basketball to volleyball. In 2009, the junior college also hosted the NJCAA National Cross Country Championships. In addition to the impact on area hotels and restaurants, many of these participants fly into Peoria’s airport, rent vehicles and charter shuttle services.
This June, the IHSA Class A and AA State Baseball Finals will come to Peoria’s O’Brien Field for the first time. Peoria last hosted the IHSA Baseball Tournament in 1977, and it will host the finals for the next five years.
Did you know that the largest activity conducted by the IHSA is not even a sports event at all? It’s the annual IHSA Chess Tournament that takes place at the Civic Center—and it brings thousands of participants to central Illinois.
All of these events are made possible because of the great reputation and strong working partnerships that Peoria has built up with sports organizations like the IHSA over time. And these are just a handful of examples of lesser-known sports activities that make a huge impact on the area.
A Network of Sports Business
In addition to the economic impact of the events themselves, measured in local tourism dollars, there are many other less tangible benefits. These state and national tournaments and other events introduce high school and college-age kids to Peoria. For many, this is their first exposure to the area. A positive first impression helps Bradley University recruit students, and it helps Caterpillar and other major employers recruit employees to the area.
Our wealth of sporting events for both spectators and participants supports the recruiting and retention efforts of these organizations by enhancing the region’s quality of life. To attract people to the area, there must be things to do and places to go. Sports fans in Peoria are afforded the chance to see the next Major League Baseball or NHL star, while Steamboat participants can run right alongside Olympians. And with employers encouraging their employees and families to be more physically active, the area’s many running, walking and bicycling events provide great opportunities to get fit—and raise money for good causes at the same time.
And then there are our local sports specialty retailers, whose entire businesses are based around sports. Running Central, Bushwhacker, Illinois Valley Cycle, Russell’s Cycling, 4 Kicks, Little Ade’s Bicycles, Illini Golf, Mullvain Motorsports and Grayboy Motorsports are among those that cater to the region’s athletic needs, in addition to providing valuable support and sponsorships.
Take Running Central, for example. The store is now one of the top five specialty run retailers in the country for selling Reebok products. Reebok now uses its partnership with Running Central, the Illinois Valley Striders and the Steamboat Classic as a model for its event sponsorship activities.
In fact, Peoria is recognized nationally for its successful sports-based fundraising. Many local not-for-profit and volunteer organizations conduct sports events as a part of their signature fundraising activities. The largest participatory sports event in the region is the Komen Race for the Cure. In its 26-year history, this event has raised millions of dollars for breast cancer awareness and breast health initiatives, the majority of which are returned to the area in the form of grants to local agencies. The St. Jude Memphis to Peoria Run and its various satellite runs have raised millions of dollars for the St. Jude Midwest Affiliate at Children’s Hospital of Illinois.
The region also boasts a knowledgeable sports medicine industry that understands both injury prevention and care. Organizations like Great Plains Sports Medicine and Midwest Orthopaedic employ many local people—and even have a global reach. The late Dr. Bernie Cahill, who helped form Great Plains, was a pioneer in the field. A member of the College of Sports Medicine Hall of Fame, he taught many physicians and athletic trainers throughout the country, and his teaching had an impact on the curricula at the University of Illinois College of Medicine at Peoria.
All of these different areas of sports business help to reinforce each other and spawn organic growth in many different ways.
Why It Plays in Peoria
The growing number of sporting events that take place here don’t happen by accident. Besides financial support from area businesses, the Peoria area offers three key strengths that make these events work well and give our region a competitive advantage. These are: our location, our facilities and our volunteers.
With its central location in the Heart of Illinois, Peoria is easily accessible to the rest of the state—and the country. Nearly half of the country’s population lives within a day’s drive of the region. With direct flights to eight U.S. cities, the General Wayne A. Downing Peoria International Airport allows us to attract national events as well, such as the NCAA Regional Cross Country Championships hosted by Bradley University.
The Peoria area offers a variety of facilities that work very well for these events—the Civic Center and downtown hotels, Detweiller and other area parks, Eastside Centre, O’Brien Field and Shea Stadium among them. When the Civic Center hosts the IHSA basketball championships, the weekend is not limited to competitive basketball; it also includes the March Madness Experience and all that accompanies it. It’s rare to find an arena that’s also connected to an exhibit hall—not many venues could showcase both.
East Peoria’s EastSide Centre is a superb facility, hosting the IHSA State Softball Championships each year, as well as the National Softball Association’s Super World Series, and many other tournaments and competitions. Across the river in Mossville, the Midwest Sports Complex is one of the largest privately owned soccer facilities in the country, hosting tournaments and leagues throughout the season.
Finally, central Illinois is rich in the spirit of volunteerism, and our volunteers are perhaps the key reason that sports events work so well here. Great credit should be given to the Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Peoria Area Sports Commission for landing those events, but let’s not forget the importance of the many affiliated organizations that bring out their volunteers to help facilitate them. Local soccer, running and cycling clubs, for example, are essential in attracting, hosting and conducting these large-scale events.
The IHSA basketball tournament works so well in part because it uses the same game management crew as Bradley does, all of whom are volunteers—and among the finest in the country. This makes the conducting of two weekends of basketball tournaments efficient and effective, both for the IHSA and the community, and that has allowed the IHSA to become very confident conducting its championship events here. Similarly, at the NJCAA National Cross Country Championships, ICC used essentially the same crew of volunteers that manage the IHSA and Bradley cross-country meets.
The Peoria Park District is another essential collaborative partner. They are involved in almost all of these large events and activities in some way, from providing facilities and professional staff to marketing and volunteer coordination. The Peoria Police Department and the City of Peoria’s City Services Departments also play vital, often unrecognized, roles in the success of these large events.
Impact Far and Wide
As you can see, the impact of sports on central Illinois goes far beyond what can be quantified, or what is highly visible. Its value to the region extends into areas that the average person may not even consider.
Who’s to know that one of the parents at this year’s cross-country championships is not also the decision maker at a company looking at options for relocation? A positive experience at Detweiller Park in November could mean a new company opening up shop in the Warehouse District in March. That may seem like a stretch, but those things do happen. And we will owe it all to the hospitality of our dedicated volunteers, the outstanding quality of our facilities, and a long track record of success in the sports arena. iBi
Philip Lockwood has been at the intersection of sports and business for many years. He is vice president of IPICO Sports and race director for the world-renowned Steamboat Classic and Race for the Cure.