West Michigan experienced a 54.5-percent drop in sports events during the pandemic last year, which led to a 76.1-percent decrease in visitor spending compared to a banner 2019, according to a new report.
The numbers released by the West Michigan Sports Commission (WMSC), which promotes economic development in the region through sports tourism, quantified what was clearly a disastrous year for local and regional sports events.
The COVID-19 pandemic wiped out a large swath of events, and those that were able to continue faced crowd restrictions and other barriers.
Despite the pandemic, the WMSC still hosted 45 events that attracted 35,384 athletes and generated $13 million in direct visitor spending in 2020, which still fell 48.9 percent short of forecasts.
The year was also well off the pace set by an active 2019 that saw 99 events held in West Michigan, generating nearly $54.4 million in direct visitor spending.
Most of 2020’s events were baseball and softball events held at the West Michigan Sports Complex — formerly known as the Art Van Sports Complex — in the summer while health restrictions were more relaxed.
“Once we saw the case counts drop in the summer and the restrictions lifted, we were able to operate and it felt almost as though it was a normal year,” WMSC president Mike Guswiler told MiBiz. “We didn’t see as many travel teams as we typically do, but (activity at the complex) was a shining light.”
This year’s events filled 20,287 hotel room nights, which was 55.9 percent below the WMSC’s projections for the year.
The Meijer State Games is one of the signature events put on by a WMSC affiliate. This year, the Winter Games were held in person but the Summer Games were affected by COVID and were forced to go to a virtual format. This led to a 53.2-percent decrease in events for the State Games with the number of participating athletes plummeting 75.9 percent and hotel nights falling 69.1 percent compared to 2019.
Despite the brutal numbers, Guswiler is optimistic about 2021 and expects sports tourism to rebound quicker than almost any other segment of tourism.
“There is opportunity on the horizon, we see it coming back,” Guswiler said. “Are we at full speed? Certainly not. But at least with the case counts dropping and vaccinations increasing, it’s looking more and more promising.”
Meanwhile, the WMSC has worked to create new revenue streams for the organization. This includes a new partnership with the Aquinas College baseball program, which now uses the West Michigan Sport Complex as its home field and will kick off its new season in March.
The WMSC also now manages the office for the National Congress of State Games, an organization of 30 summer state games and 10 winter state games organizations that put on the biennial State Games of America, which Grand Rapids hosted in 2017.
These ventures were not necessarily borne out of pandemic.
“The National Congress was needing office space and a home and what it allowed us to do was share staff members. … It works out well for us,” Guswiler said. “We moved into new office space last year so certainly we have that capability. That was a good partnership.”