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OUR OPINION: Grand Forks should commit to becoming Sports City

Once upon a time, South Dakota tourism centered on the western part of the state. But you don’t need Mt. Rushmore to pull in tens of thousands of visitors anymore.

In fact, some number of people who once would have spent their dollars in the Mt. Rushmore area now may be staying in Sioux Falls in eastern South Dakota. The city fills up with well-heeled visitors most weekends, because it has become a Midwestern hub of one of the strongest and fastest-growing segments of tourism: youth sports.

Grand Forks should pay attention, because this market still is expanding. And there seem to be plenty of traveling teams to go around.

“From 2005-12, sports events booked and scheduled through the Sioux Falls Convention and Visitors Bureau have generated approximately 217 events, 528,645 people and more than $113 million in estimated economic impact,” the Sioux Falls Area Chamber of Commerce’s newsletter reports.

Last weekend alone, some 123 boys’ basketball teams from throughout the Midwest took part in the Summer Slam tournament at the nine-court Sanford Pentagon facility. Figure eight to 10 players on each team, plus two or three coaches plus a set of parents for most of the boys, and you’ve got several thousand visitors descending on Sioux Falls and spending generously on restaurants, hotel rooms, gasoline and everything else for two to four days.

And that’s money those families didn’t spend in the Black Hills.

Of course, this isn’t really news in Grand Forks, which has hosted successful youth tournaments for years in a number of sports, especially hockey.

What’s new, though, is the incredible growth in “sport tourism” nationwide, and the way it now consumes so much of so many American families’ recreational budgets.

“Currently, team sports within the United States are at an all-time peak,” reports “Game on! The impact of youth sports on a regional economy,” a 2012 report by the Traverse City (Mich.) Chamber of Commerce.

“According to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association, nearly 70 percent of children (age 6-17) in the United States are playing team sports, and three out of four teenagers are now playing at least one team sport.”

Moreover, “the ‘travel team’ stratum of youth sports in particular has exploded in the last 20 years,” the report continues.

“The emphasis on travel for competition has translated into significant economic impact on a national scale. ‘Kids’ games that used to be played close to home have evolved into giant tournaments where even mediocre teams travel hundreds or thousands of miles to compete. Parents will spend about $7 billion this year on just the traveling involved with youth sports,’ said Don Schumacher, executive director of the National Association of Sports Commissions.”

All of that travel and all of that spending are translating into huge sums of money for the cities that cater to the teams.

And Sioux Falls does this better than most, having recognized that the “return on investment” of sports facilities that host all ages clearly exceeds the ROI from facilities for professional sports.

As the executive vice president of the Sports Facilities Advisory group has said, today’s parents sense the gains their youngsters get from organized sports, regardless of whether the player is good enough to win a college scholarship.

Moreover, parents also believe that when their youngster takes part in organized sports, he or she is less likely to take drugs or indulge in other unhealthy activities.

Those are powerful motivators and they’re supported by research, which suggests that they’re not likely to weaken anytime soon. Grand Forks should take note and support efforts to build such facilities as a “sports bubble” for indoor, all-season soccer and baseball play.

Such facilities attract not only youth tournaments but also young families, who want their children to have access to first-rate opportunities in youth sports.

And in economic development as well as basketball terms, that’s what’s known as a slam dunk.