Southern Utah capitalizes on sports crowd
St. George • As the Martin Luther King holiday weekend approaches, St. George and Mesquite, Nev., hotels and restaurants are gearing up for an invasion of soccer, softball and baseball teams from the cold and snowy confines of the Wasatch Front.
Lured by warm weather, the chance to stay competitive year-round, top-notch competition and the idea of a family vacation, athletes and their families migrate south by the thousands from late January until early May and again in October and November.
"It's very important for kids to continually play," said Morgan Gilliam, event management director for the Utah Youth Soccer Association, which moved its President's Cup tournament from St. George to Mesquite this year where a new regional soccer facility features four lighted full-sized fields with artificial turf. "I grew up in Texas and played year-round. Places like Florida, Texas, and California that have the top soccer programs play year-round and have an advantage. So we want to get out and play in tournaments in January and February."
For parents such as Salt Lake City's Mary Van Minde who has three children playing competitive soccer, winter trips to southern Utah and Nevada are the norm. Until the family purchased a condo in Mesquite about 18 months ago, Van Minde said she watched closely to see when dates for winter tournaments were posted so she could make reservations in St. George, sometimes six months in advance.
"We probably go down twice a year," said Van Minde, who said parents squeeze in as much recreation as they can during tournament time. "It gives them the excitement to get out of the snow and they look forward to training during the winter months."
The Utah Youth Soccer Association tournament will bring 320 teams and several thousand athletes and their parents to Mesquite, filling hotels and restaurants over three winter weekends. One portion will serve as a qualifier for regional and national events.
"I think sports are important," said Sandra Ramaker, a volunteer with the Mesquite Chamber of Commerce. "They give people here something extra to view. They bring people here to see what a wonderful city we have. They see our areas, shop in our stores, and learn about our great community."
Kevin Lewis, Director of Sports Marketing for the St. George convention and tourism office, said Washington County hosts some sort of sports event 35 weekends a year. These include signature events such as the Huntsman Senior Games, the St. George Marathon, Snow Canyon Half Marathon and Ironman triathlon. The area also has a reputation as a winter golf hot spot. Dixie State University even hosts a major high school band competition.
"Essentially, from Presidents Day through the end of May, we're kind of a nonstop sports destination," said Lewis, who helped bring in a huge national horseshoe tournament held inside at the Dixie Center last year during the summer, when hotel business typically is slower. "We have softball, soccer, mountain bike races and baseball and all the golf that comes in."
Such business delights area motels and restaurants. Lewis said that beginning President's Day Weekend, motels in the St. George area sell out on many weekends.
"We sometimes have to push people away," he said. "We could fill up a lot of those weekends twice if we had the room capacity."
Room occupancy and average daily room rates in St. George show the importance of sports and tourism. Transient room taxes are up 12.8 percent in the last year, room occupancy is up from 63.9 percent to 69.4 percent and the average daily room rate is $86.66, up from $80.24.
Hotel managers and restaurant owners notice.
Alex Charter, sales coordinator for the Hilton Garden in St. George, said that much of her hotel's spring business comes from families and athletes traveling with sports teams.
Shane Whittwer, manager of the Abbey Best Western, calls the sporting events "huge." He said families should make reservations as much as a year in advance when they know they are coming to a sporting events. That ensures better rates as well as a room on weekends when none may be available.
Bill Randall, who has owned The Pizza Factory on St. George Blvd., since 1979 put the impact of all these sports events simply.
"They have to eat," he said about the hundreds of athletes and family members who come to town. He added that the sporting events "have been really good for us. The city has done an incredible job of luring tournaments. The weather is great and people want to be out of the cold."
Much of the work that involves preparing and booking fields goes to St. George city's leisure services department, where recreation manager Steve Bingham and sports coordinator Michelle Graves often provide the facilities and organizational skills to make them happen.
St. George's Canyons softball field, a complex of nine fields that include paths, picnic areas and other amenities so nice that it was named Softball Complex of the Year by the National Softball Association for five consecutive years, is one of leisure services' best and most popular venues.
It has hosted the national junior college women's softball championships, another event that includes some of the top Division One NCAA women's softball teams and the huge Huntsman Senior Games softball tournament to name just three major events.
A 1998 bond helped the city build its swimming pool, tennis facility and The Canyons softball facility. In addition to city-owned fields, Graves said she also works closely with the Washington County School District to find facilities.
"We are kind of bursting at the seams for recreation," she said. "There is so much recreating here, we can't keep up with the demand."
Bingham said the city has been supportive of the sports programs and facilities and that fields are scheduled six and sometimes seven days a week.
Bingham and Graves also help organize major events such as the October St. George Marathon, January St. George Half-Marathon, May Ironman competition and January St. George Half Marathon, all of which have earned national recognition for their organization and use of volunteers. The popular events often fill to capacity. Add the Huntsman Senior Games to the mix, and the influx of out-of-area spending to the southern Utah economy is huge.
Jeff Robbins, executive director of the Utah Sports Commission, said his organization helps to provide outside funding for some of the major events.
"Communities are having success bringing in those events," he said. "It's getting harder to find times and places that make sense."
Robbins said the value of sports, especially youth sports, is that they are often resistant to bad economic times.
"These are the sacrifices families make for their kids," he said. "These events also provide the opportunity for families to travel somewhere for a vacation. They are stable business to go after. The competition is growing."
As Mesquite and St. George prepare for another late winter and spring influx of Wasatch Front athletes, some of the biggest competition might involve trying to find a room during some of the busiest weekends of the year.