By Ronnie Wendt | Photo: Scheels Soccer Complex/Courtesy Visit KC

Pandemic or no pandemic, the youth sports market is hot — and growing, say Midwest DMOs.

The $19.2 billion youth and amateur sports industry has seen steady growth since the early 2000s, reports Wintergreen Research Inc. Today, 73.4% of children ages 13-17 play a team or individual sport regularly, finds Aspen Project Play.

These trends stayed strong even during the pandemic. In fact, youth sports became the meeting industry’s bread and butter during the pandemic, according to Nathan Hermiston, senior vice president of convention sales and services for Visit KC in Kansas City, Mo.

Matt Ten Haken, director of sports marketing for the Fox Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau in Appleton, Wis., echoes this sentiment, noting 2021 was among the Top 5 sports tourism generating years for the Fox Cities.

Trina Flack, CMP, president of sales for Catch Des Moines, says youth sports never slowed during the pandemic in the Greater Des Moines area. In fact, the city hosted events throughout 2020.

“We saw strong participation,” she adds, “parents wanted their kids to get out and compete. We secured events other states couldn’t host. It provided a boost that kept many hotels and restaurants open.”

Hermiston attributes the strength of youth sports — even during the pan- demic — to a couple of things. First, as COVID-19 concerns escalated, people saw the outdoors as a safe place to meet. Sports — from baseball to softball and soccer — can take place outside. Second, many parents wanted children to have an outlet, and for many, COVID-19 presented less risk to children, so they were willing to travel to compete.

Looking ahead, all three remain bullish about the 2022 youth sports market. “There’s a tremendous appetite to get out and play,” Flack says. “It’s going to be a strong year.”

Ten Haken agrees, “The Fox Cities saw a huge bump in sports events in the first quarter, so we think 2022 will be better than 2021 by a lot.”


Travel + Leisure recognizes Kansas City as one of the Top 10 Cities for Sports- Crazed Fans with good reason. The metro area includes award-winning professional sports stadiums, state-of-the-art convention facilities, and modern multi-functional arenas.

But even with an impressive network of competition facilities and a strong youth sports presence, Hermiston says the community — which has hosted more Final Four basketball tournament games than any other city — is not resting on its laurels.

“We are reinforcing the value of Kansas City, that it’s in the Heartland of America, making it easy to drive and fly to, and has ample facilities,” he says. “We are considered the soccer capital of the U.S. and offer amazing facilities for games. We also have great facilities for baseball, lacrosse and other sports.”

Visit KC promotions also center on two new projects in the works: the $43 million, 12-field Northwind Soccer Complex and the $35 million, 10-field Kansas City Central Bank Sporting Complex opening this fall. The city also will host the Sports Events and Tourism Association’s National Symposium in May 2023. That too will be a “fantastic opportunity for us to showcase the investments that have taken place since 2020,” he adds.

Catch Des Moines also stepped up its promotional efforts. Iowa’s capital city hosted the Nike Tournament of Champions in 2020, when Chicago could not. Holding this prestigious interscholastic and club basketball tournament put the city squarely on the youth sports map.

The enthusiasm continues as the community’s MidAmerican Energy Company RecPlex captures national attention. The multi-sport facility offers over 300,000 air-conditioned square feet with two NHL-size hockey rinks; four 94-foot basketball courts that can convert into eight volleyball courts; two dedicated pickle ball courts with three more available when using one of the basketball courts; and a regulation indoor turf field appropriate for soccer, softball, lacrosse or rugby. The new facility has allowed Iowa’s capital city to double the size of events it hosts and provides a championship venue for events like the NAIA Men’s Volleyball Championships.

Des Moines upped its marketing to attract more events to this complex, as well as its other facilities. The Catch Des Moines marketing team focuses efforts on video segments and other creatives. “We looked at our attendees, our buyers and the social platforms they use,” Flack says. “Now we use every platform available and change our messaging to reflect whether we are targeting a planner or an attendee.”

The Fox Cities focuses marketing efforts on events for 10- to 18-year-olds. In the summer, these include soccer, baseball and softball, and in the winter, basketball, volleyball and hockey.

The CVB shines a spotlight on community facilities to attract these events. Premier facilities include the Community First Champion Center, offering up to eight basketball hardwood courts, 12 volleyball courts or two ice rinks with seating; the Neuroscience Group Field, home of minor league baseball team, the Timber Rattlers, which also opens its field to outdoor youth sporting events; and the popular Scheels USA Youth Sports Complex.

However, facilities alone cannot tell the full story Ten Haken explains. “We also stress the overall community when talking to planners and sports directors,” he says. “We talk about affordability, drivability and safety because they are the things families traveling for sports want. Fox Cities checks all three boxes.”

Canton, Ohio, also expects youth sports to grow in 2022 and Visit Canton actively chases new events. “Sports events have been a consistent base of business in Stark County, helping to buoy the destination throughout the pandemic,” stresses Mary Vlahos, Visit Canton vice president of sales.

The community of 70,000, just an hour south of Cleveland, draws visitors to its Pro Football Hall of Fame, but it is the youth sports infrastructure around the Hall that attracts families and sports teams, she says. This infrastructure includes the Tom Benson Hall of Fame Stadium, a 22,000-seat professional-caliber stadium with a press box, club lounge, suites and hospitality space; the Hall of Fame Village Sports Complex with four turf fields and a grass field stadium (it will add three more turf fields in 2022); and The Performance Center, an 85,000-square-foot indoor space for youth sports.

But again, impressive facilities alone do not attract youth sports. It’s also vital
to tell the community’s story, Vlahos shares. “Planners want to ensure these destinations are easy to get to via airport or nearby interstates,” she says. “Canton is centrally located to the East Coast and Midwest population and easily accessible by highway or by air.”

Planners also want professional service and convenience. Visit Canton brings its full resources to bear for every sporting event, helping planners find vendors and professional services, lodging and more, she adds.

Long famous as a vacation destination, Branson became home to Ballparks of America, a park where youth athletes can play ball at five different replicas of America’s most iconic stadiums, in 2016. The facility has hosted major tournaments, including the Babe Ruth League’s Cal Ripken Major and the 7- to 12-year-old World Series, and it continues to attract major events.

But Terra Alphonso, director of sports events and marketing for Branson/Lakes Area Chamber of Commerce & CVB and Taney County Partnership, says they focus messaging on the community’s family appeal, which includes three area lakes, dozens of attractions, and a vast array of family-friendly lodging.

Indianapolis is another attractive youth sports destination that presents plenty for families being home to the world’s largest children’s museum and a plethora of war museums. Conde Nast Traveler named Indianapolis as the most “Underrated City in America” in 2021. It offers 8,000 hotel rooms connected to or within walking distance of Lucas Oil Stadium, restaurants and other attractions.

“Indy was built to host major sporting events and continues to excel in this area,” says Nate Swick, senior communications manager for Visit Indy.

“Indy spent much of 2020 and 2021 catering toward large-scale sports tournaments and events including youth volleyball and basketball tournaments,” he says. “We transformed the Indiana Convention Center ballrooms and meeting rooms into dozens of courts throughout the building. Indy also played host to the 2021 NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament in its entirety.”


Sponsorships help draw youth sports to communities like Kansas City, Des Moines and others.

The Fox Cities, for instance, offers a grant program to support new or growing events. The CVB uses these funds to offset the costs of facility rentals, other expenses and bid fees. “If there is an event that comes in with a bid fee, we can help reduce or totally cover those fees,” Ten Haken says.

Des Moines partners with its corporate base, restaurants and attractions to create packages that appeal to attendees and organizers of youth sports events, according to Flack.

“It is expensive to put on these events. There are a lot of details that go into them. We look for ways we can offset specific costs,” she says, noting that may involve getting creative with a specific space, finding local vendors, arranging tents on the ground or even shuttle or bus transportation.

Kansas City endeavors to keep families focused on the competitions, by helping planners arrange suitable housing at affordable price points.

“We then work with housing companies to develop sponsorships that highlight the tournament and make sure the tournament has the correct financial package in place,” Hermiston says. “By working with housing companies in this way, we can track event ROI and see where teams are spending their money.”

An additional value Kansas City and Missouri provides is the Missouri Department of Economic Development – Amateur Sporting Tax Credit Program. This is a program designed to promote the growth of Missouri’s economy by incentivizing the selection of compet- itively bid amateur sporting events in Missouri. It allows for tax credits of $5 per admission ticket sold or $10 per paid participant. The grant is funded to the tune of $3 million annually for the state of Missouri.

Visit Canton offers event sponsorships via grants for youth sporting events. It distributes funds based on the scale and expected economic impact of the event. “Interested event holders are encouraged to reach out directly for assistance and consideration,” Vlahos adds.

Youth sports events are hot, hot, hot. Midwestern cities stand ready to deliver facilities and amenities that make these states “the” place to compete.