Cleveland’s sport tourism industry gets boost from midsize events

Like butter and ice cream, Cleveland’s sports tourism industry benefits from churn.

While there were no mega events like the NBA All-Star Game and the NFL Draft on the spring calendar, the city has gotten a boost in the last few weeks from midsize events like the downtown Cleveland Marathon, as well as the USA Wrestling trials and Division III outdoor track and field championships at Spire Institute and Academy.

“We’ve been very fortunate that we’ve been on a heck of a roll in terms of hosting a lot of those mega events,” said David Gilbert, president and CEO of the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission (GCSC) and Destination Cleveland. “But there’s that old adage that you can’t build your building for Easter Sunday. Well, a hotel can’t survive on one mega event once in a while.”

This year’s track championships generated an estimated $2 million in economic impact, the GCSC said, drawing more than 850 student-athletes from across the country as well as hundreds of coaches, family members and spectators.

“It’s definitely one of our highlight events,” said Spire president Jeff Orloff, who compared its size and scope to the annual Big Ten indoor track and field meet in February. “For a lot of athletes, it’s the ultimate (competition) on that level.

“I don’t think any of these kids are going on to Olympic track careers, but to see their passion and excitement about the sport, that’s what makes it really special.”

Spire also hosted the Division III track championships in 2017 and 2019. The NCAA has a four-year bid cycle, and Spire bids for all four years for both the Division II and Division III meets.

“We know we’re not going to get them all — and we obviously can’t get them both, because they (the divisions) use the same weekend — but we put in for as many as we can,” Orloff said.

The USA Wrestling U23 and U20 world team trials were new to Spire, although the facility was supposed to host it two other times before it was canceled due to the pandemic. This year’s event, which was presented by the Wrestlers in Business Network, generated an estimated $1.5 million in economic impact, the GCSC said.

“We will certainly be pushing to have it come back, and other events as well,” said Orloff, who said Spire wrestling coach Kenny Monday will help draw more USA Wrestling events. “From our standpoint, it went really well.”

The Union Home Mortgage Cleveland Marathon was back in its familiar late-May slot for the first time since 2019, drawing nearly 7,500 entries. (About 5,400 people actually finished one of the races.) That 7,500 figure is down about 25% from pre-pandemic levels, a decline in line with races around the country, according to Jack Staph, president of the Cleveland Marathon.

When the marathon is at its peak — around 15,000 entries — it has an economic impact of between $15 million and $16 million, so Staph estimated this year’s impact at around $7 million.

“It’s been a longtime staple in this community, and it continues to bring in a lot of people,” Gilbert said of the marathon.

Outside of Guardians games, Cleveland doesn’t have any big sporting events planned until late August, when Tennis in the Land returns to Jacobs Pavilion at Nautica. And unless one of the city’s professional sports teams makes a playoff run, Cleveland probably won’t have a “mega” sporting event until 2024, when the city hosts the NCAA Women’s Final Four and the Pan-American Masters Games.

But there are some good smaller events in the next few weeks, including the Stonewall Sports national tournament and summit; Cleveland Beach Rugby; and the GCSC Summer Golf Classic.

“The attention certainly goes to mega events — and we’re seeing the kind of crazy impact of those from the standpoint of media value and dollars spent — but day in and day out, our work is about the constant churn of high-quality, championship events that we can have in town eight, 10, 12 times a year or more,” Gilbert said.

“Our job is to help all these businesses that employ lots of people, bringing events of various sizes in town,” he added. “We want to fill those restaurants, those retail shops, those hotels, those Ubers. The money from those jobs then gets churned throughout the community.”

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