Sports tourism: We’ve come a long way, baby (column)
London Community News
It’s a good bet that soon after Lieutenant-Governor John Graves Simcoe surveyed the Forks of the Thames in 1793, London became known as a sports town.
Perhaps a few British army officers, after a few belts of whiskey, swam across the Thames River for bragging rights. But if forced to pinpoint a date when the Forest City really came of age when it comes to hosting major sporting events, you need only recall the 2001 Canada Summer Games.
Of course, as one of Canada’s largest metropolitan areas and the heart of southwestern Ontario, our city has always attracted notable sporting contests. But those 2001 Canada Summer Games really changed our mentality in terms of how we define the local sports landscape. Sure, new and improved facilities including TD Waterhouse Stadium at Western University and the Canada Games Aquatic Centre helped in appeasing a growing and demanding population.
But our mindset is what really saw us grow from underdog to leader in sports tourism.
During a recent conversation with one of Canada’s top motor coach operators, a company executive couldn’t help himself when applauding London for its hospitality. “We are constantly travelling to and from London with sports teams. Whoever is handling your sports tourism is doing a hell of a job,” said the bus operator.
No longer is this city an underachiever in attracting teams and events. With apologies to the NHL and CFL, London is now a big-league town. If you would have asked me even five years ago if professional basketball would fly in London, I would have replied that you were as loopy as Dennis Rodman. But the London Lightning of the National Basketball League of Canada, fresh off an inaugural championship season, have created a buzz in this town not seen since the Class AA London Tigers came to town in 1989.
Let’s get the baseball issue out of the way. With apologies to the Intercounty Baseball League London Majors, London is not a baseball town. As a longtime member of the local baseball community, I state that with a heavy heart.
We saw the stitches pop out of local baseball with the Tigers, and independent teams including the Werewolves and Rippers, as well as the London Monarchs. Majors owners Roop Chanderdat and Scott Dart have done one hell of a job in promoting their semi-pro ballclub, but when it comes to attendance over the last 40 years, only the OHL’s London Knights and Western Mustangs football club have spun the turnstiles on a consistent basis: Hockey is in our blood and Mustangs football enjoys a unique culture involving the university, its students, its alumni and the community at large.
But when it comes to hosting sports events ranging from kids soccer to the 2013 World Figure Skating Championships, London is a big-league player, according to Cheryl Finn, Sports Tourism director with Tourism London.
Finn says the World Figure Skating Championships March 11-17 at Budweiser Gardens carry a projected economic impact of $28 million; the 2001 Canada Summer Games $36 million; 2005 World Transplant Games $16 million; 2005 Memorial Cup $8.4 million; and 2010 Special Olympics Canada Summer Games $8 million — just to name a few big-time events.
“These events also resulted in numerous legacy programs which included facility upgrades and valuable training opportunities for volunteers,” said Finn, a member of the Canadian Sport Tourism Alliance (CSTA) board of directors.
Finn said with the Knights and Budweiser Gardens boosting downtown coffers and large minor sports events — including the Henderson Memorial soccer tournament, Junior Knights hockey, Ontario basketball provincial championships and London Devilettes annual girls’ hockey tournament (23rd edition slated for Feb. 8-10) — London truly is a sports destination.
“(Events like those) are critical to our sport tourism portfolio, as well as to the economic impact in the city,” said Finn.
CSTA, which includes 125 municipalities and 55 national sport organizations, aims to grow the $3.4 billion per year sport tourism industry in Canada (Statistics Canada 2008). One of its key objectives is to market Canada internationally as a preferred sport tourism destination. On a smaller scale, Tourism London does the same.
London, you’ve come a long way, baby.
London Sports Tourism: Part 2 next week in London Community News.
Jeffrey Reed is an award-winning journalist, and has been a member of the local sports media since 1980. Write to him at email@example.com.