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DOVER — Delaware officials are drafting regulations on a newly-approved program that will back sports arenas, athletic fields, game courts and more in the name of lifting the state’s tourism economy.
When Gov. John Carney signed the FY 2024 bond bill into law this summer, he also created the Delaware Sports Tourism Capital Investment Fund. The fund’s purpose is to provide taxpayer-backed grants to support sports facilities that will “drive regional and national events to Delaware that will have a broad impact on the state and local economy,” according to the bond bill.
The Sports Tourism Capital Investment fund was allocated $12 million, and the state Division of Small Business is tasked with writing regulations for its use by the end of this year. However, the bond bill outlines that the intent is that grant awards would be leveraged by other funding sources, including private and public funds.
As of Sept. 19, state officials are still drafting language of the fund. The fund will be administered by the Division of Small Business, but the language in the FY 2024 bond bill already allocate $700,000 to build six tennis courts next to Abessinio Stadium in Wilmington, contingent on a agreement with city officials.
Rep. Debra Heffernan (D-Bellefonte) was the architect behind the fund’s creation during the last session. Inspired by the boom in travel and youth sports events held in the state, she said the goal was to designate funds to aid in improvements at some venues.
“What I’ve seen is that these facilities can attract national and college competitions. We’ve seen the impact from DE Turf and the Chase Fieldhouse have really contributed to the state. I’d say even in the last five years there’s been such an increase of people traveling not only for youth sports, but for championships,” Heffernan told the Delaware Business Times. “This is a great way to bring an economic advantage to our state.”
Heffernan added that she had discussions on the idea with Carney and the Delaware Tourism Office, but also leaders and advocates with sports venues throughout the states as well as constituents and others involved in travel sports.
“All the meetings only confirmed this was a great idea. I would hope to see this [fund] continuing in future years, if the funding is available and we see economic growth as a result of it, that’s my goal. It is a big economic driver to the state. Delaware is centrally located to major cities, so this is a great location for a tournament,” she said.
In the past, major sports tourism amenities have been funded through the bond bill and other legislation passed by the General Assembly. The newly-created fund would create a new system for these capital projects to be awarded as grants, much like the state’s Transportation Infrastructure Investment Fund or the Strategic Fund.
In the last five years, the Delaware legislature has authorized a piecemeal $24.5 million for major sports complexes. That includes this fiscal year’s allocation for the Abessinio Stadium.
Wilmington’s Frawley Stadium received the most frequent awards in state funding over that period of time. Line items in the capital spending bills dating from 2019 to 2022 show that the stadium, the Delaware Stadium Corporation or the Riverfront Development Corporation received $6.9 million.
However, $1 million was allocated in the FY 2022 budget as part of a merger between the Delaware Stadium Corporation and the Riverfront Development Corporation last year. In FY 2023, $3.5 million was allocated to create the “Frawley Stadium Improvement Fund,” dedicated to make necessary improvements to the stadium to keep minor league baseball in the state. Minor League Baseball required more upgrades to facilities amid a downsizing, and as of 2022, it was reported that Frawley may require $2.5 million in improvements.
Other funding to Frawley Stadium covers “improvements” ($980,000) in FY 2021, an assessment and design work for capital improvements ($500,000) in FY 2022 budget amendment and elevator upgrades, bathroom renovations and field renovations ($945,800) in FY 2020.
Other venues that received funding in the past five years include the Abessinio Stadium, DE Turf Field and the Chase Fieldhouse on the Riverfront. The stadium near the Brandywine Creek State Park also received $200,000 for maintenance last year. The Chase Fieldhouse, owned by Buccini/Pollin Group, received $3 million in state funding in the FY 2019 bond bill for its construction.
DE Turf Field received $1.9 million in the FY 2022 bond bill for stadium lights. Bill Strickland, DE Turf board chairman, said that the complex has served as a major draw for Kent County, particularly with high school tournaments.
“We’ve had good problems: not enough parking, and the state has allowed us to expand on that. The next evolution we hope would be to expand our office and locker rooms. When we first designed this, we wanted to make sure we had the top priority, the fields, before we expanded those facilities,” Strickland said in an interview with DBT back in August.
He added that DE Turf hopes to go through the process to secure dollars from the newly created Sports Tourism Capital Investment Fund, once made available.
“I have to give kudos to the state for recognizing the significant economic impact that youth sports has on this state,” Strickland added.
Sports tourism — particularly for youth sports, when families travel for a child’s game or tournament where college scouts may be in the stands — has been a buzz phrase for many government officials. In 2021, the Sports Events & Tourism Association (Sports ETA) reported that it brought in $39.7 billion nationwide in direct spending, including payroll, marketing and general administration expenses.
Widening the scope, that study notes that impact adds another $52 billion from travelers spending to attend events, be it in parking fees, restaurant orders and booked hotel rooms.
Here in Delaware, sports tourism may be one of the few areas that counted as a boon during the COVID-19 pandemic. While leisure travel briefly stumbled and business travel stalled for a bit, sports events brought in 15 million in FY 2021. More than 25 million visitors came for sports events in FY 2023, according to the Delaware Tourism Office.
“We are seeing a significant increase, and it’s been a few different things,” State Tourism Director Jessica Welch said. “People could go to their kids’ tournaments and feel safe during the pandemic because they were held outside. It’s also a segment that’s growing nationally and we’re really trying to capitalize on that.”
In 2019, the Delaware Tourism Office hired its first Sports Sales Leader, Ryan Wolfe, to work directly with the state’s sport venues and tournament organizers. He serves as a point person to direct interested youth tournament organizers to hotels in the area as well as other amenities.
Wolfe also attends two conferences a year: the Travel Events and Management and Sports (TEAMS) Conference and the Sports ETA Symposium.
Broadly speaking, Welch said that Delaware is competing with neighboring states for tournaments. But Delaware is also in a national arena, fighting for large-scale events. Lacrosse is one of the top sports games booked at the state, including the U.S. Lacrosse Youth Nationals at the DE Turf in Frederica and the Women’s Lacrosse Coaches Association at Sandhill Fields in Georgetown.
Delaware has already competed on a national stage, with the success of the 2022 PGA Tour’s BMW Championship drawing 126,000 people to the Wilmington Country Club. The city also was the home to the Atlantic 10 Women’s Basketball Tournament for two years, with 15 collegiate teams across the country to play at the Chase Fieldhouse.
Despite the success the A-10 brought to Wilmington from a marketing standpoint — the games were televised — the organizers decided to move the tournament to the Henrico Sports & Events Center in Glen Allen, Va., next year.
When the A-10 was in Wilmington, it was reported to generate a $2 million in economic impact and had more than 1,000 hotel rooms booked in 2022.
“It’s really unfortunate, but that does speak to the need for a fund like this and the need to remain competitive,” Welch said. “[The A-10 organizers] did feel supported here, but that new facility outside Richmond has more amenities, a few more seats and a brand new locker room. It has things that our facilities don’t have right now. It’s something to keep in mind on how we can go to the next level.
“The PGA Tour really showed what we can do, and how well the state can come together,” she added. “That really did help put us on the map, and it’s an example we can use when we’re trying to sell Delaware to other sports events of the same scale.”