Lawrence state-of-the-art sports facilities not only bring in premiere athletes and competitions, but also money from visitors to boost local economy.
| 2017 Q3 | story by Mike Anderson, photos by Steven Hertzog
200 players, coaches, parents and scouts recently watched a team from Missouri play a team from Iowa, all on a court in Kansas. And this was just one of the many games that took place at the Hardwood Classic from July 20 through 23 at the Lawrence Sports Pavilion. One of the parents watching the game was Shannon Harney. His son Tyson played for the 16-and-under team from Nebraska. This was their first time in Lawrence, and Harney was impressed by the Sports Pavilion. “This is state-of-the-art, best [facility] I’ve been to,” he says. This comment holds a fair amount of weight considering Harney and son have already been to nine similar tournaments around the country this year, and will hit a dozen before the season is finished.
But, before you think this tournament is just filled with Midwestern teams, think again. While Harney and his son may be from Oakland, Nebraska, they’re not the only Oakland team being represented this weekend. The Oakland Soldiers, from California, were one of the favorites to win in the 17-and-under division. Their coach, Kris Weems, grew up in Kansas City before playing for Stanford University. He referred to the Sports Pavilion as the nicest they’ve played in and, more importantly, the safest. With extra room under the baskets, he doesn’t have to worry about his kids banging into a wall when going to save a ball or going up for an epic fast-break block.
Jim Hart brought his team from Albany, New York. He calls our facility “second to none” and applauds it for its size and convenience. This tournament was particularly important to coach Hart because of the teams he gets to play. His team has a contract with Nike, which means, in the majority of tournaments in which they plays, they only play other teams sponsored by Nike. “You get to know the same teams pretty well because you’re always playing them, but with this tournament, I also get to play teams from Under Armor and Adidas.”
The stakes for these players at a tournament such as this cannot be understated. As New York’s star player, Isaiah Stewart, put it, “This is a business trip.” Top coaches like Tom Izzo, Shaka Smart, Patrick Ewing and Jim Boeheim come to scout this tournament.
Chris Walker, an assistant for the University of California, Berkeley, basketball team, is glad to see a tournament like this in Kansas. “AAU [Amateur Athletic Union] tournaments are more celebrated than people think,” he explains. “And this tournament could really grow. Kansas is centrally located; they can all come to Kansas. The less money a team has to spend to travel the better.” University of Kansas (KU) fans might remember Walker as the head coach of the 2012-2013 Texas Tech University team. When asked what his last memory of Lawrence was, his answer came quickly: “A 30-point whoopin’.” Needless to say, this trip to Lawrence was a lot easier on his blood pressure. As a scout, Walker also applauded both the tournament and the facility. Chad Tower, facilities operation supervisor at Sports Pavilion Lawrence, says the Pavilion provided a meal component for all the scouts and coaches that included a hospitality room and three meals for all four days.
This event was a prime example of how sporting events can bring visitors from all across the country and raise awareness about Lawrence to the nation. City of Lawrence director of arts and culture Porter Arneill, who has lived in various cities, knows how sport plays into the identity of Lawrence. “Culturally, sports are such an important aspect of the Lawrence community. It benefits the quality of life here. The city is very cognizant of those benefits,” he explains. But another benefit is the economic influence these events can have on Lawrence and Douglas County. According to eXplore Lawrence, which provides information on Lawrence and Douglas County to its visitors, the Hardwood Classic brought in $4,751,980 in business sales from visitor spending. 1,414 jobs were supported because of the revenue of the event. The event included 5899 overnight attendees and 3176 day attendees.
And, while widely successful, the Hardwood Classic was just the appetizer to the main course that was the USA Track and Field Junior Olympics, held July 24 through 30 at Rock Chalk Park. A representative for USA Track and Field says the Junior Olympics is its premier event. “This is where Olympic athletes get their start. It’s the most competitive and highest-level youth track meet in the country. This is a highly desired event,” the rep explains. Numerically, it’s also the biggest. This year saw 8129 athletes compete at Rock Chalk Park. In comparison, the Olympic trials have only 1,000 competing athletes.
Not surprisingly, the economic influence of this event was deafening. Michael Davidson, of eXplore Lawrence, says the Junior Olympics had a $17.5-million regional impact, and a $5-million local impact. Cristie Gunn, a server at the downtown restaurant 715, called the week of the Junior Olympics the busiest she’s ever seen. “It was crazy. Every day was like Friday night,” she says. Hotel business was no different. All the hotels in the area were booked. Some of the athletes were even forced to stay in hotels near the airport.
Perhaps no one is happier to see this event than KU track and field assistant coach Wayne Pate. “You get kids on campus and give them a chance to see what Lawrence has to offer,” he says. “The football stadium didn’t meet the standards for an event like this. I want to have this (event) again, again, again.”
Coach Pate might get his wish, as there’s reason to be optimistic about these events returning. Representatives for both the Hardwood Classic and USA Track and Field praised the facilities as “first rate” and the experience of the athletes as “first class.” When deciding on a location, the USA Track and Field rep looks at four things: 1) facility, 2) local organization that is great to work with, 3) hotel base, and 4) ease of access. Lawrence scored highly on all.
While Lawrence waits for the hopeful return of the Hardwood Classic and The Junior Olympics, the facilities will certainly be kept warm. Lawrence Sports Pavilion will continue to have local and regional tournaments through December. Sports Pavilion’s Tower says the volleyball tournaments will happen December through April, where 60 to 80 volleyball teams will play every Saturday and Sunday. Lawrence also still features the KU Relays, the Downtown Olympic Shot Put event and the Gravel Grinder National Championship in June, among other events.
Let us not forget the countless sporting events charities put on to raise money. Not-for-profits commonly use golf events, 5K walk/runs, basketball tournaments and more as effective tools to fund-raise. For example, the Mario V. Chalmers Foundation annual golf event raises more than $25,000 for the Boys and Girls Club of Lawrence. Local nonprofit organization Cooper’s Cause Foundation uses a 5K run and golf tournament each year to raise close to $18,000 for pediatric health patients’ families. The most recent Rock Chalk Roundball Classic raised $57,000 for five local families fighting cancer. Event organizer Brian Hanni brings in Jayhawk basketball players from several decades to entertain a sold-out crowd. Only at this event will you get to see 56-year-old Darnell Valentine throw an alley-oop for 22-year-old Ben McLemore. “This event equips KU athletes with the knowledge of what they could do with that platform,” Hanni says. The Penny Jones Golf Tournament is the annual golf event that continually raises more than $100,000 for the Lawrence Memorial Hospital Endowment Association. Greg Dannevik, assistant golf operations supervisor, Eagle Bend Golf Course, says Eagle Bend hosts 50 to 60 fund-raising events a year. Tiffany Hall, the Annual Giving Manager for the Lawrence Memorial Hospital Endowment, and her crew also use their Summer Spray 5K run/walk events to raise $5,000 for wellness grants distributed to programs or projects that effectively and resourcefully enhance local health and wellness.
The impact of sports on our local economy cannot be denied. At a time when city leaders are looking to develop new sources of revenue, these numbers are surely to get noticed. This year from July 20 to 30, roughly 18,000 young athletes came to Lawrence, the vast majority for the first time. Each brings parents, family members and/or coaches with them. Not too bad for a 10-day stint in July. With the addition of events like the Hardwood Classic and the Junior Olympics, perhaps we’re starting to turn our passion into a profit.