Horry Schools to examine closer ties to sports tourism; North Myrtle Beach exceeds growth expectations with new sports complex

07/26/2014 12:00 AM

03/28/2015 5:48 PM

Thousands of children and their families swarmed baseball and softball fields along the Grand Strand for the annual Triple Crown Summer Nationals in the last two weeks, while area officials work behind the scenes to ensure more places call the Grand Strand home for sports tournaments.

Horry County, city and school officials are still trying to perfect the $130 million annual economic monster referred to as sports tourism along the Grand Strand.

North Myrtle Beach, with its new sports complex that opened during the spring, has already surpassed the $10 million economic impact that was expected during the complex’s first year. And Horry County Schools, which has fields and gyms used for tournaments, could be upping its game, with the board scheduled to decide in August whether it wants to take a more active role in making sure the district receives its fair share of revenue from its fields without pricing the Grand Strand out of hosting the tournaments.

School board chairman Joe DeFeo said the school board will look at coming up with a plan on how to make sure the school district, who owns many of the fields and gyms used for these tournaments, can remain competitive with its rental rates.

“What we are going to do is we are in the process of approving new board governance rules,” DeFeo said. “In our board governance, we are going to be, as a board, responsible for coming up with a [method of operation] as to how we’re going to handle sports tourism.”

The plan is not to micromanage every tournament that comes to the beach, but is more of a way to ensure the proper balance between keeping the tournaments and paying its bills for upkeep of the schools’ fields and gyms, like those at St. James, Socastee and North Myrtle Beach, he said.

“If somebody contacted a board member and wanted to bring a tournament down here, we would turn that over to the town that was involved in it because we would like to have sports tourism here,” DeFeo said. “I don’t ever see us taking a direct role in it. It would be a side role in the hopes of making sure that we don’t chase anybody away, but at the same time don’t give anything away for free.”

“Most of the time, it’s elected officials who call about sports tourism and rates. With that being the case, elected officials tend to call elected officials, so why not just have them deal with the elected officials on the board directly?”

DeFeo said he does not want the message to come across as the school district solely looking to turn a profit on renting its fields because it understands the ripple effect sports tourism has on the area.

“What we make might only be $10,000 or $15,000, but if $5 million worth of business comes in, we might actually bring in $100,000 because of the 1 percent tax,” DeFeo said. “It’s not all restricted to what we get paid for the facilities. It’s the money that comes in for the sports tourism.”

Horry County Schools remains the government entity with the highest rental rates in the county, with some rates as high as $250 per hour. Myrtle Beach, on the other hand, charges as low as $250 per day. The rates were at issue last summer when DeFeo said he wanted to make sure the school system was getting the most out of its rental fees.

Matt Gibbons, superintendent of recreation and sports tourism for North Myrtle Beach, said Coastal Carolina University projected a little more than $10 million of economic impact for the new North Myrtle Beach Park and Sports Complex, and that figure had already been met in the middle of July. The complex opened five months ago.

“It’s been a really good year for us. Obviously the new park has played a major role in sports tourism up here. It’s been really well received. We really think we’re accomplishing our goals and getting North Myrtle Beach out there.”

United States Youth Basketball Association summer national tournament, which brings in more than 440 teams, also calls North Myrtle Beach home for a couple of weeks during the summer.

“That has a large impact on the community,” Gibbons said.

The off-season, or non-tourist season, is just as important to North Myrtle Beach, Gibbons said, adding the complex recently booked a lacrosse tournament for October.

“We’re hoping to sign a couple of other big events for the winter time,” Gibbons said. “I think that’s our next big focus.”

He said the complex is booked just about every weekend for baseball and softball.

“There’s enough to go around,” Gibbons said. “What’s good for Horry County is good for Myrtle Beach and is good for North Myrtle Beach and vice versa. We’re all in it together. We’d much rather them go here or to Myrtle or to Horry County than to go to the other side of the state or another state.”

Horry County is feeling a slight pinch of North Myrtle Beach’s growth, said Brent Taylor, director of parks and recreation for the county.

“Baseball is off just a little bit, but not much,” Taylor said. “I think some of that, too, is North Myrtle Beach opening their facility... We’re averaging about two weekends or so per month for tournaments.”

Taylor said basketball tournaments are starting to make up for the slight loss in baseball field rentals.

“This last month in particular has been very busy,” Taylor said late last week. “We’ve had four gyms booked most of the last three weeks for basketball tournaments. The same tournament that used 20-something gyms throughout the county.”

More places for tournaments are in the works.

Myrtle Beach is building its own 100,000-square-foot, $13.8 million sports complex. Nearly 20 events have either been scheduled or are nearly scheduled for the complex, which is set to open in the spring.

Mark Kruea, spokesman for the city of Myrtle Beach, said the city seems to be having an average year for sports tourism.

“It seems to be running in the $125 million to $130 million range for sports tourism,” Kruea said. “We do see some fluctuation from year to year in the total sports tourism numbers for a variety of factors. Sometimes we have a big tournament here or one that floats to other locations. Weather sometimes plays a factor.”

Aside from a few instances of rain, the weather has been fair during the Triple Crown Summer Nationals – one of the biggest tournaments in the city during the summer. This year, Triple Crown has brought in more than 400 softball and baseball teams and it’s in its first year on a new five-year agreement.

John Casale, event director for Triple Crown, said there are many reasons Triple Crown has brought its tournaments to Myrtle Beach for the past 12 years.

“The importance to us was having a partner in the community and the city of Myrtle Beach who are interested in working to be a partner,” Casale said. “They’re willing to develop an event and developing a product with us.”

“I would say we even have some roots in the community because we’ve been here for such a long time.”

Casale said bringing a tournament the size of Triple Crown is much more than a grip-and-grin with everyone walking their separate ways once the deal is struck.

“We have a very small group of communities that we have built that long of a partnership with,” Casale said. “We have to perform and produce an economic impact for the community in order for it to be beneficial for the city and for us to be able to negotiate a contract.”

He said Triple Crown has found a good partner in Myrtle Beach, which is important to the success for the tournament as well as its host.

“Overwhelmingly, the event has maintained some consistent growth,” Casale said. “We always have people who rave about what Myrtle Beach has to offer and continue to come back.

“From what Myrtle Beach has to offer to the competition that the event provides, there are a lot of things that really provides a lot of the teams a real memorable experience.”

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