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How Sports Tourism Became a Major Driver of Rock Hill’s Economy

The future home of the Rock Hill Sports & Events Center is still under construction.
Scott Morgan/SC Public Radio

Tourism is big business for South Carolina. The state Department of Parks, Recreation & Tourism (PRT) puts annual tourism revenue at about $20 billion.

One segment – sports tourism – is making up an increasing share of that. The last look the state PRT took at sports tourism was in 2011, and back then, its contribution to the South Carolina economy was estimated to be about $3.4 billion. PRT does not have hard numbers, but a spokesperson said South Carolina’s annual sports tourism-related revenues almost certainly would have increased by now, and that they are at the very least “significant.”

This is all in a state without a major professional sports franchise – at least not yet, though the City of Rock Hill is working on that. It’s doing its best to lure the NFL’s Carolina Panthers across the border from Charlotte to set up a brand new training and operations facility in York County.

 Were Rock Hill to land the Panthers, it would bolster an already humming sports tourism enterprise in the city – one that brings in more than $20 million a year and is expected to reap nearly double that once it opens its first all-indoor sports venue, the Rock Hill Sports & Events Center. That’s scheduled to happen this fall, though work on the site is already behind what had been a planned spring 2019 opening.

The Roots and the Revenues

In the early 1980s, Rock Hill’s moribund textile industry, centered almost exclusively on cotton, threatened to leave a legacy of empty buildings and little more than memories of better days. Without a plan to buoy its economy with something viable, city planners knew that Rock Hill could become one more city that used to be something. So they took what current Mayor John Gettys calls a bold shot at something new.

“Our community at the time decided that one thing we could do,” Getty says, “was to create something called Cherry Park. The idea was similar to Central Park in New York – you create a central meeting place so that the people of Rock Hill could exchange ideas and create relationships and see what energy was born from that.” 

That energy bore what became a 68-acre amateur park and sports complex off I-77, best known today for its five softball fields and the numerous tournaments Cherry Park played host to since 1985. It’s also where Mighty Casey stands, leaning on his bat, looming in silent guard over the fields that sparked Rock Hill’s new direction. 

Mighty Casey watches over the softball fields at Cherry Park.
Credit Scott Morgan/SC Public Radio
Mighty Casey watches over the softball fields at Cherry Park.

Cherry Park caught on so quickly, in fact, that it took a mere two years after the park opened to rebrand the city’s Parks & Recreation department as Parks, Recreation & Tourism. Today, much of the reason people visit Rock Hill is because sports happen here. There’s even a sign at the gate to Cherry Park boasting “Competition lives here.”

City planners in the 80s, Gettys says, “realized all those young women coming from Ohio to play softball in Rock Hill at Cherry Park for the last two years was creating an economic market that nobody really foresaw.”

Rock Hill soon added more venues, like Manchester Meadows (with eight soccer fields), the Rock Hill Tennis Center, the Rock Hill BMX Supercross Track, and the Giordana Velodrome cycling facility – and found itself hosting more and more regional and national championships in those sports, in addition to the ones at Cherry Park. By 2017, Rock Hill hosted the world, with the UCI BMX World Championships.

In 2018, according to city numbers, Rock Hill brought in $22.3 million through sports tourism. A report released in mid-April by the city states that over the past 10 years, Cherry Park has brought in $66.7 million dollars; Manchester Meadows $66.3 million; the Velodrome and BMX complex $6.6 million; and the Rock Hill Tennis Center $4.4 million.

Overall, according to the report, sports tourism has brought $144 million to Rock Hill over the past decade, in a largely steady uptick.

The city estimates that about 80 percent of its sports revenues come from events that repeat.

‘Direct Economic Impact’

As much money as sports generate for Rock Hill – mainly through family groups who visit the city to watch their kin play in high-level tournaments – it still costs money to build and maintain sports venues. The Sports & Events Center, as an example, is an estimated $24 million project, for which the city took out a $21.3 million bond.

And while there’s nothing unusual about a city bonding to pay for a public project, there is always the question of debt.

“Debt is always an issue,” says Tom Regan, director of graduate studies at the College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management at the University of South Carolina. “If you can’t service that debt, the expansion will slow down quickly.”

Rock Hill officials say they have no intention of flying too close to the sun. Gettys and city PRT Director John Taylor repeat a phrase often in any conversation about sports tourism money in town: “direct economic impact.”

At its simplest, the concept of direct economic impact is about counting the money you have, not the money you expect to have. The city finds its numbers by sending PRT staff out to talk to people visiting town.

“They ask a number of questions about how much families are spending,” Taylor says. “If we’ve got a certain amount of people, say we’ve got 5,000 people in town, we’re going to do 500 interviews.

The city then multiplies that number by the number of people who are in the community for an event and estimates what kind of money an event is bringing in.

“That, I think, gives us a lot more credibility than me saying, ‘Oh, there’s, I guess there’s 10,000 people here, so I’m going to put it in and just see what an average spending might be,’” Taylor says. “We actually get what the average spending is instead of going off of statistics.”

What the city is trying to avoid is the practice of rollover projections, a technique cities often use to estimate how many times each dollar spent might make its way through local businesses – one dollar spent at the concession stand, for example, could turn into a tip for a waiter, which could then be spent on groceries, and so on.

“We do not factor our numbers on rollovers,” says Gettys. “You could do that, but all that does is hurt you in the long run because you budget based on your projections, and if your projections aren’t real accurate you’re going to pay for it.”

Gettys says the proof that Rock Hill is doing it more sensible lies in the success of the city’s programs.

“If we were fudging our numbers it would have caught up to us by now,” he says.

How the Hotels Factor In

City of Rock Hill, caption: An artist's rendering of what the Rock Hill Sports and Events Center should look like when it opens.
Credit J.M. Cope; City of Rock Hill
City of Rock Hill, caption: An artist's rendering of what the Rock Hill Sports and Events Center should look like when it opens.

On top of construction costs for venues, the city has to pay to maintain facilities, provide event staff, security, and logistics. In 2018, according to the city, that was about $2 million spent on what turned out to be a $22 million return.

Most of the money used on these avenues comes from hospitality taxes, according to city communications manager Katie Quinn. Rock Hill started cashing in on hospitality taxes soon after the state Legislature created them in 2002. Rock Hill already had generated above the $900,000 required to initiate such a tax on hotel stays.

“That’s when sports tourism took off for us,” Getty says.

And as Rock Hill’s sports tourism enterprise grows, so grow the number of hotels.

“I don’t know how many hotels that have opened in the last few years,” he says – and, for the record, there are 25 hotels in operation in the city – “but I understand there are 12 in the county right now that are either under construction or in the permitting process.”

Two of those are hotels that will open right in front of the Sports & Events Center.

Gettys takes this as a sign of good things.

“People don’t build hotels in downtown communities in South Carolina unless they’re very profitable,” he says.

Individual Competition

Part of the reason Rock Hill has done so well is that it has found a niche in individual sports, like cycling and tennis. That despite the effort to get the Panthers in town and despite an interesting trivia bit about Rock Hill – the city has produced more NFL players, per capita (about 1 in every 8,500 residents), than anywhere in the world.

But even without an NFL franchise relocating to Rock Hill, the city has a solid base of individual sports. And when the Sports & Events Center opens, it will bring in new individual sports like archery and gymnastics, Taylor says.

It will, of course, bring in team sports as well, like basketball and volleyball, but Gettys says Rock Hill’s focus on smaller and emerging sports, indoors or out, has major potential for Rock Hill.

Take disc golf – like golf, but with a flying disc. Rock Hill has two city courses and there are another 18 courses dotted around elementary school, middle school, high school, and college campuses in town. 

Disc golf hole No. 2 at Boyd Hill Recreation Center, one of two city-managed disc golf courses.
Credit Scott Morgan/SC Public Radio
Disc golf hole No. 2 at Boyd Hill Recreation Center, one of two city-managed disc golf courses.

The city hosted the 2017 Disc Golf World Championships and is home to Innova Disc Golf, which largely drives the sport.

Gettys says that “some foresight and good strategic planning” focused on the emerging sport could create “a real niche for us as a community.”

That kind of thing is music to Tom Regan’s ears.

“The key thing is to make sure you have a niche in some area,” he says. “Make sure those events that are done are excellent; and that the decisionmakers will come back and say ‘You know what? We’re coming back here.’”

A good niche, like disc golf or the BMX/velodrome complex, Regan says, is vital to maintaining a solid sports tourism infrastructure – and for warding off competition, which, he says, “is always going to increase.”

John Taylor knows that success breeds imitators, but he says he’s not worried about any upstart communities looking to get into sports tourism. In fact, he says, he has shared much with other communities about how sports tourism has worked for Rock Hill.

“People don’t necessarily look at state lines or county lines or city lines when they are visiting somewhere,” he says. “They just know they’re in an area and I think the more we can do to make them feel at home when they’re here without looking at lines, the better off we are.”

Scott Morgan is the Upstate multimedia reporter for South Carolina Public Radio, based in Rock Hill. He cut his teeth as a newspaper reporter and editor in New Jersey before finding a home in public radio in Texas. Scott joined South Carolina Public Radio in March of 2019. His work has appeared in numerous national and regional publications as well as on NPR and MSNBC. He's won numerous state, regional, and national awards for his work including a national Edward R. Murrow.