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A New Game Plan

Eau Claire hopes to be a sports-tourism all-star

Tom Giffey, photos by Andrea Paulseth |

Spectator's eye the action at last year's U.S. National Kubb Championship in Eau Claire.
Spectator's eye the action at last year's U.S. National Kubb Championship in Eau Claire.

Nationwide, such “grassroots” sports tourism is worth an estimated $8.7 billion annually.

The Chippewa Valley is already a reliable player when it comes to sports tourism, but some extra effort can help propel it into MVP territory. That’s the message offered by a consultant hired by Visit Eau Claire and the Eau Claire Sports Commission to assess and improve the economic impact of sporting events in Eau Claire.

Scores of athletic tourneys – from summer soccer and softball to winter ski jumping and curling – already bring thousands of visitors (and their wallets) to the region annually. That’s good for their trophy cases back home, but it’s also good for hotels, restaurants, and other businesses right here. And because Eau Claire lacks a major event center to host conventions and big sporting events – sorry, we won’t see a Super Bowl or a Final Four game here – “the grassroots stuff has to be a priority,” explained Jon Schmieder, CEO of the Phoenix-based Huddle Up Group, which prepared a report on sports tourism which was publicly presented Jan. 15.  

Nationwide, such “grassroots” sports tourism is worth an estimated $8.7 billion annually. Linda John, executive director of Visit Eau Claire, said no one has calculated the specific economic impact in the Chippewa Valley, but she estimates three times as much tourism is generated locally by sporting events than by meetings and conventions.

Schmieder said the Valley looks much like other similar-sized communities around the country in terms of the kinds of sports events it hosts – with certain exceptions: “You do stand out in the sense that the ones you do have aren’t bat-and-ball sports,” he said. Events such as the homegrown U.S. National Kubb Tournament and the Silver Mine Invitational ski jumping tournament set the Eau Claire area apart, Schmieder says, and are something the region can build on as a destination for such out-of-the-mainstream sporting events. As the report notes, fostering more of these “community ‘owned’ championships (means) the sports commission won’t have to rely as much on bid-in events to fulfill its sports tourism mission.”

The report offers four major recommendations – consider them a training regimen – for local sports tourism planning. First, the region should create a sports and venue “master plan,” especially considering the fact that some big new venues are under development. (Among them is UW-Eau Claire’s planned County Materials Event and Recreation Complex on Menomonie Street, which would replace Zorn Arena and may include a facility shared with the Eau Claire YMCA.) Second, it should focus on upgrading and expanding venues, including the Carson Park football field and the Silver Mine ski jump, as well as adding more indoor facilities. Third, sports tourism planning should empower local promoters, helping them build on existing successes such as the Eau Claire United Soccer Tournament and the Silver Mine Invitational. Finally, the work of the sports commission – an independent entity under the Visit Eau Claire umbrella – should be boosted with better branding and funding efforts.

John, Visit Eau Claire’s executive director, said the local team is ready to hit the field with these recommendations. “We just have the sense that, if certain things happen, venue-wise or otherwise, we could go to the next level,” she said.