When Lynchburg Business Magazine asked me to enter the world of amateur sports, I didn’t know how deep the research would take me. I did a half dozen interviews, even though everyone didn’t provide a quote for the piece. Sorting through those stories and voices helped me understand the impact that the Virginia Commonwealth Games would have on the local economy.
It’s been fun looking back at the article after the games wrapped up in 2019.
Published in Lynchburg Business Guide (June 2019)
Ahead of the Game: A National Event Draws Attention to Central Virginia’s Growing Sports Tourism Industry
Visitors already flock to the greater Lynchburg region for our historical sites, beautiful scenery, and thriving active lifestyle. Now, with the addition of a national sporting event to the city’s itinerary, Central Virginia continues to build its reputation as a sports tourism destination.
This summer, an estimated 35,000 visitors will descend upon the area for the State Games of America July 31-Aug. 4. The Olympic-style event will bring 15,000 winners from each state’s games across the country.
Lisa Meriwether, tourism sales manager for the City of Lynchburg, says securing this event was a joint effort between the city, Liberty University, and Virginia Amateur Sports. The three groups first started working together in 2015 when they won a successful bid to host the Virginia Commonwealth Games from 2016 to 2021. Previously, those games had been held in Roanoke with sports scattered throughout the city and neighboring areas. When the games moved to Liberty University’s campus in 2016, most of the events were consolidated into the city of Lynchburg.
On the heels of a successful first year of the Virginia Commonwealth Games, the team starting eyeing its next goal—attracting the national games to the Hill City. Previously, only large, well-known cities such as St. Louis, San Diego, and Colorado Springs had hosted the State Games of America.
Officials from Lynchburg made a presentation before the National Congress of State Games (NCSG), competing against two other cities to host the event. One of the major points they included in their presentation was the region’s strong higher education system. “We have a lot of colleges and universities here that are community-focused. They open their doors wide and let local groups use their facilities,” says Meriwether.
Notably, Liberty University has developed its campus to include state-of-the art facilities including a baseball stadium, football complex, and natatorium. “[Bidding to host] the State Games was a no-brainer,” says Mitria Vaughter, director of events management at Liberty University. “We thought of it as an event that could benefit the whole community.”
In October 2016, a few months after Lynchburg had hosted the Virginia Commonwealth Games for the first time, officials learned Lynchburg had been selected to host the State Games of America in 2019. The NCSG says it chose Lynchburg for its “wonderful world-class Division 1 facilities” as well as the “enriched culture” that Liberty University and Lynchburg have to offer. Diane Williams, marketing director at the Roanoke-based Virginia Amateur Sports, describes the partnership they’ve had with Liberty University and the City of Lynchburg as “successful.”
“Each year we have held [the Virginia Commonwealth Games in Lynchburg], we have seen growth. Growth in number of attendees and growth in economic impact,” Williams says. “[The State Games of America] is going to put Lynchburg on the national stage. It’s a pioneer event where we can showcase Lynchburg as a sports destination. It should help [the city] bring in other large, national events.”
Through this partnership and cooperation, Lynchburg expects to continue to grow both tourism and the local economy by positioning the city as an ideal destination for sports fans, active adventurers, and athletes at all levels. Helping with this mission is the Central Virginia Sports Commission (CVSC). Created in late 2018, the organization is dedicated to showcasing the impact sports have on this area while supporting sports businesses and ideas. “The CVSC is building an understanding in the community of the importance of sports and the impact on quality of life by creating, supporting, and recruiting events through engaging partnerships,” says Executive Director Billy Russo.
The CVSC’s services include event recruitment and marketing, bid proposals/preparation and venue selection. They will also provide event support services for local, regional and national events.
Leading up to the State Games of America, Meriwether has been meeting with local stakeholders such as hotels, restaurants, and retailers to ensure the entire city is prepared for a surge in visitors. “What does it look like for 15,000 athletes to descend upon Lynchburg?” she asks. “We’re doing trainings and meetings to help people get ready.”
Those preparations range from gathering and training volunteers to working with local businesses to make sure they have all of their information updated online and on social media. “This applies mainly to retail stores and restaurants. We want to make sure that visitors can find them,” said Anna Bentson, assistant economic development director of the City of Lynchburg, who has been working with the Small Business Development Center to organize a series of workshops. “This is great information for our tourism stakeholders to have anytime, especially ahead of a large event like this.”
During the first weekend of the Virginia Commonwealth Games in 2016, the city reported that the events and competitors created an economic impact of $1.2 million with a total of $60,819 in local tax revenue. That event brought $2.6 million in 2017.
Through the State Games of America this summer, city officials estimate an economic impact of over $10 million in direct visitor spending. As of February 15, approximately 1,200 hotel rooms had been booked with an additional 5,000 hotel rooms and Liberty University dorm rooms expected to be filled.
By creating a positive experience for each and every guest this summer, Central Virginia is redefining what sports tourism can mean for the long-term outlook of the local economy. As far as Meriwether is concerned, their time in the Hill City won’t be limited to that one week in late summer.
“… we know they’ll come back, over and over and over again,” says Meriwether.
Other notable sports headlines in Lynchburg
1960 – Since 1960, the Central Virginia Invitational Tennis Tournament has attracted athletes to Lynchburg to play tennis, stay overnight in host homes, and socialize between games.
1974 – In 1974, Rudy Straub, a founding member of the Lynchburg Road Runners, organized the first Virginia 10 Miler race. The event brought in top athletes—such as Bill Rogers, Frank Shorter, Rod Dixon, and Joan Benoit Samuelson. The race continues to garner national interest, under the name Genworth Virginia 10 Miler and through the efforts of the current race director, Jeff Fedorko.
2016 – A major renovation of the City Stadium complex, completed in late 2016, renewed excitement for local varsity football and the Hillcats baseball team. Originally built in 1939, the complex provided both football and baseball stadiums for the city. After the facelift, the Lynchburg Hillcats, the EC Glass High School varsity football team, the Heritage High School varsity football team and their devoted fans have enjoyed the new and improved amenities.
2018 – Further pushing Lynchburg into the national spotlight, Liberty University joined the Atlantic Sun Conference (ASUN) in July 2018. Eight of nine men’s programs and nine of 11 women’s programs moved to the conference, not only making Liberty part of a more regionally diverse league but also allowing them to compete with a different class of players.
COMPETE, WATCH, HELP!
Any Virginia resident may participate in the State Games of America. Anyone competing from other states must have earned a medal in the two years leading up to the State Games of America.
Spectators at the event can enjoy viewing over 50 different sports such as yoga, Ninja Warrior Challenge, pickleball, or archery.
If you would like to volunteer at the event, visit stategamesofamerica.org/volunteer.