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Opportunities exist in growing sports tourism market, industry expert says

THUNDER BAY -- Sport tourism had a $5.2 billion impact in Canada in 2012. That was a 5.3 per cent increase over 2011.
FILE -- Thousands of golf fans lined Whitewater Golf Course’s fairways this past July to take in the inaugural Staal Foundation Open PGA Tour Canada event. (Leith Dunick,

THUNDER BAY -- Sport tourism had a $5.2 billion impact in Canada in 2012.

That was a 5.3 per cent increase over 2011.

Grant MacDonald, the past president of the Canadian Sports Tourism Alliance, told a group of sports marketers and city officials in Thunder Bay on Thursday that there are more than 200,000 events to bid on each year in this country.

MacDonald, who helped Halifax land the 2003 World Junior Hockey Championship and five years later the World Hockey Championship in a shared bid with Quebec, said sports tourism is one of the few tourism areas experiencing growth these days.

“It’s a way for communities to proactively and strategically attract visitors to their communities, but then also while they’re here to ensure their experience meets their expectations and hopefully turn those first-time visitors into repeat visitors,” MacDonald said.

Just saying you want an event, and even landing it, isn’t enough to ensure success.
It starts with building an events culture.

The first step is letting groups and event organizers know you’re open for business.

“From there, you really need to make sure you host successful events, so that you’ve got the infrastructure, the volunteer base and the knowledge capacity within the community in order to stage successful events,” MacDonald said.

“And then you can start to leverage them to make sure you’re telling the Thunder Bay story … not just within Northern Ontario and Ontario, but you want to tell that story to the rest of Canada.”

It’s a story Thunder Bay seems to tell quite well, in fact.

The city has a long history of hosting major sporting events, from the 1981 Canada Games to the 1996 Scotties Tournament of Hearts to the 2010 World Junior Baseball Championship, a tournament slated to return to Port Arthur Stadium in 2017. Last summer saw the arrival of the Staal Foundation Open, the first of a three-year commitment to the city by PGA Tour Canada.

Tourism manager Paul Pepe said events like these raise the stature of the city across the country, if not internationally.

“All these things really help build on one another and they kind of feed in a very positive way. We host one event and people get excited to start building something else,” said Pepe, adding if a proposed event centre is built, it will only add to the city’s capacity to attract even higher caliber events.

“For us there is always room for growth and the nice thing is we have a lot of nice sport tourism infrastructure. You have to have the infrastructure, you have to have the product, you have to have the volunteers and you have to have the stewardship and the support of the sports community.”

MacDonald cautioned not every event is a winner and not every bid is the right one for a particular community.

“You’re going to have some stinkers,” he said.

The key is being prepared and avoiding the ready, fire, aim approach. Have a strategy in place that will allow informed decisions to be made, put it in the hands of a professional executive committee and make sure you’ve got creditable management in place, MacDonald said during his discussion.

“There is no cookbook for sport tourism. Every community is unique,” he said.

He also warned about keeping expectations reasonable and not overbuilding facilities just to attract an event only to wind up with escalating operational costs.

Those same expectations must be kept when it comes to what events are realistic.

When Halifax first bid on the WJHC, hoping to land the 1999 event, the minimum guarantee to the governing body was $1 million. Four years later Halifax had to promise $3 million. Today that number has climbed to about $20 million, which limits where there event can be held going forward.

“The cost of being in the event (hosting game) is only going up,” MacDonald said. “It’s also a risk. It is the cost of doing business.”