Sports tourism pays off, a tourney at a time

Matthew Coyne of Tourism Burnaby says residents won
Matthew Coyne of Tourism Burnaby says residents won't recognize Copeland Arena when it hosts the Esso Cup national hockey championship for women in April. The tournament is another feather in the city's sporting cap.

Rink rats will barely recognize Copeland Arena in April.

That’s when the Esso Cup, the national championship for midget-aged female hockey teams, hits the ice. A Hockey Canada event, the building’s entrances, windows, floors and ice surface will be emblazoned with the organization’s distinctive red, black and white maple leaf logo. Special banners will hang from the rafters. The scuffed dasher boards will be gleaming with signage from national sponsors like Esso, Royal Bank, McDonald’s. TSN will broadcast the final, possibly live if the NHL season is canceled.

It’s the kind of big-ticket event Moe Velji, the first vice president of the Burnaby Minor Hockey Association, never thought his group could pull off. But with a can-do spirit and the cooperation of Tourism Burnaby and the City of Burnaby, he’s confident it will be better and bigger than the five previous championships, which have all been held in eastern Canada.

“It’s huge,” says Vejli, the tournament’s chairperson. “For us to get it was pretty big.”

While global events like the Olympics, World Junior Hockey Championships, Davis Cup tennis and Skate Canada are the glamour children of the sports tourism business, Burnaby has quietly positioned itself as a leading destination in Canada for amateur sports tournaments, regional and national championships. It didn’t just happen, though.

“If you develop a proficiency for active sports tourism, over the years you wind up building the infrastructure in the community that allows you to bid for bigger events,” says Tom Mayenecht, a sports business analyst who’s worked with the Toronto Raptors, Vancouver Grizzlies and Tennis Canada.

From its genesis as the host for the Canada Games in 1973, successive Burnaby councils in the last 15 years have adhered to a vision of the city’s Central Valley as a sports mecca.

It now comprises eight natural grass fields, six artificial turf pitches, two public ice rinks, seven private ones, an indoor swimming pool, outdoor walking and running trails that circumnavigate Burnaby Lake, a flat water paddling course, tennis courts, two all-weather ball diamonds and an archery range. Soon to be added to the mix will be the $61 million Fortius Centre, a non-profit, privately-run sports development, training and medicine institute. Long range plans include more baseball diamonds and a hotel.

On any given weekend, the facilities are alive with athletes young and old competing in sports as diverse as kayaking, soccer, figure skating, ringette, rugby, Aussie rules football, field hockey, indoor and field lacrosse, cricket, cross-country running, slow-pitch and Ultimate.

“With the quality of the sports facilities, it’s obvious to help drive tourism through sports events,” says Tourism Burnaby’s Matthew Coyne.

To smooth the process of acquiring tournaments and championships, Tourism Burnaby offers financial support to organizing committees with its sports hosting grants, and expertise in marketing, logistics and planning. City Hall is also on board, working with local sports groups to juggle schedules, free up fields.

“Luckily we are pretty resource rich,” says Velji. “We were able to call on the city’s expertise. It’s critical to having a successful event.”

“They have to be welcoming, open,” says Mayenecht of the importance of civic support. “They have to believe sports events aren’t just good for the economic impact, but also the social and cultural impact.”

The stakes are high. While amateur sports tournaments may not attract thousands of paying spectators, every kid who comes to town for a provincial soccer championship or field hockey tournament is likely traveling with a parent or whole family. They’ll eat meals in town, maybe stay at a hotel, do some shopping between games.

“Athletes, spectators and their families, these are our tourists,” says Coyne.

It’s a competitive game that’s getting tougher every year as more communities chase the amateur sports dollar. For years Kamloops boasted the title of Tournament Capital of B.C. Victoria launched a successful sport host program in the wake of the 1994 Commonwealth Games. Richmond has jumped in aggressively with the cachet of the Olympic speed skating oval, which has been reconfigured to host everything from hockey to wheelchair rugby to badminton.

To win the favour of organizers, says Mayenecht, communities not only have to have top-quality sports venues, they also have to be able to prove they can accommodate athletes and visitors nearby, they have to have the volunteer network to ensure the events run smoothly, they have to be accessible, and they have to be a place people want to travel.

“There’s a huge draw coming to Vancouver,” says Velji. “The ease of getting into the city is big, makes it easier to plan complementary events like breakfasts and banquets and transit makes it easy to get around once they’re here.”

The anticipated opening of the Fortius Centre in the spring will raise Burnaby’s game even higher by giving amateur athletes access to top trainers and doctors, as well as on-site facilities like an athlete’s hotel, gym and FIFA-standard soccer pitch.

“Central Valley is the best sports park in Canada bar none, there’s nothing else that compares with it,” says Fortius’ Scott Cousens. “We want to partner with the city of Burnaby in as many ways as we can.”

Amateur sports tourism helps build community, says Mayenecht. It’s largely recession proof. In a tough economy families may put off a trip to Europe, but they’ll still travel to their child’s lacrosse tournament. Businesses like hotels, restaurants and shops benefit economically. Volunteerism is promoted. Athletes enjoy access to top facilities and can be inspired by watching or participating in their sport at a high level.

“Progressive communities appreciate that 10 small events equal one big event,” says Mayenecht. “Sometimes there’s more economic and social activity generated by a number of small events.”

Burnaby Minor’s Velji is excited to see three years of his organizing committee’s work pay off in April. His group launched its bid for the Esso Cup despite having only 70 girls playing in the association, none of them at the midget-aged level. But they were able to forge a partnership with the Fraser Valley Phantoms from Langley to be the host team.

They’ve also enlisted neighbouring hockey associations for volunteers and teams to play mini-exhibition games between periods and local schools will be transporting 1,000 kids to every game.

“These are the types of events we can use to promote female hockey,” says Vejli. “It creates a whole community of interest around female hockey.”


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