Grand Rapids used to be a bit of a well-kept secret a decade ago, but the West Michigan Sports Commission has demonstrated what a difference a decade makes.
Every year since 2007, more event organizers have found their way to west Michigan. Today, the region plays host to everything from weightlifting to softball, disc golf and fat bike racing. In honor of its 10th birthday, the West Michigan Sports Commission got itself a nice present—the busiest year in sports tourism in the history of the organization.
In 2017 alone, the WMSC hosted 76 sporting events, generating an estimated $61.1 million in direct visitor spending and bringing 202,000 athletes and visitors to Grand Rapids and its surrounding areas. The WMSC’s signature event, the State Games of Michigan, was responsible for bringing in $10 million of that local spending.
The commission hosted a quarter of that many events during its first year a decade ago. WMSC President Mike Guswiler said that the catalyst for the group’s healthy growth is embedded in its committed partnership with both public and private entities in the area as well as a continual pursuit of excellence in its venues.
“It’s the partnership and the collaboration that happens in this community, both public and private that makes the difference,” said Guswiler, who has led the WMSC since its inception. “We work together both to bring in events and service events, and I think event directors feel that.”
All of the key parties are committed to helping visiting sports competitions succeed and attracting new ones, Guswiler said, and those who book their events in Western Michigan are repeatedly struck by the cooperation of hotel employees, transportation officials, venue staff and others.
The best testament to their success, Guswiler believes, comes when organizers choose to return after an initial event. He says that type of repeat business is commonplace for the WMSC.
Widespread community buy-in is vital for an area to excel in sports tourism, Guswiler said. Another important factor in the WMSC’s explosive growth is its willingness to take risks that can have significant payoffs down the road. Two prime examples of such initiatives are the State Games of Michigan and the Art Van Sports Complex.
The commission’s signature event, the State Games of Michigan started in 2010 when the WMSC offered the games a permanent home. Now, both the winter and summer state games attract some 8,000. In 2017 WMSC served as the host organization for the State Games of America and its 12,000 competing athletes. The participation rates and number of sports offerings at the State Games has increased every year.
The decision to raise money and construct the Art Van Sports Complex was an unusual one for a sports commission, since most sports tourism groups just organize events in venues that belong to somebody else. But Guswiler and his staff realized the need for a facility that could house large baseball and softball tournaments. So the WMSC spearheaded a capital campaign, raised more than $7 million, constructed the complex and now oversees operations for the busy venue.
“It’s had the impact that we wanted, which is to bring sports tourism and dollars into the community,” Guswiler said. “Really, it just shows again even more the commitment of our board and the growth of this organization.”
Looking forward, the WSMC hopes to drive another campaign, this time to build a “rectangle sports” complex that can host large competitions in basketball, volleyball and other court sports. Since the number one draw for organizers is an excellent venue, the WMSC plans to spend the next decade making sure it continues to offer the best to those who come to Western Michigan to compete, coach, and cheer.
By the Numbers
600 events/tournaments have been booked in West Michigan since 2007.
900,000 athletes and visitors cumulatively attended those events.
$260 million in direct visitor spending has been generated over 10 years.
More than 50 sports venues have hosted WMSC events
Photo courtesy of Steve Zomberg