Rocky Top Sports World in Gatlinburg, Tennessee, may not be a shiny, new penny anymore, but it continues to generate interest and pay big dividends for the Smoky Mountain region. For the second straight year, the facility set new economic impact records, a feat made all the more impressive considering limitations that the pandemic created.
During the 2021-22 fiscal year, Rocky Top generated $55.6 million, far outpacing the previous high mark of $46.9 million set a year earlier.
“Rocky Top Sports World continues to surpass expectations since the multisport campus opened in Gatlinburg in 2014,” Gatlinburg Mayor Mike Werner says. “Entering the sports tourism realm and introducing numerous families to Gatlinburg has proven to be an important element of the economic growth in the city over the past eight years.”
Three letters explain the ongoing success: TLC. Staff maintain the facility and regularly make upgrades. Arguably more importantly, the Rocky Top team shows great care with its tournament and event planners, as well as participants making memories on the fields and inside the indoor venue.
During the most recent fiscal year, the facility hosted 75 events. General manager Jim Downs says Rocky Top is active 49 weekends of the year—36 of which included hosting multiple events. There’s room to expand opportunities—after all, three weekends remained free. Downs is confident that more record-breaking years are ahead.
Here, we spell out five reasons the facility seems likely to maintain its spot atop the sports tourism mountain.
Call of the Smokys
Travel sports have increasingly become attached to entire families’ vacations. That plays right into the hands of Rocky Top Sports World. Gatlinburg itself sports an extended boardwalk atmosphere that is surrounded by pristine nature. Siblings and athletes alike can enjoy the Ripley’s attractions and scenic hikes during one trip. Extend out to Sevier County and visitors have access to Dollywood, museums and nighttime shows in Pigeon Forge. Attendees in fall also can enjoy remarkable foliage.
“You can park it here, play, and then go out and do other activities,” says Downs. Proof of the pull of the Smoky Mountains is that participants came from 47 states to Rocky Top in the past year.
For some, a trip to the region is once in a lifetime. For others, it’s an annual rite—especially for those in driving distance. There is no greater recommendation than tournaments returning year after year, a fact Downs doesn’t take lightly. “We've been in operation for eight years and a lot of the people that we're doing business with have been coming for that entire time,” he notes. That familiarity speaks to how important trust is in this relationship-based industry. Kohl’s Kicking National Elite Camp and National Scholarship Camp, National Soccer Events and FC Alliance are among examples of returning groups.
With a service-first attitude, Rocky Top management has shown the ability to book the site based on its ability to execute first-rate events. That means sticking to one tournament if the size is grand. For instance, the Smoky Mountain Cup series brought in 5,000 participants and had an economic impact of $8 million. When an event gets too big, Downs says Rocky Top won’t add a different tournament to the schedule.
Of course, any facility needs to be able to support planners’ needs. Rocky Top thrives because it has outdoor fields for soccer, flag football and diamond sports, as well as an indoor venue for volleyball and basketball. “We take pretty good care of the building,” says Downs, adding a slight majority of events the site hosts are indoors. The floor breaks into six basketball or 12 volleyball courts, allowing for sizable events to get the games in. Soon, all seven outdoor fields will be turf to sustain weather conditions and heavy use. Expansion projects are also in the works.
Rocky Top has demonstrated its value beyond traditional sports. It sheltered many community members, including Downs and his family, during wildfires in November 2016. Far less dramatic, the indoor venue can host trade shows and unusual events. One of Downs’ favorites are the World Cube Association’s events featuring experts solving Rubik’s Cubes. “They can sit and do them blindfolded,” he says. “It’s crazy interesting.”