When it comes to sports, Jason Sands, director of sports for the Fort Worth CVB, says his love of the game started in his childhood. He’d go to Chicago White Sox, Blackhawks and Bulls games—during the Michael Jordan era—with his family. Sands, 38, grew up in Michigan City in northern Indiana, an area commonly referred to as “the region” for its close proximity to the Chicago and Michigan state lines.
After graduating from Indiana University, he worked as the director of sales and marketing for EVP Tour, and the director of sports development at South Shore Sports. He then spent four years as executive director of Evansville Sports Corporation in Evansville, Indiana, before transferring last May to Fort Worth, Texas, a city many commonly refer to as “the gateway to West.” We talked to Sands, the father of two daughters, Brooklyn, 12, and Avery, 8, about life in sports tourism within the DFW metroplex.
Why did you make the move from Evansville to Fort Worth?
I was in Evansville for four years. It’s a great community and we accomplished a lot. Fort Worth presented an opportunity that was just too good to pass on. It’s the 15th biggest city in the country. It’s got an unbelievable downtown and there’s a lot of great sports happening here. We’ve got events like The Colonial PGA Invitational, NASCAR and IndyCar races at Texas Motor Speedway. TCU— one of the most successful Division 1 programs in all of college sports—is based here. There’s also the new $540 million Dickies Arena, a 14,000-seat multipurpose arena with over 90,000 square feet of meeting space that’s scheduled to open in late 2019. Fort Worth is a city on the rise and I was excited to jump on board and contribute to its sports tourism initiative.
What distinguishes Fort Worth?
The DFW area is the fourth biggest metro market in the country with two of the 15 biggest cities in America only 30 miles apart. For us in Fort Worth, we focus on delivering that Texas experience people are looking for when they come to the Lone Star State. We have some great attractions that deliver that western experience but at the same time, we have the cultural district that has the Will Rogers Memorial Center and it features some of the best museums in the country including the Kimbell Art Museum, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History and The Cowgirl Hall of Fame. We also host first class sporting events. Fort Worth is scheduled to host the 2019- 2022 NCAA Women’s Gymnastics Championships, the 2020-2022 AAC Men’s Basketball Championships and the 2022 NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball first and second rounds.
What do you think is a big surprise for people visiting Fort Worth for the first time?
I don’t think people realize how big Fort Worth is and how much there is to do here. We have one of the safest, cleanest downtowns in the world with more than 55 restaurants and retail outlets, more than 4,000 hotel rooms and the 250,000-plus-sq.-ft. convention center. We’ve got the longest running stock show and rodeo—more than 100 years—that happens every January and we’ve got a world renowned equestrian center in Will Rogers Memorial Center that is booked 24 hours, 7 days a week 365 days per year. The Fort Worth Stockyards features the world’s largest Honky Tonk bar—Billy Bob’s— which has concerts every weekend. With the addition of the new Dickies Arena, and the concerts and sporting events it will host, there truly is something for everyone in Fort Worth.
How would you describe what the sports scene is like in Texas versus Indiana?
In Indiana, basketball is king whereas in Texas, it’s football all the way. When it comes to youth sports and sports tourism, both states recognize they are strong economic drivers and they have put resources in place to assist those efforts. The sports culture is strong in both states and youth sports in particularly, continues to grow year over year. The one difference, is as they say, everything is bigger in Texas. It’s amazing to think that five of the country’s 15 biggest cities are in Texas. This is a massive state!
What else do you like to tell people to do or see when they come to Fort Worth?
We’ve got so many up-and-coming districts that offer so many great experiences. I’ve mentioned the Stockyards, the Cultural District and downtown but there is so much more. Magnolia Avenue is a must visit with new events and great restaurants like Heim Barbeque. Our West 7th district is just outside of downtown and it boasts a lot of great dive bars and restaurants that everyone can enjoy. We’ve also got more than 70 miles of paved trails that run alongside the Trinity River and tourist attractions like the Botanical Gardens. The Trinity River is a great place for kayaking, canoeing and paddle boarding. We’ve also got the Fort Worth Zoo, which is ranked the fourth best zoo in the U.S. We’ve got amazing breweries and Whiskey Ranch, a new distillery. Let’s just say, bring some comfortable shoes when you come to Fort Worth because there is a lot to see!
When did your love of sports begin?
My father was a huge sports fan and his passion really rubbed off on my sister and I growing up. We were fortunate enough to regularly attend White Sox, Bulls, Blackhawks and Notre Dame football games growing up and it’s just always been a part of who I am. Being in the sports business is great because I get to be around these amazing people that are passionate about their sport and making a difference in young people’s lives. I’ve met so many fantastic people in this business and I couldn’t see myself doing anything else.
What trends are you seeing in the industry?
The youth sports industry has grown exponentially over the past 15 to 20 years. Youth sports tourism is a $15 billion dollar a year industry and I think communities are starting to take notice and trying to figure out how to get a piece of that. A lot of communities are investing in facilities because they see that the investment is worth the return. Additionally, those facilities help check the “quality of life” box that so many community leaders talk about as a way to attract new businesses to their cities. Youth sports is a big-time business and investing in that business is a trend I don’t see going away anytime soon.
What are three things about you a lot of people don't know?
I went to IU and was there when Bobby Knight got fired in 2000. I stormed the field at Notre Dame Stadium in 2004 when the Irish upset Michigan. I was at the United Center [in Chicago] for Michael Jordan’s first game back after retirement in 1995.
Dawn Reiss is a Chicago-based journalist who went to Indiana University, interned at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and worked as a staff sports writer at the Dallas Morning News.