Tapping into the amateur sports industry pie

Todd Johnson likes to tell the story about traveling from the Twin Cities to Marshall with his son six years ago for a peewee tournament.

“We couldn’t get a room because of the sport called rolle bolle, which I never heard of. All of the rooms were full,” Johnson said.

Johnson is now the executive director with the Minnesota Amateur Association and was in Marshall to share that story and words of wisdom for members of the Southwest Minnesota Amateur Sports commission who were holding their annual meeting inside the Red Baron Sports Arena main conference room Wednesday. The same arena that Johnson’s association helped the Marshall group secure state funding to build.

That effort was more than a year ago and now the arena has been up and running for a year.

With the sound of pucks hitting the boards along the ice below, the discussion raged on: what’s next for the arena and the Southwest Minnesota Amateur Sports Commission.

“When people tell you nothing is going on in Marshall, you can use this as your part of your speech to say there is plenty of going on. It’s just a matter of where you are looking and when you are looking,” Darin Rahm told the group. He is the Convention and Visitors Bureau director in Marshall. Since the arena opened, it’s been Rahm’s job to fill the facility and other facilities in Marshall with events. And work to prove the skeptics wrong that the facility will never pay off.

And one of the largest stumbling blocks facing increase use of year-round events at the arena and other facilities is Marshall’s hotel-room inventory. It’s been kind of a thorn in the side of both sides of the debate. Supporters of luring more sport tournaments and other events to the arena say Marshall needs more hotel room. The majority of hotel owners argue hotel occupancy is too low to add another hotel.

“We have had some really awesome events here,” Cal Brink, director of the Economic Development Authority, said during the discussion. “But they (hotel owners) don’t care about craft shows. They don’t care about one-day events because it doesn’t put anybody in a hotel. And we have had a bunch of those. They are great. They are exactly what we promised the community. We have to find ways to put people in hotels because of this facility — period.”

Harry Weilage, also in the group, agreed. But he said Marshall has the potential.

“Let’s start with one thing, Marshall lacks for no substandard facilities. We can put on any tournament across the state and the region and people would be happy with our facilities. They are not happy with our hotels. And continue to bring them (tournaments) back, that’s the challenge the commission has had to think about,” he said.

And that is why Johnson and Robert Lodge with the National Sports Center attended Wednesday’s meeting.

“Marshall is doing really well so far, after a year having their feet under them,” Lodge said. “There are definitely some challenges that have shown up.”

Both say if the challenges can be overcome, there are big rewards for Marshall.

“Sports is a huge business,” Johnson said. “I don’t know if you have kids, but parents are nuts. It becomes sports vacations. There is a whole industry that you plan around. It’s a clean industry.”

Johnson quoted a Wall Street article that claims amateur sports is a $19 billion industry and in five years it will be $43 billion.

“And you guys (Marshall) are going to get a piece of it,” Johnson said.

I reminded Lodge of not only the hotel challenge, but the distance from major population centers like Minneapolis.

“It’s for sure a challenge, but not insurmountable though,” he said. “It’s a couple hours away, but it’s not eight hours away. It’s not like driving to Chicago. I think Marshall as a city has a lot to offer, especially in this region as a hub. It acts as a hub right now. I think the building of the Red Baron Arena and what the city and this group is trying to do is capitalize on that. Sort of a hub experience to draw in big events.

“There are a lot of opportunities for teams and groups from the outside that don’t necessarily want to go all the way to the Twin Cities. Bringing teams from the Twin Cities is good, but attracting some of the teams from Nebraska and the Dakotas, Iowa — this is definitely a great location for some of those folks.”

And getting a piece of that “$43 billion” pie could work well for Marshall. After all, Marshall did build it. Now will they come?

Only time and hard work will answer that question.