Sports tourism on upswing on Pleasure Island beaches

Gulf Shores, Orange Beach add May to busy season

By Cole McNanna
Sports Editor
Posted 6/21/22

While summer is traditionally the busy season for Pleasure Island's beaches, the month of May has turned into an especially hectic part of the year for the cities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach.

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Sports tourism on upswing on Pleasure Island beaches

Gulf Shores, Orange Beach add May to busy season


While summer is traditionally the busy season for Pleasure Island's beaches, the month of May has turned into an especially hectic part of the year for the cities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach.

Before the Hangout Music Fest and Memorial Day weekends put the beaches on center stage, the cities hosted the regional softball tournament and the large-classification state track championship at the high school level. They also held the NCAA beach volleyball national championships and the NAIA outdoor track national championships on the collegiate level.

Grant Brown, public information officer and recreation and cultural affairs director for the City of Gulf Shores, said the high school softball tournament now brings 56 teams from all seven classifications to compete over a four-day span. This year, the large-classification track championships brought 3,100 student-athletes from Classes 4A to 7A, along with their parents, coaches and fans, to the coast.

Those competitions have helped establish the championship atmosphere in the region that only intensifies when the college student-athletes get their turn.

After the NCAA beach volleyball championship once again broke its championship weekend attendance record with 10,151 spectators, the NAIA track championships brought the most student-athletes (1,432) and schools (164) to Gulf Shores that it has seen in its eight years of hosting, according to Gulf Shores | Orange Beach Sports & Events.

"It actually helps these championships by being able to promote all year long to their athletes, and their athletes' parents, that it's truly a privilege and it's a really amazing opportunity for the athletes to come to a beach environment for a championship," Brown said. "NAIA used to be in Indiana, and they used to go to a college. The kids would stay in a dorm, they would eat in the cafeteria, and they would have their track championship at whichever university they selected. Well, that's a different experience altogether than coming down to Gulf Shores, staying in a beach house or condo, eating out at seafood restaurants and truly getting a resort type of atmosphere, which is different from what they always have when they're back home at their local universities competing every day on the track."

Ken Grimes, city administrator and parks and rec director for the City of Orange Beach, said the championship atmosphere was initiated by the Southeastern Conference's women's soccer championship. However, after an 18-year run of hosting and an expansion in youth and high school sports, the city had to resign its post.

"We had to squeeze down certain facilities, and we ended up having to give up the SEC. The SEC didn't leave; we had to give them up," Grimes said, noting they ended up in neighboring Pensacola. "Frankly, we had to give it up because that field will eventually become a football field. And you've got your middle school and high school teams, and we still have a soccer field but we don't have the facilities that can carry on with the SEC quality they wanted."

With that experience and the knowledge from hosting the AVCA beach volleyball championship, the area was prepared for a larger field at this year's NCAA beach volleyball championships. ESPN's broadcast exposure only further sold the area to the rest of the nation as well.

"It's really let a lot of people in this country know that Alabama has beautiful beaches, and beach volleyball for us is a sport that we're hoping to truly hang our hats on to be a permanent home for beach volleyball," Brown said.

Of course, Brown said, the coast was no stranger to national television coverage. It was the wake of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 that led to a promising discovery.

"We all looked at each other and said, 'Look, our beaches are closed, nobody's coming,'" Brown recounted. "We had a number of sporting events that had been planned. They all showed up because they weren't here specifically for the beach. The beach drew them and provided them the marketing tool to get them to Gulf Shores, but sports became really important because it wasn't solely reliant on the beach."

Grimes said the sports visits can also spurn repeat business where families come back to the beach for their vacation outside of a tournament.

"People that come here for a ball tournament, know, 'Hey, I want to come back and vacation another time of year,' and they'll do that," Grimes said.

As the athletics have provided some stability throughout the year, Brown said another key factor they tout in bid proposals is the relationship between the cities and Gulf Shores | Orange Beach Sports & Events. He said though the facilities are owned, managed and operated by the cities, the sports commission's dollars can help provide added benefits to the tournaments and cover bid fees if they meet requirements.

"That unique relationship with the sports commission and the city where we provide what we feel are very high-quality sporting facilities that we maintain at a very high level and have good, quality employees that interact with the people who produce these events, the event holders and event owners who come to work with us," Brown said. "When they get here, we pretty much take care of everything for them and do our best to create an environment that is hospitable to the event organizers."

That partnership has led to all entities being on the same page, and sometimes that means not bidding on new events or letting events, like the SEC women's soccer championship, fall off the table.

"We're not going after and bidding on every event like a lot of communities that are trying to build their sports tourism," Grimes said. "We're very selective as a commission, and as the two cities, as to what we bid on because we just can't handle everything."