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Getting into the game

Sports tourism picking up pace in The Bahamas

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The Bahamas Investor Magazine
July 13, 2014
July 13, 2014
Tosheena Robinson-Blair

For a week in fall last year, The Bahamas basked in the spotlight of the world’s sports media: the Miami Heat were in town. For days before and after the four-day preseason training camp, The Bahamas was the centre of attention, as international and local media reported on the form and fitness of such superstars of the court as two-time NBA champion Lebron James and Dwayne Wade. It was a public relations masterstroke on the part of The Bahamas government.

The Heat training camp was just one of a series of high-profile events that have graced The Bahamas’ sporting calendar during the last year or so, as the government seeks to grab a slice of the sports tourism market–a niche segment worth $8.3 billion, according to a 2013 National Association of Sports Commissions Industry Study.

“We thought to ourselves: ‘With our climate, location, and destination, why aren’t we number one in sports tourism in this region?’” says Minister of Youth, Sports and Culture, Dr Daniel Johnson, who estimates the market in The Bahamas to be worth $100 million annually. “It’s how much of that market we can capture in our event planning and by really developing our sports tourism product. It’s just an incredible opportunity. We are capturing about a quarter [$25 million] of what we could.”

Bahamas selling points
As a general tourist destination, The Bahamas has many selling points: sheer beauty, engaging attractions, first-rate hotel accommodation, as well as being ideally located off the East Coast
of the US. The Ministry of Tourism spends an estimated $25 million annually advertising that list of attributes around the world.

When it comes to sports tourism, there are even more attractions to include, such as state-of-the-art facilities, modern infrastructure and a high level of services. Given the recent economic climate, the government has identified the sector as being a potential stabilizing force within the industry, even during times of volatility.

“We are testing sports as a part of sustainable, economic development,” says Johnson. “It’s about the business of sports. This is new revenue, new ideas, new jobs, new energy and a new economy attached to sports tourism.”

The Bahamas has dabbled in sports tourism since 2001, when retired NBA great Michael Jordan held his eponymous invitational golf tournament, at the One&Only Ocean Club. A premier charity event, the invitational drew celebrity golfers from the sports and entertainment industry for four days of competitive golf and exclusive events.

Over the last couple of years it has been women’s golf that has taken centre stage on the Ocean Club’s Tom Weiskopf-designed 18-hole course, with the arrival of the Pure Silk-Bahamas LPGA Classic. The scenic par 72 course, which was recently recognized as the eighth best resort course in North America and the Caribbean by Golf Digest magazine, has hosted the LPGA tourney twice so far. This year, the event kicked off the LPGA season in January, receiving 10 hours of live coverage by the Golf Channel and countless column inches in newspapers and magazines around the world.

Arguably, however, it was the successfully staged Battle 4 Atlantis in 2011 that made the government realize that the jurisdiction could really become a premier destination for sports competitions. An early season invitational men’s college basketball tournament hosted by Atlantis, Battle 4 Atlantis is the richest basketball tournament for its Division I category, with schools receiving $2 million for their participation.

The resort spent more than $500,000 to transform its Imperial Ballroom into an indoor, 3,900 seat arena for the inaugural three-day, eight-team tournament. The Grand Ballroom was also transformed into a second court as a practice facility. Atlantis has since secured a multi-year, multi-network television deal, sponsorships and contracts with participating teams.

Now in its fourth year, the tournament boasts some of the best teams, great exposure and an extensive reach. Persons attending “feel welcomed from the very first minute to the very last minute,” said Michele Wiltshire, senior vice president of special events and entertainment for Kerzner International, at a 2013 press conference.

“They come to The Bahamas as fans of basketball and they return as fans of this destination,” she said. “This is a tourism strategy. We’re in the hospitality industry and not the basketball industry. The vehicle is the tournament, but we want them to come back as fans of Atlantis and fans of The Bahamas.”

Battle 4 Atlantis has been “a major home run,” adds Johnson. “The economic opportunity of that is now realized. It is second to none.”

Chasing opportunities
The Bahamas, however, has not rested on its laurels and has been hosting events across a range of sporting disciplines.

The annual Bahamas Speed Week Revival attracts vintage motor car enthusiasts and racers from all around the world, producing hundreds of room nights during 10 days of racing and events; the
Atlantis Crown Invitational Women’s Gymnastics Competition drew representatives from five countries last year. Meanwhile, the 2,500-strong Marathon Bahamas continues to grow in popularity amongst international runners.

There was also the inaugural Star Sailors League Finals held here in December 2013 for the global sailing community. Eighteen two-man crews came from around the world including Brazil, Canada, France, Denmark, the UK and the US.

The 2013 Carifta games generated over $1 million in direct visitor spend and close to 2,000 room nights. According to organizers, 556 athletes from 26 countries participated in the games. That is not including the more than 100 officials who were also in attendance.

“We hosted some big events last year and I negotiated some really intense contracts, so we feel comfortable with the logistics of it all,” says Johnson, adding that 2014 is also shaping up to be a busy year. “We’re off with a bang this year … off and running.

“The learning curve for us has been surprisingly swift because of our involvement in the tourism industry. We have all the ingredients in place to become the leader in sports and cultural tourism in the region and perhaps even in the western hemisphere.”

Centres of sporting excellence
To truly tap into sports tourism, however, The Bahamas government is looking to fully utilize every field and sports facility throughout the country.

“As Minister, I’m charged with carrying out the establishment of sports facilities around the country that are capable of hosting world-class events,” says Johnson. “Once we get the facilities up and running then we are going to invest in sports academies, which are centres of excellence for the disciplines to create world-class talent that is Bahamian. We already have three of them up and running. These academies create a breeding ground for sports-related careers.”

The jewel in the crown is the Thomas A Robinson Stadium on New Providence.

The stadium has Olympic and international certification and has been designed to accommodate most sporting events, including American football, rugby, soccer, and track and field. Built to seat 15,000 at a cost of $30 million, the stadium was a gift from the People’s Republic of China. It opened in 2011 and takes its

name from a now deceased local sprinter, who competed at four Olympic Games.
In May this year, the government spent around $4 million to host the two-day IAAF World Relays at the stadium, drawing around 700 athletes from more than 40 countries. The sporting meet, in which The Bahamas placed eighth overall, was carried by 150 news agencies and channels worldwide. The preliminary economic impact was projected to be around $25 million, according to the Sports Minister.

Breakthrough year
“This is a breakthrough year for us in sports tourism,” says Johnson, noting the various promotional campaigns related to the sector.

In January, there was the Royal Bahamas Police Force Band’s half-time performance during a Miami Heat and LA Lakers game at the American Airlines Arena in Miami. The partnership has led to a proposed training camp for the Lakers in The Bahamas sometime this summer.

The Ministry of Tourism has been working with the Miami Dolphins to increase exposure, running its eye-catching ‘Behold’ advertising campaign at a game in the Sun Life Stadium. In spring, Dolphins legend Dan Marino launched a golfing weekend in The Bahamas. For $2,000, participants had opportunities to interact with Marino and 10 other footballing greats during a round of golf, a sunset cruise and an evening reception at Atlantis. The Bahamas also secured the inaugural Bahama Bowl to be held this December.

The government is also planning to host a professional baseball tournament, with the goal of starting a Caribbean baseball league.

“When these large scale events come to town, you are looking at 25,000 people coming for these events. That takes more rooms than we have, but it opens up some opportunities for a bed and breakfast industry–a small, personal rental industry,” says Johnson. “That will result in an economic boost where the average Bahamian can get involved.”
 
Worthwhile investment
Hosting these types of events often means putting up some capital in terms of advertising dollars and covering the cost of the facility. The government feels it is a worthwhile investment.

“There are two areas you have to look at in sports tourism in terms of the economic impact,” says Johnson. “One is the direct spend: airlift capacity, hotel accommodations and average spend while at the destination. There’s also the indirect impact.”

In this economic model, the government is working to attract events that are not one-off or one-night occasions. Ideally, The Bahamas hopes to book 12 major sporting events during the course of a calendar year.

Presently, government representatives are talking to around 100 teams in more than 10 disciplines. The Bahamas has commitments from roughly eight teams and has signed contracts with six major, international brands, according to the Sports Minister. “We are really speaking with the number one teams in each category,” he says. “That’s my simple formula to becoming number one in sports tourism. Bring the best team, whoever that team is.”

Windermere Island, Eleuthera, has long been favoured secluded spot for rich, famous, privileged

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