While millions of Americans gathered with loved ones on Nov. 24 to eat, drink and watch football, about 4,000 youth field hockey players and their families were traveling to Chesterfield for the Shooting Star Thanksgiving Tournament.
Administered by Andover, Massachusetts-based 3Step Sports, the three-day fall showcase event included 260 teams from as far away as California, Colorado, Missouri and New England, and even one from the Caribbean island of Curacao.
The tournament, which was held on synthetic turf fields at River City Sportsplex, Mary B. Stratton Park and Ukrop Park, gave girls in age groups ranging from U12 to U19 multiple opportunities to display their talents for dozens of college field hockey coaches.
It also filled hotel rooms, restaurants, retail businesses and attractions across Chesterfield and the Richmond region, driving economic activity through as part of the multibillion-dollar sports tourism industry.
Playing over Thanksgiving weekend “is a thing for field hockey,” said Sam Carlino, field hockey event manager for 3Step Sports. “It’s right after the end of the high school season. The players are still in shape and still in field hockey mode, so it’s the best showcase for them. It also allows the players not to miss school, which is another positive.”
Currently the home to 12 fields, River City Sportsplex has been the hub of local sports tourism activity since it opened in 2010. Chesterfield acquired the 115-acre Genito Road facility six years later; while it is best known for hosting youth sports tournaments, it functions as a public park that gets about 60% of its daily use from teams and leagues affiliated with the county’s Parks and Recreation Department.
“It’s one of the biggest, best facilities in the country,” Carlino added.
Largely because of River City Sportsplex, sports tourism in Chesterfield already has recovered to and beyond levels seen prior to the onset of pandemic-related closures in 2020.
During fiscal year 2022, which ended June 30, Chesterfield hosted 63 sports tourism events – an increase of 24% over the previous 12 months.
Those events included 253,111 attendees and generated $34.4 million in direct economic impact, as well as $1.28 million in direct local tax revenue.
Participants booked 26,000-plus room nights at hotels in the county.
“We can’t do what we do without your investment in facilities like River City Sportsplex,” said J.C. Poma, vice president of community relations for Richmond Region Tourism, in a presentation to the Board of Supervisors last month. “It’s those investments and the team you have here in Chesterfield that helps us win these bids [to host events], bring people to the region and helps fill your restaurants, hotels and attractions.”
Chesterfield’s recently approved $540 million bond referendum package includes $17.2 million for enhancements at River City Sportsplex: construction of four more fields (for a total of 16), additional parking, a large destination play area with a splash pad and a universal playground that can accommodate both disabled and able-bodied children, a picnic area, fitness circuit and 5k trail system. Also included will be restrooms, shade structures at the fields and other amenities for participants and spectators.
Those projects are intended to enhance the visitor and user experience, increase the facility’s attractiveness as a tournament site and provide additional recreation opportunities for Chesterfield residents.
“This is leaping ahead of your competition. Sports tourism is thriving in Chesterfield and the future looks even brighter,” said Jon Lugbill, executive director of Richmond Sports Backers, during the Nov. 16 Board of Supervisors meeting.
For all of the planned improvements at the county-owned facility, there still could be more eating, lodging, shopping or entertainment options for visitors in the immediate vicinity. Attracting complementary commercial development is the primary objective of the Genito/288 Special Focus Area Plan.
Following a public hearing last month, the Board of Supervisors approved the document that will guide future development in a 659-acre area around the intersection of Genito Road and Route 288.
The conceptual plan recommends a hotel site, restaurants and a brewery, destination retail and community green space adjacent to River City Sportsplex.
“We want people who are coming to the park to have things to do in the area,” said Joanne Wieworka, Chesterfield Planning’s project manager for the Genito/288 Special Focus Area Plan. “There is a lot of potential in this area to build off the success at River City Sportsplex and keep more of those tourist dollars in Chesterfield.”
Board of Supervisors Chairman Chris Winslow noted that local economic impact from sports tourism was $14.5 million in fiscal year 2012. That figure has more than doubled to $34.4 million over the past decade.
“Instead of having to pay people to come here and check out Chesterfield, they’re paying to come here,” Lugbill said.
The Shooting Star Thanksgiving Tournament has been held in Chesterfield annually since 2016. This year, despite steady rain on Sunday, the third and final day of the event, the synthetic turf fields made it possible for all teams to complete their games as scheduled.
“Everybody knows unless there is lightning and thunder or a heavy downpour, we’re going to be playing,” Carlino said. “We wouldn’t have been able to play at all on grass fields.
“We have a fantastic partnership with Chesterfield County and we love being at River City,” she added. “Having that facility gives us the ability to hold such a big event … it just makes sense to keep coming back.”