CINCINNATI — On June 2, the state of Ohio lifted most public health mandates related to COVID-19. That included capacity limits for major events, like baseball games and soccer matches.

The act symbolized a return to normalcy of sorts for sports fans across Ohio. But it also represented hope for the various businesses that rely on the hundreds of millions of dollars generated every year by sports.

According to a 2020 report for Sports Events and Tourism Association (Sports ETA), sports and sports tourism accounted for $45.1 billion in direct spending across the United States in 2019.

"Sports are critical to the economy of Cincinnati. Not just in terms of the quality of life for our citizens and our fans, but the economics of the city and the local hospitality industry," said Jackie Reau, CEO of Game Day, a communications firm focused on sports and events.

What You Need To Know

  • In 2019, Sports tourism accounted for $45.1 billion in direct spending across the U.S.

  • 'Re-Opening Day' on June 2 served as major milestone for Cincinnati sports and entertainment industries

  • Events such as Western & Southern Open and Flying Pig Marathon return this year; combined $70+ million impact

  • Capacity limits for some sports still being determined by leagues or organizations

​The spending is not limited to inside the stadium. Sporting events have a ripple effect on other local businesses -- bars and restaurants, stores and other personal services. They also produce jobs.

The Sports ETA report says that the sports tourism industry generated nearly 740,000 job across the country in 2019.

A crowd watching sports at Holy Grail bar
A crowd watching sports at Holy Grail bar (Casey Weldon | Spectrum News 1)

Reds COO Phil Castellini said the sports and hospitality industry have far-reaching "tentacles" that impact many aspects of day-to-day life.

“We, who have other jobs in other industries - we Zoomed our way through (the pandemic), we Microsoft Team’d our way through it," he said. "But those who are in the entertainment industry, and bar and restaurant industry, and hotel and convention industry, didn’t. And those are the folks who have been home jobless, in many cases."

Castellini said the Reds are still looking for seasonal help.

One of the beneficiaries of in-person events is the hotel industry. Sports fans account for a considerable number of local room nights.

The Sports ETA survey found that in 2019, about 180 million people traveled to a U.S. sporting event, either as a spectator or a participant. About 96.4 million of those people stayed overnight.

Overnight sports travelers spent $359 per person trip in 2019; day-trippers spent $79 per trip, per the Sports ETA report.

Crowd at the first home match at TQL Stadium
Crowd at the first home match at TQL Stadium (Casey Weldon | Spectrum News 1)

Jim Moehring co-owns Holy Grail, a bar and restaurant across the street from the Reds' home at Great American Ball Park. He said based on the last few weeks, "the future looks bright."

“We are experiencing a dramatic rebound in business since the lifting of restrictions in June,” he said. “The DORA (Designated Outdoor Refreshment Area) opening at The Banks and the Reds playing so well, it has been amazing. And we still have the opening of the ICON Music Center to look forward to this summer and the start of the season for the Joe Burrow-led Bengals."

That optimism wasn't always so high, especially not midway through last year.

The Sports ETA report estimated that for March 2020, nearly 10 million fewer people traveled across the U.S. to take part in or watch a sporting event compared to the previous year. The result was a loss of $2.5 billion in direct spending.

For March to December 2020, that estimate grew to 75 million fewer sports-related travelers than in 2019. If those numbers held, that would mean a $20 billion hit in direct spending across the country.

One of Cincinnati's major sports-centric tourist events is the Flying Pig Marathon.

In a non-pandemic year, the event attracts about 40,000 participants, including 16,000 or so from out of town. It adds about $15 million to the local economy each year.

Due to the uncertainty surrounding COVID-19, Flying Pig organizers changed the format last year to a virtual race. About 10,000 people took part.

Reau, who does media work for the Flying Pig, called last year's event a success given all the uncertainty surrounding the pandemic. But she admitted that having to change the format was less than ideal.

Flying Pig Marathon
Flying Pig Marathon (Photo provided by Flying Pig Marathon)

"Those people need somewhere to stay, somewhere to eat. They need to stay in restaurants. They eat and shop, when they travel here," she said. "So that’s a huge lost impact in 2020."

The Flying Pig Marathon is coming back as a hybrid race this year, with virtual and on-course participation options. It will take place Oct. 29-31.

Reau said sign-up is going well.

Julie Calvert with the Cincinnati USA Convention & Visitors Bureau (CVB), called the Reds the "No. 1 major generator" of summer travel for our region. 

But she touted several other major tourist draws: The Flying Pig, a game in FC Cincinnati's new stadium and the return of the Western & Southern Open tennis tournament in Mason.

The Western & Southern Open is a major tourism driver that attracts an international audience. The $60 million of annual local impact is spread across parts of Butler, Hamilton and Warren counties.

"To have an international event like that every single year in the summertime, that’s tremendous," Calvert said. "They’re coming back at full capacity when they have that tournament later this summer and I have confidence we’re going to see more people back in downtown Cincinnati and back in the community."

Crowd at the Pitch Cincy, a bar in West End
Crowd at the Pitch Cincy, a bar in West End (Casey Weldon | Spectrum News 1)

FC Cincinnati President Jeff Berding is more than ready.

"We are ready to (welcome) visitors. We’re ready to welcome people into our hotels, into our restaurants, into our attractions, and yes, into our stadiums,” said Berding, who is also the board chair for the CVB.

Other teams, and crowds, coming back at full capacity include the Cincinnati Bengals and the University of Cincinnati football team. UC and Xavier basketball have not yet announced plans for the upcoming season.

One franchise that's geared up for their return is the Cincinnati Cyclones. They will play their first game in over a year-and-a-half on Oct. 30.

The American Hockey League canceled the end of the 2019-2020 season due to COVID-19. The Cyclones opted out of this past season.

"It was a long drought without pro hockey on the riverfront, but it is finally back!” Cyclones Vice President and General Manager Kristin Ropp said in a statement. "We look forward to icing another winning team and offering the city of Cincinnati a fun, affordable night out. We cannot wait to welcome everyone back to Heritage Bank Center.”