Turning, flipping and leaping through the air, Simone Biles displayed acrobatic excellence during the U.S. Gymnastics Championships on June 6 in Fort Worth.
The four-time Olympic gold medalist achieved her seventh national title at the championship at Fort Worth’s Dickies Arena. Biles looked strong and confident for her Olympic defense in July. The victory made Biles the winningest woman gymnast in history.
Fort Worth also won big that night.
According to a U.S. Gymnastics report, the championship event and its leadup generated about 3,000 media articles, including mentions of Fort Worth, from national and international outlets. Social media accounts shared the articles over 160,000 times. The global readership represented 4.1 billion people.
About 7,000 people flocked to Dickies Arena to watch the final women’s session on Sunday, June 6. More than 30,000 tickets were sold in total for the three-day event, according to the organizers.
“It’s basically other people’s tax dollars,” City Council member Cary Moon, who also serves in the council-appointed Fort Worth Sports Authority, said. “It generates our sales tax, increases our sales tax dollars with businesses that service. Sports tourism allows us to get revenue that we were not recognizing.”
The U.S. Gymnastics Championships was not a one-off. Although the pandemic impeded most of the sporting world in 2020, Fort Worth played a tactical gambit opening to sports organizers as a host city.
Fort Worth hosted more events and visitors compared with pre-pandemic years. According to Fort Worth Sports Commission, the city hosted 75 sporting events, bringing in 509,000 visitors and generating $83.2 million in economic impact during the 2018-2019 fiscal year.
In an upcoming yearly report, the commission estimates the economic impact and number of visitors more than doubled for the 2020-2021 fiscal year, said Jason Sands, Fort Worth sports commissioner.
The pandemic leveled the playing field in terms of sporting event hosting. When most other usual host cities quieted down, Fort Worth swiftly made a name for itself, welcoming new partners and maintaining old relationships in professional sports.
“We’ve been able to show the entire community and all these governing bodies and athletes and fans that Fort Worth is on the rise,” Sands said “We know how to support these events, and we did extremely well. I think it’s going to open up other doors for us to host more high-profile events for the future.”
Getting the ball rolling
Fort Worth has not historically been a focal point for large-scale sporting events, except for collegiate-level games.
The city recognized the deficit, so it launched the Fort Worth Sports Commission about 1½ years ago. The commission is a subsidiary of Visit Fort Worth, which receives funding from the city’s Culture and Tourism Fund.
Apart from funding Visit Fort Worth, the fund also covers operational costs for Fort Worth Public Events Department, as well as the debt service for the Fort Worth Convention Center, Will Rogers Memorial Center and the Dickies Arena. The fund was allocated about $42 million in 2020.
Sands said the Sports Commision received a tiny fraction of the funding set aside for Visit Fort Worth. He added 2020 was the first year that the commission received any meaningful funding; however, he did not have the exact amount.
A similar sports commission began in 1968 in Kansas City, Mo., where the gymnastics championship was held a year before. In the last five years before the pandemic, the Dallas Sports Commission planned and executed more than 300 events and generated $2.2 billion in economic impact.
Fort Worth has lagged behind other major cities when it comes to sports in general, Sands said.
But the tides turned in the past seven months, Fort Worth officials say. They point to the National Finals Rodeo that took place from Dec. 3-12 as the preamble to Fort Worth’s growing stature as a sporting events host.
“We made sure that we’re filling the seats, there’s a great experience for those athletes and we were also making things as streamlined and efficient as possible for the governing body,” Sands said. “We’ve really been able to rally the entire city around these events and support them.”
Because Nevada imposed COVID-19-related occupancy restrictions, Las Vegas could not host the National Finals Rodeo. Its organizer, Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association, chose Arlington and Fort Worth as host cities.
Gov. Greg Abbott established a $7.1 million event trust fund for the cities in anticipation of increased tax revenue and spending associated with the event. NFR hosted about 300,000 attendees, according to the sports commission.
A similar shift happened for the U.S. Olympic Team Trials in wrestling. USA Wrestling relocated the event from Pennsylvania to Fort Worth. The Fort Worth Sports Commission received the call to plan and lined up the venue mere five weeks before the start of the event in April.
In June, Fort Worth hosted the Bassmaster Classic, which was attended by 147,197 spectators – the second-highest attendance in its 50-year-old history. The economic impact from the event is expected to be over $25 million, according to the organizers.
The Charles Schwab Challenge, a famed PGA Tour tournament, also returned to host its 75th rendition at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth.
“These are once-in-a-lifetime type of events that cities work decades and years to host,” Sands said. “And we hosted them all in a seven-month stretch in the middle of a pandemic. We’ve come out, and I think the world knows now that we’re a world best destination.”
Going the distance
After wooing some national sports governing bodies, Fort Worth Sports Commission is looking ahead to next year and beyond.
“I don’t think there’s going to be another seven-month stretch of events like we just hosted,” Sands said. “We should be able to manage that growth.”
There are also expectations the city is working on.
Because there are headlining sports franchises in other parts of the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, largely popular events have rarely taken place in Fort Worth. Arlington brought the Super Bowl and the World Series. Dallas has hosted NBA Playoffs and Stanley Cup Finals.
The Fort Worth Cats played its last United League Baseball season in 2014. Since the team’s dissolution, Fort Worth has lacked a singular professional team to rally behind.
The sports commission and council member Moon, along with the sports authority, are working alongside the city leadership to change that and make the city competitive in professional sports again.
Moon is proposing building a 10,000-seater, $150 million soccer facility. He anticipates the city could benefit up to $16 million a year in economic impact from the sports complex in its initial years.
In 2019, the sports authority contracted Sports Facilities Companies to conduct a sports feasibility study. It evaluated the usage of a new sports complex in Fort Worth.
The group presented its recommendation in June 2019: Soccer has the most potential and the city needed at least 20 soccer fields.
A tournament-class soccer stadium is the most immediate necessity and opportunity, Gary Smallshaw, a market analyst and researcher at the advisory group, told Fort Worth Sports Authority in a Dec. 2020 meeting.
“One thing we’re seeing in the sports tourism landscape standpoint is this idea that sports is an anchor to a number of other things,” Smallshaw said. “Retail and commercial development could be a driver under some sort of taxing district for this particular project.”
Moon indicated the soccer facility, with a potential location in North Fort Worth, could be home to a major sports team. It will be a covered stadium with best-in-class facilities, Moon said.
“There’s a lot of people wanting to do sports tourism,” he said. “We’ve seen the success of Dickies Arena. We’ve seen the impact that it’s had in our community just in entertainment. I will expect similar for Fort Worth with soccer.”
Finalized plans for the soccer facility are expected to be publicly released in the next six months. The Fort Worth Stars is the placeholder name for the team that could make the new stadium home.
Moon did not disclose details but said the sports complex will try to participate and enhance the experience of the FIFA World Cup 2026.
Mexico, U.S. and Canada are jointly hosting the most-watched international soccer tournament in 2026. A study found the tournament can generate up to $620 million in incremental economic activity for host cities. Arlington’s AT&T Stadium is in the race to be one of the host venues.
“You’re going to see us grow leaps and bounds in this competitive arena,” Moon said.
Fort Worth is also trying its hand with lacrosse.
The newly formed Panther City Lacrosse Club will play its first National Lacrosse League season in 2022. Panther City unveiled its logo and brand identity last fall.
“North Texas is one of the fastest-growing markets in the country,” said Greg Bibb, CEO and managing partner of Panther City. “We think there’s a big opportunity for us as the professional team in town to help cultivate and continue to grow and develop that lacrosse market.“
The club held its expansion draft on June 29 at the Omni in downtown Fort Worth. Panther City was able to select one player from each current NLL team that is not listed on their protected roster.
“I think it’s one of the greatest sports markets in the world,” Bibb said. “The fans support our teams get is tremendous. I’m excited to tap into that across all of North Texas, but in particular in Fort Worth.”
Following the strong first half of 2021, Sands said, the sports community of Fort Worth is currently regrouping to develop new ideas to take the next steps.
“The sky’s the limit on what we can do,” he said. “We can start taking advantage of all the great things that are available to us in Fort Worth.”