Home Run

Competitive youth baseball begins annual economic spark

JEFF IRELAND | Special to The Memphis News

From March to September, Matt Hughes is a busy man. His 10-year-old son plays for the Jackson (Tenn.) Coyotes, a competitive baseball team. Just about every weekend Hughes and his family of four hit the road for a baseball tournament, traveling around the Southeast to places from Memphis to Panama City, Fla.

Thanks to Hughes and a multitude of other families like his crisscrossing the region for youth baseball tournaments, cities like Memphis and Southaven are reaping a host of economic benefits.

During a typical weekend his family spends two nights in a hotel, goes out to eat at local restaurants five or six times and spends money at concession stands and souvenir shops at the baseball complex.

“We spend about $80 a night on hotels,” Hughes said. “There are four of us so meals run about $50. I’d say we spend about $500 a weekend.”

The Aces prepares to take the field at Snowden Grove. That complex and others, like First Tennessee Fields in Cordova, enjoy a huge economic impact during the summer youth baseball season.

Supporters of the Tuscaloosa (Ala.) Crushers cheer on their team at Snowden Grove Park in Southaven during the Best of the South USSSA NIT.  More than 2,000 teams per season from across the U.S. travel to the park for tournament play, giving the town and its businesses an economic boost.

Brooks Habans, center, and teammates from the Memphis Tigers watch from the dugout while playing a tournament at Snowden Grove Park in Southaven. Baseball complexes around the region are bustling – and providing a financial boon. (Photos: Lance Murphey)

On April 2 Hughes was standing behind the Coyotes’ dugout at Gameday Baseball’s First Tennessee Fields in Cordova watching his team take on the Memphis Tigers, the oldest competitive baseball organization in the area, in the Frozen Rope Classic, one of 32 tournaments the complex will host this year.

One field over that same day, Stanley Ostrowski was watching his son play for the Tupelo (Miss.) Rangers, a 13-year-old competitive team. Ostrowski also drops plenty of money on weekend excursions with the Rangers. He estimated that he spends $300 a trip on lodging and food.

“We usually just stay one night in a hotel,” Ostrowski said. “We always go out somewhere nice to eat at least once like O’Charley’s, Outback (Steakhouse) or Applebee’s. Sometimes we’ll hit McDonald’s. It most definitely helps the businesses here.”

During three tournaments last month more than 18,000 players, coaches and fans came through the gates, according to WestRogers, a public relations firm that represents First Tennessee Fields. Among the 168 teams that participated, 34 traveled from outside the Memphis area, including teams from as far away as Michigan.

An economic impact analysis performed by Younger Associates, a market research and advertising firm, First Tennessee Fields attracted 86,000 out-of-town visitors last year, contributed more than $17 million to the local economy and directly supported 195 jobs.

The complex was also the 23rd-ranked tourist attraction last year in the Memphis area when rated by attendance. First Tennessee Fields drew 312,500 people last year, more than the Orpheum Theatre and the Delta Fair and Music Festival.

Every weekend from spring to fall the same scene plays out at other baseball complexes in the Memphis area, including Snowden Grove in Southaven and Latimer Lakes Park in Horn Lake.

Southaven Mayor Greg Davis is fully aware of the impact these tournaments have on the local economy. Davis said the tournaments at Snowden Grove, which bring in about 1,500 teams per year, generate $2 million annually from gate receipts, concessions and team fees.

That figure, Davis said, pays for half of Southaven’s parks and recreation budget. And then there’s the money spent away from the ballpark. Davis said a study showed families in town for Snowden Grove tournaments in 2002 spent $10 million. He estimates that figure to be upward of $15 million now.

Charlie Hemker, center, makes a sno-cone to help beat the heat at the multi-field complex.

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

“Most of the locals know not to go out to restaurants in the summer,” Davis said. “If you do, be prepared to wait a while.”

Snowden Grove, Davis said, has been the main reason Southaven’s economy has fared so well the past few years during the country’s economic downturn.

“You look at retail sales, and they’ve been pretty good,” Davis said. “The bad economy didn’t hurt us nearly as bad as it has some other places when you look at hotels and restaurants.”

Joe Platt, the director of operations at Gameday in Cordova, echoes those comments.

“Probably about 30 percent of the teams here are from out of town,” Platt said. “They make a pretty good footprint with the hotels. On our website there’s a link for travel discounts and lists of the hotels we partner with. A lot of the teams try to get to (Memphis) Redbirds games. We try and help them out.”

Jonathan Lyons, a senior vice president at Morgan Keegan and head coach of the Memphis Tigers 9-year-old team, said the area is fortunate to have two state-of-the-art baseball facilities like First Tennessee Fields and Snowden Grove.

“The teams from out of town that come to Southaven and Memphis to play have definitely helped the local economies, especially when there is a big tournament with lots of out-of-town teams,” said Lyons, who grew up playing youth baseball with the Memphis Tigers before going on to play for Christian Brothers High School, the University of Memphis and the Boston Red Sox.

Players and supporters of the DeSoto County Vipers leave Snowden Grove Park after playing during the Best of the South USSSA NIT.  More than 2,000 teams per season from across the U.S. travel to the park for tournament play.

(Photo: Lance Murphey)

Lyons played competitive baseball in the 1980s with the Memphis Tigers, an organization formed in 1966, and has seen the sport grow dramatically.

“The number of teams have grown 20-plus fold,” he said. “Also, it used to be that the starting year was at 9, but now there are teams for 5 year olds. It is now a moneymaker, where you pay to play in World Series or state tournaments, whereas in the ’80s and ’90s, you had to earn your way in. That is a sign of the times.”

Lyons, whose 9-year-old son Jackson plays on his team and his 6-year-old son, Trenton, plays on another Memphis Tiger team, points out that hotels and restaurants aren’t the only businesses that benefit from the local competitive baseball scene: parents spend thousands of dollars for their children to get private lessons at local facilities like Memphis Baseball Academy, the Batters Box, Vision and Dulins Sports Complex.

Any player, coach or parent who has been involved with competitive baseball in Memphis for very long has heard of Dulins, adjacent to the Gameday complex, and the Dulins Dodgers, a perennial powerhouse with teams ranging in age from 13 to 18. Last year’s World Series featured two former Dulins players: San Francisco Giants pitcher Matt Cain and Texas Rangers outfielder Julio Borbon.

Tim Dulin, a former professional player who owns and runs the business, said there are 22 All-Americans and 75 professionals among his former players.He started Dulins in 1994 as a baseball academy for aspiring young players and has seen competitive baseball boom.

“It’s grown tremendously the last several years,” Dulin said. “It’s definitely gotten crazy.

“You have to travel to play good competition. (College) coaches are able to identify (talented) players at an early age because of the good competition. A lot of money is spent on these kids, and the economic impact is no doubt huge.”

While there are plenty of parents and coaches involved in traveling baseball who are thinking about college scholarships, most spend the money, time and effort for other reasons.

“If they weren’t here, they’d be playing video games and sitting on the couch,” said Greg Varner, an assistant coach for the 8-year-old Yalobusha Giants of Water Valley, Miss. “It definitely costs a lot of money to play ball, but it gives the boys something to do.”

With so many young baseball players in town every weekend, another retail sector benefits greatly: sporting goods stores ranging from Dick’s and Sports Authority to Dowdle Sports.

Dowdle, located at 981 N. Germantown Parkway and within walking distance of First Tennessee Fields, is a popular destination for local and out-of-town players, coaches and parents.

Mike Farrell, who has been working at Dowdle for 25 years, tells a story about an out-of-town team whose entire roster needed cleats.

“This team was from somewhere where they allowed metal spikes,” Farrell said. “The rules were different here. They had to have rubber spikes. So the whole team came in and bought cleats.”

Farrell, who has been a coach in the Germantown Giants organization for 16 years, knows all about the needs of competitive baseball players andestimates that 60 percent of Dowdle’s business comes from this market.

“It’s grown exponentially over the years,” Farrell said. “Competitive players obviously spend more than rec players. They’ll spend $200 on a glove, $300 on a bat. Competitive players drive the business.”

Latimer Lakes Park hasn’t been in the traveling tournament business as long as Snowden Grove or First Tennessee Fields, but the nine-field complex in Horn Lake is getting busier and busier as the amount of traveling teams increases seemingly every year.

Chris Bryant, the Latimer Lakes Park tournament coordinator, estimates that 25 to 30 percent of the teams each weekend travel from distances far enough away that a hotel stay is required.

“It adds to the intake of money in the city,” Bryant said. “People stay in a hotel, eat at local restaurants, shop at local stores and use gas stations. There’s not only revenue that comes into the parks department, but it feeds back into the city’s revenue as well.”

Bryant said team fees range from $150 to $395, depending on the tournament and age group.

“We can hold as many as 60 or 65 teams for a tournament,” Bryant said. “This is my third season on the job, and it just continues to grow every year.”

Bryant also travels with his son’s competitive team, so he knows what it takes for families to take part in tournaments weekend after weekend.

“It’s a lot of money, time and effort. It’s unreal,” he said. “How much money people spend never ceases to amaze me.”