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A 'recession-proof' economy-booster: How this Grand Chute tournament venue drives 'sports tourism'

The Community First Champion Center, a youth sports venue in Grand Chute, helped create $11 million of economic activity related to "sports tourism" in 2023. This year is expected to be even bigger.
Posted at 5:13 PM, May 09, 2024
and last updated 2024-05-09 18:13:46-04

GRAND CHUTE, Wis. (NBC 26) — It seems something is always happening at the Community First Champion Center.

“We have something going on here pretty much every single day," Adam Ligocki, the general manager of the venue, said. "Last year, 359 days out of the year. The only days we get off would be your prime holidays."

Ligocki said the Champion Center is one of the premiere youth sports facilities in the Midwest, hosting tournaments nearly every weekend and practices most weeknights.

The facility features three main areas: A combination basketball/volleyball gym, a hockey rink, and a seasonal arena that can do both.

WATCH: Community First Champion Center's seasonal arena converts from hockey to basketball
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Fans watch a tournament at the Community First Champion Center.
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An empty hockey rink at the Community First Champion Center.

“Where we’re standing right now is pretty close to the center of a hockey rink," Ligocki said. "From October to the end of February, this is a hockey rink. And then we convert it to four more basketball courts.

"That really allows us to maximize the amount of teams we have in here during their prime seasons to get the largest tournaments,” Ligocki said.

Week in and week out, the region's top athletes and their families flock to the Fox Valley.

That's exactly what the Fox Cities Convention and Visitors Bureau had in mind when it conceived of the idea more than five years ago.

“We did several studies and several needs analyses," Pam Seidl, the bureau's executive director, said. "And this facility was the result of those."

Before the Champion Center opened in 2019, ten municipalities from around the Fox Cities teamed together to fund the $30 million construction debut with a 3% room tax.

“That’s really not heard of very much in the state or in the country, to have ten municipalities to come together," Seidl said. "It’s really a testament to the regionalism of our municipalities. They understand making the investment helps drive economic activity."

The ten municipalities are Kaukauna, Appleton, Menasha, Neenah, Kimberly, Grand Chute, the Town of Neenah, Little Chute, Fox Crossing and Sherwood.

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An exterior shot of the Community First Champion Center in Grand Chute.

The result: a new economic boom to the area.

Matt Ten Haken, the Fox Cities Convention and Visitors Bureau's Director of Sports Marketing, said in 2023 the Champion Center helped create $11 of economic activity related to sports tourism.

“In my 14 years this is the best year we’ve ever had," Ten Haken said. "And 2024 will beat 2023.”

“When families come to town, obviously they’re spending a lot of time at the sporting event," he said. "But they’re staying in a hotel, and when they’re not sleeping or competing, they’re eating at our restaurants and shopping at our stores."

“We have stores at Fox River Mall calling us, saying they’ve sold out of merchandise on specific weeks when we have a high number of high school-aged youth in the community,” Seidl added.

But why youth sports?

Both Ten Haken and Seidl said it's a fast-growing tourism-driver.
“Parents will do almost anything to let their kids participate in activities that are healthy and enriching to their lives," Ten Haken said.

“Mom and dad used to have their softball league or their bowling league," Seidl said. "We’ve now made that shift in the last generation to focusing on our children and their participation in sports."

And they believe it shows no signs of slowing down.

“We’ve found from a tourism standpoint specifically, they tend to be recession-proof," Seidl said of venues like the Community First Champion Center. "Families may cut back on vacation or cut back on some other things, but they’re going to make sure that their child gets to participate in a tournament or a traveling team."

From that, Fox Valley businesses benefit and so too do the athletes who now have a top-tier facility to help develop their game.

“Me and everybody my age will say the same thing, I wish I had a place like this that I could have played at when I was growing up," Ligocki said. "To be able to pass that along to the next generation of kids and be a part of it is really cool to see. It’s really rewarding."