London Host With The Most

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

by Jeffrey Reed, Editor, LondonOntarioSports.com

Ever since London was rejected as the capital of Upper Canada in favour of York in 1793, the Forest City has rested in the shadows of Toronto while struggling to find its own identity. Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Graves Simcoe saw the city’s potential in his struck-down proposal, but two centuries later, Londoners and visitors are able to clearly identify this city as a major player in housing and hosting major sports and entertainment events.

That’s not to say it took 200 years for London to win fans amongst its residents and guests. Our population has always been a proponents of the arts, and we had already earned a well-deserved reputation for headquartering numerous corporations and institutions. Our hospitals and schools are world-class. And, we have a rich history in sports and entertainment – not only in showcasing world-renown athletes and musicians, but also in offering families a cornucopia of fun with grassroots festivals and minor sports.

Budweiser Gardens

But something clicked in 2001, when London hosted the 2001 Canada Summer Games. It was then that London had clearly earned its identity as a world-class player in hosting major sports events. A template – still leaned on today in bidding for and hosting large sports events – was cemented for future generations.

There are two other factors which have seen London mature as a sports and cultural centre. When the $42-million Budweiser Gardens opened in October 2002 as the John Labatt Centre, it changed our city – in particular, our downtown – forever. No longer would London be passed by when it comes to hosting big-name music artists on a consistent, year-long basis. And our city is growing, too. We’re no longer a sleepy Southwestern Ontario municipality hiding in Hogtown’s shadows. In a few short years, we’ll be home to 400,000 residents.

Numbers only tell half of the story, though, when it comes to London’s maturation as a sports and entertainment hub. It’s the people – volunteers, ambassadors, businesses and government – who are the heartbeat of our community.

2001: A Canada Summer Games Odyssey

Fittingly, the moniker handed to the 2001 Canada Summer Games was, “Now is the future. Live it.” Legacy facilities, most significantly TD Stadium at Western University, and the Canada Games Aquatic Centre, added value to living in London and in securing future sports events. The total combination of capital construction, Games revenue and visitor spending totalled $49.1 million in expenditures, which in turn generated $63.48 million in economic activity in London.

But look beyond the dollars and cents, and you’ll see a trifecta of spinoffs. The Games struck a chord with Londoners, who formed a 6,500-strong volunteer army – a template we still benefit from today. London got the bug, too: suddenly, hosting events was like a love drug. We can’t get enough of it. And despite the fact we had sporadically hosted other large events in the past, the 2001 Canada Summer Games was the launching pad for a new perpetual movement in London: bidding for big-time sports and entertainment dollars.

In an interview with LondonOntarioSports.com, London Mayor Matt Brown said, “I would agree that the modern-day template was set in 2001. We saw an absolute army of volunteers come together to make that event the success that it was. And since that time, we’ve seen that model replicated time after time.”

Cheryl Finn. Photo: Jeffrey Reed/LondonOntarioSports.com.

Cheryl Finn, Director, Sport Tourism for Tourism London and Chair of the Canadian Sport Tourism Alliance, agrees that the 2001 Canada Summer Games changed London forever. But she also sees renewed interest amongst countless other communities who all want a piece of the sports and entertainment tourism pie.

“Our community understands the value of involvement in events. For example, we had to shut down volunteer registration for the Ontario Summer Games because we had over 1,000 volunteers come forward. We never struggle with volunteers,” Finn said, “because it’s a great way for people to give back to their community.”

The 2018 Ontario Summer Games in London from August 2 to 5 were expected to draw more than 3,400 athletes, coaches and officials and an estimated $6 million in economic impact. London will also host the Games in 2020.

Serious About Sports Tourism

In 1997, the City of London approved a Sport Tourism initiative, now directed by Tourism London. We saw it come of age in 2001. And now, according to Finn, “More and more communities are developing a sport tourism strategy. They are seeing the value in hosting. They see an obvious return on investment. So it’s very, very competitive.”

So, too, is attempting to secure entertainment – namely, concerts, festivals and household names in the music industry. Chris Campbell, Director of Culture and Entertainment Tourism with Tourism London knows this all too well. As former director of marketing at Budweiser Gardens, Campbell knows there are more movers and shakers behind the scenes than on stage at a Keith Urban concert at the Bud.

“London is really driven by events. Our biggest assets are our festivals and special events. And it is very, very competitive trying to secure events like the JUNO Awards,” Campbell explained.

Campbell chairs London’s host committee for the 2019 Juno Awards, slated for March 11 to 17 and broadcast live on CBC from Budweiser Gardens. Since the JUNO Awards have hit the road, each host city has seen an average impact of $10 million, according to The Canadian Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences.

Brown told LondonOntarioSports.com, “When we look back on the decision to build Budweiser Gardens, we all have to be thankful that the decision makers of the day made the right choice. It was not without controversy. But when you attend an event at Budweiser Gardens, you know that you’re in for something special, whether it’s a hockey game, a basketball game, a concert or something that’s programmed for families.”

When you look at the granddaddy of all money makers in terms of London hosting big-time sports and entertainment, the 2013 ISU World Figure Skating Championships have no rival. It was the largest event ever hosted in London, with more than 62,000 attendees and $32.1 million in direct economic spinoffs in London alone. A world-wide audience of more than 165 million TV viewers helped put London on the map and planted seeds for further economic boosts.

London has always been able to secure one-off notable sports events. Sunningdale Golf and Country Club hosted the first LPGA Tour events in Canada in 1966 and 1967 with the Supertest Classic. London Hunt and Country Club hosted the PGA Tour’s Canadian Open in 1970, and the LPGA Tour’s du Maurier Ltd. Class (1993), CN Canadian Women’s Open (2006) and CP Women’s Open (2014). Highland Country Club hosts the Mackenzie Tour PGA Tour Canada’s Freedom 55 Financial Championship September 10-16, the sixth year for the tournament in London.

We have a rich curling heritage with the 1974 Macdonald Brier, 1981 Air Canada Silver Broom, 2006 Scotties Tournament of Hearts, 2010 Tim Horton’s Brier and 2018 World Financial Group Continental Cup all hosted here. Also, London was home to the Class AA Eastern League London Tigers baseball club from 1989 to 1993. We were the training camp home to the NHL’s Boston Bruins in the 1960s. In recent years, we’ve hosted two Memorial Cup tournaments, in 2005 and 2014.

But the 2001 Canada Summer Games really put the wheels in motion. And while hosting events like the World Figure Skating Championships and the JUNOS attract a world-wide audience, Finn and Campbell say the heart and soul of London is in the hosting of grassroots events – all of which cumulatively create millions of dollars in economic spinoffs.

“Those are our bread and butter events – the tournaments that bring in hundreds of teams over a period of time, fill our hotels – heads in beds. That’s who we want to really cater to,” Finn explained. “The big events – the ‘sexy’ events – those take more time, more resources, more human resources and definitely a broader partnership base.”

“London used to be very much driven on primary attractions – Storybook Gardens, Fanshawe Pioneer Village, The Grand Theatre, localized attractions, less on festivals, music and emerging arts. We’ve overhauled the (marketing) portfolio to focus on culture and entertainment,” Campbell explained.

Campbell pointed to the many music and cultural festivals which fill our local calendar, all of which he said “pale in comparison to Budweiser Gardens in terms of money,” but all combined have made London more of a tourist destination. He said targeted marketing to areas including Hamilton, Kitchener, Sarnia and Northern Michigan has paid off in spades.

Tourism London reports that tourism spending in London in 2017 – spending by same-day and overnight visitors – is estimated at $791.7 million, up 7.3 per cent from 2016. The biggest beneficiary? Food and beverage operators, who hauled in $294.2 million in spinoff business.

Singing London’s Praise

Summer festivals – including Trackside Music Festival at Western Fair District, TD Sunfest, Rock the Park, Home County Music & Arts Festival – as well as venues like London Music Hall are London’s answer to minor sports tournaments. They are the bread and butter of local entertainment dollars. The District, too, rings cash registers year-round.

Sunfest artistic director Alfredo Caxaj said after this year’s 24th event that the success of the annual celebration of global music and arts has organizers eyeing expansion in 2020. That’s when the Dundas Street flex street project is slated for opening. According to Caxaj, the revamped area will be perfect for Sunfest overflow from Victoria Park.

“Sunfest is one of the most beautiful expressions of community. If we don’t have art in the city, it’s almost like having a city with no soul,” Caxaj said.

Yet another phenomenon is sweeping the city: the creation of leisure hot spots. If North Americans rediscovered leisure-time activities in the 1950s, then Londoners are putting more fun into their lives in 2018. In turn, the new attractions are a magnet for out-of-town visitors.

Photo: East Park Facebook.

In June, East Park (est. 1963), a family fun spot anchored by an 18-hole golf course, added a 70-metre wave pool to its water park. It’s one of a number of new or expanded entertainment/sports venues, including: 7,000-square-foot CTC Obstacles with freestyle exercise course; 2,400-square-foot Dreamland with wireless virtual reality games; Escape Canada’s escape room; trampoline parks at Flying Squirrel, and Sky Zone; The Factory, North America’s highest indoor ropes court, with trampoline park and 23 virtual reality pods at 100 Kellogg Lane; and The Rec Room at Masonville Place, with 3,300 square feet of adult play space, karaoke, DJs and live bands.

London attractions don’t have the star power of Niagara Falls, nor the Toronto Blue Jays, Maple Leafs and Raptors. But one thing is for sure: the city of London is serious about fun and games. You can’t deny that education and medical sectors are key elements of our identity. But from trampoline parks to World Figure Skating Championships, Londoners and tourists have put fun back in the Forest City.

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About jeffreyreed

A leading Canadian communications professional. Corporate office http://www.JeffreyReedReporting.com established 1989. Publisher/Editor of this website and https://londonontariogolf.com.

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