Cary feels pandemic’s pinch because of lost sporting events

Cancellations and an uncertain future is costing the town millions of dollars in revenue

Cary Tennis Park lost both the ACC men’s and women’s tournaments because of the coronavirus, one of many financial hits the town — like elsewhere in the state and country — has taken during the pandemic. (Brett Friedlander / North State Journal)

Cary fancies itself as North Carolina’s “NCAA Championship City” because of the number of high-level college sporting events it hosts.

Between the WakeMed Soccer Park, USA Baseball National Training Complex and Cary Tennis Park, the vibrant Raleigh suburb has been the site of 18 different NCAA championship events, as well as 29 ACC championships and countless local and youth tournaments over the years.

These days, however, Cary is — in the words of Mayor Harold Weinbrecht — “an NCAA Championship City without NCAA Championships.”

It’s hardly alone. Sports venues across the country have gone silent for most of the summer and into the fall because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Because of its size and the volume of events it has lost — and has the potential to lose — Cary has felt the crunch more than most.

“It’s frustrating,” said William Davis, Cary’s Sports Venues Manager. “We have started renting some of our soccer fields to some local groups for practices and some games, and at the tennis park we’re back teaching private lessons and group lessons. So that’s a good thing. But with the events, that’s put us in a bit of a stalemate until we can get back rolling.”

Already, Cary has lost the ACC men’s and women’s tennis tournaments in the spring, the NCAA Division II College World Series this summer and the NCAA Division I women’s soccer College Cup — its version of the Final Four — this fall because of coronavirus-related cancellations.

Other events, including the ACC’s women’s soccer tournament and cross country championship, could also potentially be on the chopping block — not to mention next March’s NCAA men’s basketball regional at PNC Arena, which is located just outside town limits.

“Basically, there has not been a major sporting event here that we’ve been involved with since mid-March,” said Scott Dupree, executive director of the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance, a group that works to attract events to Wake County and its surrounding area — including Cary. “The only exception was in late July when USA Baseball had three straight national team tournaments, but that’s literally been it. And everything is still canceled into the fall.”

Dupree said that a total of 75 sporting events of all sizes and stature have been lost since the shutdown began five months ago, costing the Raleigh metro area an estimated 70,650 hotel room nights and $41.6 million of economic impact.

As much as it hurts the economy to lose the highest-profile events — including NCHSAA tennis and lacrosse championships and several USTA events — Davis said the absence of other, less visible events are just as damaging.

“We have weekend tournaments at our two softball complexes, and those are kind of our secret, fly-under-the-radar weapons for economic impact,” he said. “When you add all those weekend tournaments to the big things like the College Cup, DII (World Series) and the (NCAA and ACC) tennis tournaments, it really adds up.”

According to figures provided by Davis, the loss of 55 youth tournaments over the past 37 weekends has cost Cary nearly $7 million. In all, 85 events scheduled for town facilities since March 15 have been canceled with a combined hit of $18.98 million in economic impact.

“People don’t talk about those tournaments,” Davis said, “but they’re every weekend. And while local teams are involved, about half the teams still have to come and spend the night.”

Normally, Dupree and his staff would be traveling around the country promoting the Raleigh area at travel conventions and trade shows while meeting with event planners in search of new clients. Now, whatever contacts that can be made are done virtually.

And there isn’t a lot of business to be had.

With COVID-19 still an issue and Gov. Roy Cooper having extended Phase 2 restrictions to the state’s reopening plan into October, there’s no telling when the playing fields and stands of Cary’s athletic venues will once again be filled.

“Can people even plan events not really knowing what the answer to that question is right now?” Dupree said. “Most people now are looking ahead and thinking about winter or spring of 2021 and beyond. “Nothing is really happening in between in terms of planning between now and Jan. 1. Depending on what the event is and who the owner is, a lot of folks are thinking ahead to 2122 and ’23.

“Hopefully our world will be back to a new normal by then. Who knows if it will be, but that’s how they’re planning. Right now, we’re just trying to hang onto events, reschedule what we can and look for new business that’s still happening. It’s been challenging for everybody in our industry.”