Summer sporting events – such as tennis tournaments – are a big part of tourism business

Someone playing the license plate game could have scored big points in recent days just by driving through the parking lot at the John Drew Smith Tennis Center.

Arkansas. Kentucky. Tennessee. Louisiana. the Carolinas. Counties all over Georgia.

Players from across the Southeast came to Macon for the United States Tennis Association Southern Closed Championships for 14-year-old players, one of several tournaments the tennis center holds during the year.

But it’s revenue, not points, that Macon collects when the cars with those license plates pull up.

It means visitors in Macon and Bibb County, and visitors mean money for hotels, restaurants, local attractions and stores.

Amateur sporting events draw about 29 percent of all the tourist groups that come to Bibb County, according to the Macon-Bibb County Convention & Visitors Bureau. That translated to 102 sporting events out of the 352 meetings and conventions held in Bibb County during the 2007/2008 fiscal year, second only to government-related conventions.

In terms of participants, sporting events accounted for an estimated 64,792 visitors last fiscal year — a whopping 49 percent of the visitors.

“Sports is one solid market,” said Janice Marshall, president and CEO of the CVB. “Sports and religion are our two biggest draws.”

Just counting the events scheduled through the summer — May through August, ranging from tennis to golf to softball to cycling — the CVB estimates that more than 46,000 people will come through Macon, generating about $7.8 million in revenue.

Some of the tournaments, such as the Southern 14s held this past week, are annual events in Macon and have been for years.

“(Tennis tournaments) generate millions each year with all the tournaments we have,” said Donna Bailey of the Macon Tennis Association, who served as the tournament referee for the Southern 14s. “We’re slammed from the beginning of April through July 1.”

Other events, such as the Georgia Women’s Amateur Championship, which finished last week at Idle Hour Country Club, hold their events all over the state and pass through only occasionally. Jeff Cutright, one of the golf pros at Idle Hour, said it was just the second time in the event’s 80-year history that it has been played in Macon.

“They also came here in ’62,” Cutright said. “(Tournament officials) came to us. We hosted the men’s tournament last year. ... It’s great to get the recognition. We’re an old, traditional golf course, and some of the women don’t get to play courses of this caliber.”

The number of delegates for each tournament, which includes athletes, family members and tournament officials, range from about 50 for the Georgia Cup cycling race held in mid-June to 1,800 for the Southeastern Slugfest/BSA Freedom Softball Classic, held here this past weekend.

The biggest beneficiaries are hotels and restaurants. For example, the Chick-fil-A on Tom Hill Sr. Boulevard is only about a mile from both John Drew Smith and North Macon Park.

“We always get a lot of people from John Drew Smith,” said David Clark, who operates the restaurant. “We know it’s them because they are dressed in their tennis attire. North Macon hosts a lot of youth baseball tournaments. ... It’s probably 5 percent of our business.”

Marianna Gebara, the restaurant’s office manager, said some of the tournaments happen on an annual basis, so the restaurant takes it into account when setting staff schedules.

In terms of shopping and visiting attractions, the impact is less discernible. Though the CVB hands out information packets for most of the athletic tournaments held in Bibb County, the numbers are more difficult to track.

The Georgia Sports Hall of Fame, one logical destination for this group of visitors, hasn’t seen a spike in attendance from these events, even though the museum has tied in its marketing to many of the tournaments.

“We’ve made some marketing efforts to some of the tournaments that have come here, but it hasn’t been very fruitful,” said Jackie Decell, executive director of the museum. “We’ve bought ads and fliers. We look at (tournaments) as a marketing opportunity for us.”

It may be that most of the participants in the various sports are more focused on their athletic endeavors than spending time as a tourist.

Sally Sprengel, 56, of Savannah, who played in the recent golf tournament, said her friends did some shopping, but she didn’t.

“I’ve spent some money here, but not too much,” she said. “My friends went shopping, but I’m so tired after golf that I swim and go to dinner, but that’s about it.”

Sprengel said it was her first time in Macon, and she enjoyed playing at Idle Hour.

“It’s an unbelievably beautiful golf course,” she said. “(Macon) isn’t far enough for a vacation, but I’d definitely come here for another golf tournament.”

Lena Steryous, who came with her family to watch her son, Adam, compete in the tennis tournament, said she didn’t get around Macon very much to see the attractions.

“Usually, we go by what the brochure tells us” for hotels and restaurants, said Steryous, who lives in Taylor, S.C. “But we’re probably not going to any of the museums. ... There’s not a mall close (to the tennis center). When we go somewhere for a tournament, that’s all we focus on.”

Laurie Hubbard of Rome, who was at the tournament to watch her daughter Sarah compete, said the family had gotten around town a bit.

“It’s nice,” she said. “There’s a lot of choices in places to stay, a lot of choices where to eat. We’ve been to both malls. We’ve been to Dick’s and Academy (sporting goods stores). ... We don’t have a lot of time as far as attractions.”

Marshall said the number of events scheduled from May to August is 25, down 10 from the same period last year, but far more people are attending.

To contact writer Phillip Ramati, call 744-4334.