The looming threat of a tropical storm bringing torrential rains to the Deep South has washed out a major state soccer tournament in Columbus, costing the city as much as $2.4 million over the Memorial Day weekend.
“We’re devastated,” Merri Sherman, executive director of the Columbus Sports Council, said Friday. “It is big for the community.”
The Georgia Soccer State Cup, a youth tournament that was scheduled to be played Saturday through Monday, was filled with potential. Its 3,600 participants were expected to bring plenty of family members with them, filling the city’s hotels and restaurants. The event has taken place in Columbus more than a decade.
“They decided this morning that the amount of rain we’re expecting to get over the weekend would make the surfaces unsafe for the teams to play on,” said Sherman of the venues, which include the city’s Woodruff Farm Soccer Complex, as well as fields at Columbus State University and Kinnett Stadium.
Georgia Soccer officials could not be immediately reached for comment. Sherman said the tourney is being relocated to the Atlanta metro area and to playing fields there that have artificial turf and are better suited for drainage after heavy rain. Aside from Kinnett Stadium, all of the Columbus soccer fields are natural grass, typically preferred by soccer players, but unable to drain as quickly as turf.
Weather forecasters currently are projecting the Columbus area could receive up to six inches of rain as what is expected to become Tropical Storm Alberto moves inland after reaching the northern Gulf Coast sometime Monday or Tuesday. The storm likely will be preceded by thunderstorms and heavy rain, with flash flooding expected in some areas. That would be on top of several inches of rain that the Chattahoochee Valley received earlier this week, causing property, road and bridge damage in the area.
While the city’s hotels were not a complete sellout heading into the soccer event, they were close to it. Columbus has nearly 60 hotels and about 4,700 rooms in its lodging inventory. The community had about 1.9 million visitors in Fiscal Year 2017, with those people collectively generating an economic impact of $346 million from hotel, restaurant, retail and gas station purchases.
Peter Bowden, president and chief executive officer of Visit Columbus GA, the city’s convention and visitors bureau, said his office has spoken with some of the local hotel staff and learned how they are dealing with the sudden loss of business that had been lined up for many months.
“We’ve heard that some hotels have been able to work with the teams that have canceled, but there are some that are trying to figure out how to make it work,” Bowden said. “In the contract that the teams sign, there may or may not be a cancellation penalty. It’s one of those things where it’s a case-by-case basis.”
With an impact of nearly $2.4 million, Georgia Soccer State Cup is a Top 5 event for the Columbus Sports Council, which recruits competitions to the city, Sherman said. Other major events this year are Georgia softball and cheerleading, as well as two Black Softball Circuit gatherings at the South Commons complex off Victory Drive.
Georgia Soccer State Cup is renewed each year, which means there currently is no contract for 2019, although Sherman said she is extremely hopeful that it will return to Columbus next year.
“We’ve had a longstanding relationship with Georgia Soccer and have had successful events here for many, many years,” she said. “This is the first year in history that the weather has been uncooperative and it’s unfortunate for all of the businesses that rely on the dollars from this weekend.”
The impact toll includes the hundreds of volunteers and others that work during major events to make sure they are successful, she said. In the case of this weekend’s tournament, there were field marshals, concession workers, people tending the playing fields, athletic trainers, security, vendors, and people taking care of portable toilets, manning golf carts and an ice wagon.
“It reaches pretty deep with the amount of people that are touched by this event,” Sherman said.
The fallout includes a special Saturday night concert that had been scheduled on Broadway, but is now canceled. The free show was especially for the thousands of soccer tournament players and their families in town this weekend who would be looking for something to do after they were finished competing or watching the action at the soccer fields Saturday.
The show also was expected to help draw visitors to downtown on a long holiday weekend during which plenty of local residents typically barbecue at home or travel elsewhere, such as to the beach or the mountains.
“That is a collaboration between Uptown and the Columbus Sports Council, that we’ve had the last few years to bring an added flair to the tournament, and we’ve always had great attendance at it,” said Uptown Columbus President and CEO Ross Horner, noting the loss of the soccer tourney will impact the entire city, including his downtown merchants and food establishments.
“Whether it’s softball or basketball or wrestling or soccer, we do tend to see a lot of teams and their families gravitate to the downtown area,” he said.
The visitors bureau, meanwhile, has contacted its advertising agency to implement a quick Facebook social media campaign for Memorial Day weekend that will promote Columbus as a good destination that has plenty of places to stay and eat, as well as weather-proof venues such as museums and entertainment facilities.
“We’re trying to flip this and make a bad situation better. We’re trying to fill some of those empty rooms that are going to happen because of this cancellation,” Bowden said. “We will target cities close by and people looking for an escape ... Even the beaches are going to be having some bad weather. So we’re encouraging people who are going to be on the road traveling to check us out.”