To risk over-revving the hype machine, consider this: It is not an exaggeration to proclaim the next 10 weeks as the most historic period ever for Huntsville and Madison County sports.
The landscape goes from the first Southeastern Conference championship to be contested in Huntsville to the long-awaited debut of a new minor league baseball team to pro golf on the The Ledges’ spectacular course.
Travel experts rightly predicted sports would lead the country out of the pandemic and into (safely) gathering and creating (sort of) a sense of normal. That’s being proven in Huntsville. Sports is a definite shot in the arm in its own right, with the next 10 weeks producing more than a $2.7 million economic impact to the area, plus incalculable national exposure.
The variety of events on the sporting calendar is almost mind-boggling. Even more impressive, so many of the events are brand-new to the area, settling in, we trust, for long-term relationships.
First on the agenda are the SEC Gymnastics Championships. Within two hours of going on sale, the Von Braun Center had sold out of its allotment. (Keep your eyes open: Each of the eight teams received an allotment as well, and there is a possibility of some seats coming open.)
The Championships were to be held in New Orleans, but social-distancing requirement necessitated a move. The SEC reached out to Knight Eady, a Birmingham-based sports marketing company, which suggested the Von Braun Center’s Propst Arena as an ideal location. It’s been a hectic several weeks for the VBC staff, the CVB, the Huntsville Sports Commission and other partners, but it will culminate in one of the eight teams being crowned SEC champion on the night of March 20.
Another collegiate championship will be determined on April 3 at John Hunt Park, as Huntsville hosts the Gulf South Conference soccer title games for men’s and women’s team. The GSC, of which the University of Alabama in Huntsville is a member, hosted its cross-country championship at John Hunt Park last fall.
The Coastal Collegiate Sports Association, which has eight of its 14 members ranked in the top 20 in the nation, will hold its Beach Volleyball Championship at the John Hunt Park Sand Volleyball Complex, beginning April 23.
Cummings Research Park may not be the stereotypical sporting venue but it will be an important part of the map en route to Toyko and the Paralympic Games for some U.S. athletes. The U.S. Paralympics Cycling Open, presented by Toyota, is April 17-18, with 100-plus cyclists expected, with the ultimate goal a spot on the U.S. team. Two courses, one for time trials, one for the road race, will be set up at CRP, with myriad event categories.
Professional golf returns to the city for the first time in two decades with the Huntsville Championship PGA Korn Ferry Tour debut at The Ledges. The inaugural event was postponed last year, but ticket sales, merchandise and community and corporate support have remained robust. The Korn Ferry Tour is the tier just below the PGA Tour, and some 75 percent of the PGA Tour pros are graduates of the Korn Ferry Tour.
Though more than 250,000 people have already visited the marvelous Toyota Field in Madison, fans will finally see the first pitch in a professional baseball game there on May 11, when the Rocket City Trash Pandas host the Tennessee Smokies. Jay Bell, a long-time major league shortstop, will be at the helm of the Trash Pandas, the Double-A affiliate of the Los Angeles Angels.
While the SEC Gymnastics, Paralympics Cycling Open and Huntsville Championship will bring national attention to Huntsville, many smaller events attract visitors and have considerable economic impact for the area.
This 10-week stretch of competition began March 13 with the U.S. Tennis Association National Level 4 Tournament, for boys and girls players 18 and under. More than 100 visiting competitors filled the courts at Athletic Club Alabama and the Huntsville Tennis Center. ACA is also the host for the annual USTA National Girls 16s Clay Court Championships in July, with 225 participants.
Merrimack Park, which will soon add four more synthetic turf fields to the portfolio of 14 other fields, will be busy most weekends with play, including two U.S. Youth Soccer events that are prelude to a 70-team extravaganza in the fall.
The North American Model Boat Association Winter Nitro Championships will have things buzzing on the water at the Brahan Spring Lagoon on March 19-21. The Huntsville Model Boat Association is hosting the races, which features scale-model boats up to five feet in length traveling more than 100 mph.
On another body of water, dozens of anglers will be launching at Ditto Landing on April 17 for the Cabela’s King Kat Tournament Trail, fishing for giant catfish that make the Tennessee River their home.
While so many of these events are new, Huntsville has hosted the Alabama High School Athletic Association state soccer championships since 2002, and those roll around on May 6-8. As Steve Savarese, long-time executive director of the AHSAA says, “We know what you do. But how you do it is what truly makes a difference. That's what makes your city special.”