As the Greater Peoria area has become a top destination for competitive youth sports, the old phrase “playing in Peoria” is more apropos than ever. From softball, baseball and basketball to volleyball, soccer, cross-country and beyond, these games and tournaments attract huge numbers to the region—and with them comes a sizeable economic impact. With so many different events and venues, here’s a quick rundown of what plays where.
Greater Peoria offers a pair of world-class facilities that play host to major youth sports events: the Louisville Slugger Sports Complex (LSSC) in north Peoria and Eastside Centre in East Peoria. Both complexes offer indoor and outdoor facilities to accommodate year-round play and practices.
With 10 outdoor diamonds and one of the largest domed facilities in the Midwest, the LSSC hosts major regional tournaments like the USSSA Illinois State Softball & Baseball Championships, Great Lakes National Championships, Premier Girls Fastpitch Mid-West Regionals, Brad Wallin Memorial Tournament and Missouri Valley Conference Softball Championship. It is the “only facility in the nation associated with Louisville Slugger, the premier brand in diamond sports,” adds Rick Gaa, LSSC vice president. He estimates the venue will attract nearly 250,000 people this year, encompassing competitive volleyball tournaments as well as baseball and softball.
Across the river, Eastside Centre is home to numerous high school and middle school teams for baseball, softball, track and soccer, in addition to providing practice space to local clubs. “With the stadium/track, indoor and outdoor fields, we can have five or six different sports going on in the same weekend,” notes executive director Doug McCarty. Its biggest events take place across two weekends in May, when the IESA state track meets draw around 3,000 youth athletes and over 10,000 spectators each weekend. Eastside hosts about 3,500 games annually (2,500 outside and 1,000 inside), with more than 40 tournaments/meets scheduled in 2019, including the IHSA Class 1A boys soccer finals in October, attracting a sizeable number of visitors from outside the region.
Besides serving as home to the Peoria Chiefs and Bradley Braves baseball teams, Dozer Park is the official host of the IHSA Class 1A and 2A boys baseball finals, with nearly 2,000 visitors converging on downtown Peoria on the first weekend of June. March Madness and the IHSA boys basketball finals remain the king of IHSA events, of course, taking over the Peoria Civic Center for two weekends every March—and bringing more than $4 million of economic impact to the region.
But the longest-running IHSA tradition takes place at Detweiller Park, which has hosted the state cross-country meets since 1970, attracting more than 20,000 annual visitors. All told, IESA and IHSA events alone bring in an estimated $10 million to the local economy each year, according to the Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.
Ambassadors for Soccer
Soccer has become the most popular sport in the world, and more Americans are joining the bandwagon each year. Weekend soccer tournaments are significant events, with clubs in Peoria, Morton and Pekin hosting tournaments that attract players from around the Midwest. Peoria FC United and the John Gaspar Soccer Academy also offer indoor and outdoor facilities for year-round play.
The Peoria FC United tournaments alone draw around 10,000 annual visitors. “People outside of central Illinois tend to only see Chicago and St. Louis,” notes executive director Mark MacKinnon. “We see it as a privilege to be soccer ambassadors for Peoria and the central belt.” Meanwhile, the Central Illinois United team takes their soccer ambassadorship on the road all over the Midwest. Founded in 2014, CIU allows some of the region’s most advanced players to compete at the state and national levels.
Every September, the Morton Premier Soccer Club hosts the Pumpkin Classic at McClallen Park, attracting nearly 3,000 out-of-town visitors, while Pekin Pride will host its first tournament this year, starting out with approximately 50 teams—and ambitions to grow in the coming years.
Blades on Ice
Though it’s not cold in Peoria year-round, youth hockey also looms large locally. The Peoria Park District’s Owens Center is home to the Peoria Youth Hockey Association, which offers both recreational and competitive travel hockey, as well as the Peoria Mustangs, a Tier 3 junior hockey team that competes across the country, with players ranging from 15 to 20 years old who hope to play in college or at the professional level.
“It’s estimated that over 30,000 people come to Owens Center each year from both Illinois and surrounding states,” notes Owens Center general manager Doug Silberer. “Not only is hockey big in Peoria, but so is figure skating. The Heart of Illinois Skating Club (HOISC), a member of U.S Figure Skating, and other skating groups also call Owens Center home.” The HOISC has two high school skating teams and four synchronized skating teams which utilize Owens Center for practice and competitions.
As you can see, opportunities for youth sports are plentiful all over the Greater Peoria region—with plenty of fantastic facilities in which to watch them. What most may not realize, however, is the cumulative economic impact of the tourism dollars they attract. And that is something that truly “plays in Peoria.” PM