RANTOUL – Construction crews are finishing up their work on the Rantoul Family Sports Complex for a mid-April opening.
The village-owned facility, with 18 fields for baseball, soccer and other sports, will host local sports programs in Rantoul. But it’s really aimed at sports tourism: regional sports events that can bring families and their dollars to Rantoul and Champaign County.
Illinois Newsroom’s Jim Meadows talked with Director of Sports Operations Ryan Reid about the new facility.
(Both the audio and the written transcript of the interview with Ryan Reid are edited for length and clarity.)
JM: Give me just a quick sketch of the scope of the facilities.
REID: So, in the direct center of the complex is our hospitality hub. That’s where our main offices, our tournament room, bathrooms, concessions, things like that. Then we also have our Challenger fields [for Challenger Baseball, a program for children and youth with disabilities], our playground and our splash pads. Those are surrounded by the four parking lots, that will have over 800-plus spaces.
And then on the north side, we have our baseball quad. Just to the east of that, is our four soccer championship fields and football fields. And then on the south end are the smaller ball diamonds and four more soccer fields.
Comparison To Other Facilities
JM: There are places in this area where you can find multiple athletic playing fields. Even one I drove by on the way here, the Bill Seeber Memorial Soccer Complex. Is there anything else in this area, like this facility?
REID: In the greater Champaign County area? No, not really. Before this complex was built, we didn’t have a sports tourism-focused facility. We had many facilities that are capable of hosting tourism events, and each one of those may be lacking in some department in one way or another. But while we do have plenty of quality complexes like Dodds Park [in Champaign, next to the Parkland College campus] or Campus Recreation on U of I’s campus, they’re not directly used for sports tourism.
JM: So when we say sports tourism, what are the key elements that a good facility has to have, that you believe this one has?
REID: Number one is accessibility. The great thing about our county is that we have three interstates that intersect from three major cities, right? So we’re pulling from St. Louis, Indianapolis and Chicago, which is really great. So we know we’re right in the middle.
And then with the sports complex being right off of Interstate 57, it’s one of the very few complexes in the Midwest, or really anywhere, where you can get off the interstate, check into a hotel and be at the field within 10 minutes. So that’s a huge component of sports tourism: having accessibility.
There’s many places that have these kinds of facilities: Rockford, Peoria, Westville over in Indiana. What can we do to be to catch up with them, and then really surpass them? We’re doing that with the service that we plan to provide our tournament providers, the well thought out layout of the complex. When you park your car, you’re only three minutes from the field that you’re going to get to at the most, as opposed to having to walk a great distance. And then we have amenities inside our park like the splash pad and the playground, that’ll really help it stand out.
But I think the biggest thing is, we’re really technology-driven. And so we have state of the art LED lights. If there was a field light that wasn’t turned on, I can turn it on from anywhere in the world from my cell phone. The synthetic turf is brand new state of the art. We use a rubber-sand combination that keeps the turf cool and comfortable to play on. It’s like playing on real grass. All of those things really mixed together as what kind of makes a sports tourism complex tick.
JM: And because you’re dealing with organized sports activities, these facilities have to reach certain standards and dimensions for them to use, right?
REID: Yeah, absolutely. We didn’t want to limit ourselves in any way, in what we could host. So we built the four biggest baseball fields to spec, so all could host high school baseball. That’s a great example.
Most sports complexes across the country, you can play on a field or two. And then the rest of those games are played out in the community at area high schools or other fields. At our complex, we can actually play on all four of our north fields at the high school level, which is rather unheard of.
And then every other field as far as the multipurpose fields go, those are all NCAA-regulation fields. We’ve got fields that are 120 by 70. They’re all lined for soccer. But again, they’re all the right size so we can host everything up to a collegiate level down. You can always go bigger, but you can’t go smaller.
JM: And besides soccer, what other games can be played on those fields?
REID: If it can be played on any turf, then we can have it there. So we are hosting, right now, we have soccer, Ultimate Frisbee, football; we have all those things booked. But we’ll be able to host rugby, lacrosse, and really, anything you can think of, it can be played. We can even do laser tag and dodgeball and all kinds of different sports that actually do travel really well.
In fact, we’re working with Visit Champaign County now. We have a bid in for Quidditch, which is the made-up sport from Harry Potter. And believe it or not, thousands of people travel for that sport. And so if we can win that bid, it’ll be a really exciting thing to add to the more traditional sports that you see out there
What A Sports Tourism Facility Offers To The Local Community
JM: The family sports complex is a village-owned facility.
JM: And so, considering all the events, you have organizations bringing in players from out of town, what does it offer for people in Rantoul?
REID: I think the biggest worry for the community was: We’re never going to get to use this. And it couldn’t be any further from the truth. There are many tournaments that kids can sign up to play in, or be on teams. There are some that they won’t be able to. But for a good majority, our local baseball teams or our local soccer teams will all be able to compete in these tournaments.
But the community side outside of that is, we’re going to allow time for people to come use the fields. So we expect the high school to have some games out here. Even the marching band will come and practice and can host events out here.
While a majority are event-based and there is a pay structure, we do plan on doing things like open gyms where there won’t be a fee to come out and use the fields, but if you want to organize a few friends to come out and kick a soccer ball around or, or warm up and hit some balls and in the batting cages, that’ll absolutely be allowed. We’ll also do a bunch of community events. And we have some very unique and fun ideas to engage the community. It can be anything from hosting movies in the park, while we have a couple of the fields running, with balls and bats going and people can come and play pickup games, all the way to hosting fireworks once a month.
Coping With COVID-19
JM: What sort of accommodations have you had to make, at least for the next several months, for precautions against COVID-19?
REID: We’re paying very close attention to what happens at a state level. I know at a national level, we’re starting to see some ease on restrictions, and the vaccination seems to be running its course and doing its job. We’re thrilled to see that outdoor sports are having less restrictions.
Our current plan really is to put signs in place and to make sure that we encourage people to wear masks and socially distance. And the great thing about this complex is, we have 70 acres and plenty of room for people to spread out. So we want to make sure that people are doing that. We’re going to be taking our own cleaning measures, making sure that those are going well and that we follow the rules of Champaign County Public Health, as well as the state level.
The Potential Economic Impact
JM: How many people do you expect this facility to bring in from out of town, say in a year?
REID: Right now we’re estimating for 2021 to be about 250,000, or maybe a little bit more than that. I’ve been bold enough to say that I think in a few years, we’ll see a million people a year, both local visitors and people from out of town.
JM: Is that comparable to what other facilities and other cities do that you see?
REID: Of the size of our facility? Yes, absolutely.
JM: What does that mean for restaurants and hotels? Either existing ones or new ones being built?
REID: The economic impact is really great. We’re expecting, if we have a tournament of roughly 60 teams, we’re going to see somewhere around between 3,500 to 5,000 people. We have weekends out here, where we’re running both soccer and baseball, we might see upwards of 10,000 to 15,000.
When it comes to restaurants and hotels, Rantoul will be absolutely overloaded with people. The reason that we’re marketing the complex as a county wide tourism sports complex is because we need what Champaign-Urbana has. Even if Rantoul were to add 10 more restaurants and four more hotels, we’re still talking about events that will fill those North Prospect hotels and the hotels that are off the interstate in Urbana.
I can tell you right now that I know, our Hilton properties that are on Kirby, closer to the U of I’s sports campus, have weekends booked already for tournaments that are that are slated for this year. So we’re seeing the impact all the way down to Central/South Champaign. So we know that the impact is going to be high. We’re going to be filling weekends that are traditionally slower in the summer, July and August. Sometimes we don’t see as much tourism as we do during football season or in the springtime. So we’re thrilled to help our countywide hotels out in that measure, that will start filling heads in beds, as early as this April,
JM: What’s the first event to take place there, at the complex?
REID: The very first event is scheduled for April 17. It’s a youth baseball and softball tournament with Gameday USA. If everything goes to plan, and we’re on time, we’re actually going to host a Rantoul tournament, the week before, April 9, 10 and 11. That will feature our local softball and quite a few teams from around the area.