Columbus' Arena District is its most vibrant hub. And it is built around sporting events. Nationwide Realty Investors

"One of the smallest big-league cities" in the country aims to super-size its reputation by hosting big-name games.

Three weeks from now, 140,000 ice hockey fans are expected to descend on the Arena District in downtown Columbus, Ohio. There, they'll enjoy all the features that come with hosting the NHL All-Star Weekend: A giant, three-lane snow slide, live music, skating rinks, and fire pits where kids can roast s'mores. The world's top hockey stars will be in town, too. Columbus, smack dab in the center of Ohio and sometimes known as "Cowtown," will transform into a "hockey heaven," say event planners.

In the grandiose world of American professional sports, the NHL All-Star Game might seem rather JV. Though it is considered one of the "big four" sports in North America, pro hockey is the straggler of the group. The NHL's most recent all-star showcase had only 1.3 million viewers. (The Major League Baseball and NBA all-star games had 11 million and 7.5 million viewers, respectively.) But city planners in Columbus aren't fazed by the event's relative obscurity. They're happy to have 1.3 million extra eyes getting a glimpse of the Columbus cityscape during commercial breaks. They're eager to show off the city's burgeoning urban culture to first-time visitors. In fact, the NHL All-Star game may be Columbus' best opportunity to grab the title of Middle America's Most Underrated Sports Hub.

"We have a very full understanding about how major sporting events can advance the profile of Columbus," says Bruce Wimbush, communications director of the Greater Columbus Sports Commission. So great are the intangible benefits of hosting the NHL All-Star Game that GCSC and other local stakeholders have dedicated 15 years to bidding, negotiating, and re-negotiating with the NHL to host the 2015 game. And this is just the first of many major sporting events set to debut in Columbus—an indication of the city's bullish pursuit of sports showcases. In the fall, Columbus was named the site of the 2018 NCAA women's Final Four and will host USA Track and Field's annual meets in 2017 and 2018. (There's also a pending bid to host the Cleveland Browns for their 2015 training camp.) The goal, Wimbush says, is for major athletic events like these to raise the stature of Columbus to the same level—and maybe even beyond—that of its peers.

"One of the things that we see and endure is that Columbus, even if you compare it to Cleveland or Cincinnati, doesn't have that national profile that it has within the state," Wimbush says.

Big-name sports events can enhance the aura of a city. And Cincinnati and Cleveland, though smaller cities, have older and more celebrated sports brands than Columbus does.

True, Columbus is home to Ohio State University, a college football juggernaut with a big-time athletics budget. But Cincinnati and Cleveland combine to host five teams that earn nightly national exposure in professional football, basketball, and baseball leagues. Columbus, on the other hand, can only claim a Major League Soccer squad and a pro hockey team known for its lackluster play and uninspiring attendance rates. Nonetheless, the Columbus Blue Jackets, the city's NHL team and lone competitor in one of the "big four" sports leagues, has rejuvenated downtown Columbus. That's a likely reason why the city is promoting itself as a diamond in the rough for sports destinations.

When the Blue Jackets started playing in 2000, they not only brought a state-of-the-art ice rink, Nationwide Arena, to the city—their presence completely redeveloped a blighted neighborhood. Known as the Arena District, it has since become Columbus' most vibrant urban hub.

"[T]here was nothing going on [in the Arena District] except for auxiliary parking for some of the businesses in the surrounding areas,” Brian J. Ellis, president and COO of Nationwide Realty Investors (NRI), says. When NRI, a leading local firm, set out to develop 75 acres of the Arena District in 1997, one-third of the site was occupied by a shuttered state penitentiary. The rest, says Ellis, "was predominately a sea of surface parking." Yet the blight vanished quickly and dramatically when Nationwide Arena opened and the Blue Jackets hit the ice.

The Arena District in the late 1990s, before redevelopment. (Nationwide Realty Investors)
Nationwide Arena in downtown Columbus, which will host the upcoming NHL All-Star game. (Nationwide Realty Investors)
An aerial photo of the previously blighted Arena District. (Nationwide Realty Investors)
Present-day Columbus. (Nationwide Realty Investors)

Property values soared by 267 percent between 1999 and 2008, according to a study by Ohio State University. Over $1 billion has been invested, the OSU study adds, nearly tripling the district's employment level. And, according to Nationwide Realty Investors, office occupancy rates in the Arena District are at 95 percent or higher.

Still, despite the evident stimulus generated around Nationwide Arena, some question the city's viability as a long-term sports hub.

"Columbus is in a tough situation," says Victor Matheson, a widely regarded sports economist at the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts. According to Matheson, the two most important indicators of a city's ability to make hosting major sporting events sustainable are 1) a large metropolitan population, and 2) a high per-capita income level. Columbus looks shaky in both areas.

Despite being its largest city, Columbus is only the third most populous metropolitan area in Ohio, lagging behind Cleveland and Cincinnati according to the Columbus Dispatch. With a median per-capita income of roughly $41,000, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Columbusites generally pull in less than the state average and roughly $10,000 less than the national average. These demographic and economic limitations, says Matheson, earns Columbus the distinction of being "one of the smallest big-league cities" in the country.

So is Columbus a budding sports capital or simply punching above its weight? The jury is still out. But the city will be the center of the hockey world when the NHL All-Star Weekend gets underway on January 24. If Columbus can generate enough buzz, it just might convince the country that it's the next great sports destination.

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