IN 1992, the city of Rockford came into the national spotlight with the blockbuster movie “A League of Their Own,” which immortalized the famed Rockford Peaches, a women’s baseball team founded during World War II as part of the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League. Starring Tom Hanks, Geena Davis and Rosie O’Donnell, it solidifi ed Rockford’s athletic reputation on the big screen.
More recently, the city in 2017 completed a multiyear, $54 million initiative called “Reclaiming First” to retain and grow the amateur sports tourism market with the expansion and enhancement of various local sports facilities.
“We’re just scratching the surface with what we can accomplish as a department, organization and community,” says Nick Povalitis, director of sports development for the Rockford Area CVB. “Every success is contagious and inspiring, and we’re seeing the power of our brand continue to grow throughout the tourism industry as well as locally.”
Just over an hour’s drive from both O’Hare in Chicago and General Mitchell Airport in Milwaukee, the Rockford region is a rising sports hub.
“It has top-notch facilities for sports all of kinds, and our community has regional and national accessibility,” Povalitis says. “Once you get to Rockford, you’ll experience first-hand the quality customer service provided by our sports professionals who live, work and play here. We are a seasoned yet humble sports destination, thanks in large part to the variety and quantity of event owners and national governing bodies that keep returning to Rockford.”
Among those facilities he’s referring to is Beyer Stadium, which hosted the Rockford Peaches from 1943 to 1954 and today is home to the Rockford Starfires, a women’s hardball/ baseball league. “Beyer Stadium is the still the central focus of girls’ baseball’s lineage with roots in Rockford, and continues to be restored,” says Povalitis.
This three-complex facility contains 26 total outdoor fields, one turf stadium (Wedgbury Stadium) with lights and seating for upward of 2,500; and the newly expanded Indoor Sports Center. The indoor/outdoor Mercyhealth Sportscore Two features soccer fields, sand volleyball courts and seven lighted turf fields. Mercyhealth Sportscore facilities can also be converted to an indoor golf driving range and feature locker rooms, equipment storage and a family-friendly casual restaurant and sports bar that works well for group events.
“With a shift of tournament director preference toward turf fields, we have many long-standing and new baseball operators at Mercyhealth Sportscore Two—including Game Day USA and JP Sports,” says Povalitis.
Jake and Candy Karau have been operating the Rockford BMX training track for nearly 40 years. In fact, they were one of the very first couples to be inducted into the BMX Hall of Fame. The track is home to organized bicycle racing from April through October, and is rated among most racers as one of the top tracks in the nation.
According to Candy, the most popular event of the season is the BMX Midwest National, which is open to the public to watch. “Riders from all over the world compete, as well as many other racers from the United States,” she says. While the park is not available for rental for private events, all of the regular Sunday races are open to the public with no admission fee. “We pride ourselves on the great group of kids and families who participate weekly, and racers range from ages five and under in the balance bike division to experts 61 and over,” she says.
One of the most unique sports attractions in Rockford area is the world-class Ski Broncs Water Ski Show Team. On Wednesdays and Fridays from Memorial Day to Labor Day, locals and visitors line up along the shore of the Rock River, or watch from boats, as the ski team builds a human pyramid. For groups, when combined with an outdoor picnic or reception, the Ski Broncs make for an exciting and entertaining backdrop.
“The Ski Broncs are a great local attraction and ambassador for sports in the community,” says Steve Kling, vice president for the Ski Broncs. In addition to regular local ski shows, they’ve hosted USA Water Ski & Wake Sports events.