For a small city, Marlborough has become a hugely popular sports destination.
The announcement this month that the Boston Rockhoppers, a professional lacrosse team, will make its home base at the New England Sports Center is the latest boost to a local economy fueled by athletes and their fans.
The six ice rinks at the New England Sports Center and the seven indoor fields for soccer and other sports at Fore Kicks attract thousands of amateur athletes and their families to Marlborough’s hotels and restaurants every year. Also drawing business to the area are the Yawkey Sports Training Center , the headquarters of Special Olympics Massachusetts, and a few smaller sports-related ventures.
“We’re not a tourist destination, no question about it — I don’t have beaches,” said Marlborough Mayor Arthur Vigeant. “They’re coming here for their kids to play hockey. Any place you go throughout New England and the country, they’ll mention the New England Sports Center. If you’re in New Hampshire or Connecticut, they all seem to know about it, if your family is into hockey at all.”
The New England Sports Center, which hosts about 26 hockey tournaments and other large events annually, is responsible for filling about 40,000 room nights per year in hotels primarily in Marlborough, but is also spilling over into some nearby towns, said Vigeant.
It’s become such an economic engine for this small city on Interstate 495 that the mayor joined representatives from Embassy Suites Hotel, the Marlborough Economic Development Corporation , and the sports center on a promotional trip to Ottawa this summer. Their biggest pitch: the North American Fall Championship, a hockey tournament the sports center hosts for elite players ages 8 to 18 that draws more than 80 teams over Thanksgiving weekend.
The timing is no accident. Promoters say Canadians love to take advantage of the holiday retail sales.
“Black Friday promotions are significant for that market,” said Richard Tomanek, general manager at Embassy Suites, who went on the Ottawa trip and estimates that about 10 percent of his hotel’s business comes from youth athletics.
Wes Tuttle, general manager and vice president of the New England Sports Center, said several economic elements come together to make the city a sports hub.
“The city of Marlborough is unique,” he said. “These events work because of the city, the infrastructure, the restaurants, the hotels, [and] the New England Sports Center obviously, but everything is right here inside the city of Marlborough. You don’t have to drive too far to get to a good restaurant, you don’t have to drive too far to get to a good hotel.”
The center’s website lists six hotels in Marlborough and many more in surrounding towns.
And it doesn’t hurt that Boston is a 30- to 45-minute drive away, said Tuttle.
In some ways it’s better to be outside Boston, said Susan Nicholl, executive director of the MetroWest Tourism and Visitors Bureau, a new organization established to promote businesses and amenities in the western suburbs.
“Metro west is much less expensive to take a family to than Boston,” she said. “We have sophisticated amenities without the hassle of being in an urban area.”
In addition to tournaments, the New England Sports Center, which opened in 1994, also hosts a training camp for the Worcester Sharks professional American Hockey League team, American Hockey League games, and other events.
In January and February, a group of Chinese hockey players will visit to look at area prep schools, and they will practice, participate in a tournament, and play in exhibition games at the sports center, said Tuttle.
They have reservations at a Marlborough hotel and will eat at local restaurants, he said.
That group will arrive not long after the Rockhoppers play their opening North American Lacrosse League home game Jan. 12 at the sports center.
“We’re really excited about being their home facility,” said Tuttle. “We think lacrosse is a good and fast-growing sport.”
Although the center focuses on ice hockey, a turf floor is being installed for the Rockhoppers in the main arena, which seats 1,600.
Anthony Fitti, general manager for the Boston Rockhoppers, said several other venues were considered, including some that held more fans. But ultimately they didn’t want to be a small fish in a big pond, he said, and the sports center was accommodating, working around their schedule.
“They wanted to put us in the best position to succeed,” said Fitti. “Making it the hottest ticket in town was what we wanted. . . . Creating a demand for our tickets, creating an atmosphere that will really get the place rocking, it was really important for our organization.”
And Marlborough’s location — at the intersection of Interstates 290 and 495, and not far from the junction of the Massachusetts Turnpike and I-495 — is excellent, he said.
“The good thing about the New England Sports Center is its location,” said Fitti. “Some people might say it’s in the middle of nowhere, but we look at it as in the middle of the 495 belt.”
Fore Kicks, which opened its Marlborough location in 2007, chose the site because of its access to major highways, and because it is within traveling distance for so many in the state, said Tom Teager, president and owner of Fore Kicks Sports Complexes.
Fore Kicks sees 250 to 300 people per hour on weekends during its peak season of November through April, drawing from a 15- to 20- mile radius, and its customer base consists of families with children playing soccer, lacrosse, and other sports, said Teager.
“After they’re done playing, they’re hungry and go to local restaurants to eat,” he said.
Teager said that the complex, which includes two outdoor lighted fields, draws children and adults for its leagues, camps, and clinics. But the approximately 12 tournaments annually lure players from all over New England, he said.
Clients include Massachusetts Youth Soccer, Mass Premier Soccer, and the Boston Blazers, a National Lacrosse League team whose operations are currently suspended.
Soccer and lacrosse are the main activities, but Fore Kicks also sees volleyball, softball, baseball, basketball, and field hockey, among others.
And demand is strong enough that Teager is looking to add four more outdoor fields to bring the total to six, he said.
“That would allow us to become more of a hub for tournaments,” he said.
Location was the key factor for Special Olympics Massachusetts, which opened its headquarters in Marlborough in December 2009.
The Yawkey Sports Training Center, the official name of its headquarters, is primarily used for training the state’s thousands of volunteers and coaches, according to Mary Beth McMahon, senior vice president for Special Olympics Massachusetts.
Being in Marlborough puts the organization within about 90 miles of 90 percent of the people it serves, she said.
“For us it was location, location, location,” said McMahon.
The city and its Economic Development Corporation are also promoting smaller sports (or sports-related) venues such as the Cross Roads Fencing Center, LazerZone amusement center, and Marlborough Country Club, a semiprivate golf course.
The mayor said he wants to maximize Marlborough’s booming cottage sports industry in any way that makes sense. To that end he said he’s been meeting with the local youth baseball organization, which has hosted the Cal Ripken New England Regional Tournament. That weeklong tournament, for players ages 9 to 12, draws hundreds from several states to the Williams Street Baseball Fields.
“Who knows, down the line, if we can bring the [Cal Ripken] World Series here,” said Vigeant. “We want to try to capitalize on what we have going and not miss the opportunity.”Lisa Kocian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeLisaKocian.