BY PATRICK Twitter: PatrickOchs

GULFPORT -- In the past, South Mississippi's sports entities have largely operated within vacuums, concerned with their own communities rather than the three southernmost counties as a whole.

On Wednesday, the Phoenix-based Huddle Up Group, hosted by Visit Mississippi Gulf Coast, gave a brief presentation on how the Coast can come together in a collective effort to attract sports tourism.

As HUG founder and CEO Jon Schmieder said, the Coast has an abundance of potential. Opening up better communication among the various entities is a crucial next step.

"We really just want to set the groundwork for moving sports tourism forward as a full Mississippi Gulf Coast, " VMGC executive director Renee Areng said. "As they pointed out, a lot of communities are doing their own efforts for their community events but there's a large opportunity out there for us to promote the Mississippi Gulf Coast for sports tourism."

According to Huddle Up, grass-roots sports tourism is worth nearly $9 billion nationally. Schmieder said a good way to start to get a bigger cut of that money is by "creating compression" in the community. In short, if facilities such as the Gulfport Sportsplex can work with other such venues to expand and attract more or larger tournaments, the ripple effect will be felt throughout Hancock, Harrison and Jackson counties.

Schmieder listed the Coast's outdoor sports facilities -- the sports complexes in D'Iberville, Ocean Springs, Vancleave and elsewhere. In all, the Coast has 55 softball and baseball fields and 27 multi-purpose fields. Where the Coast is possibly hurt is that its fields are spread out across the counties, and there are fewer multi-use fields than ideal to attract the large-scale tournaments.

"If you do it right, whether it's venue expansion or more programming to drive tourism, everything cascades out from wherever you're starting," Schmieder said. "The more compression we build, then the more hotels that show up and the more development and retail that happens."

Schmieder said the Coast Coliseum and Convention Center, the Harrison County Fairgrounds and Gulfport Sportsplex are the Coast's three best -- and largest -- assets. He said MGM Park has been a nice addition, especially when it's able to host events such as the Conference USA Baseball Tournament.

He also said girls tournaments specifically are ideal to target because of the average number of people who travel with each athlete. Where only about one person may travel with each person on a boys team, almost 3.2 family members and friends travel with girls. Largely because of that, Schmieder suggested targeting girls soccer, lacrosse and even field hockey tournaments.

Overall, no timetable was set to act on the suggestions.

"I think this is a good first step," Areng said.

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