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Olympic Trials This Weekend Could Provide Economic Kickstart For St. Louis

A gymnast practices vault ahead of the P&G Championships at St. Louis' Chaifetz Arena in 2016. This year St. Louis will host the men's and women's gymnastics Olympic Trials at the Dome at America's Center.
John Chen
USA Gymnastics
A gymnast practices vault ahead of the P&G Championships at St. Louis' Chaifetz Arena in 2016. This year, St. Louis will host the men's and women's gymnastics Olympic Trials at the Dome at America's Center.

The U.S. Olympic Team Trials for men’s and women’s gymnastics this weekend could give a significant boost to the St. Louis economy as the region continues to emerge from coronavirus restrictions.

Organizers expect the four-day competition, which starts Thursday at the Dome at America’s Center, will attract nearly 15,000 people each day to the city’s downtown. This sporting event is different from a Blues or Cardinals game because many of the attendees will be coming from outside of the region.

“Coming out of COVID where things were shut down for the last 15-16 months, this is a huge shot in the arm for the hospitality industry and all those businesses downtown,” said Chris Roseman, vice president of the St. Louis Sports Commission, which helped secure the event for the city.

The 2016 Olympic Trials for women’s gymnastics in San Jose generated around $20 million, Roseman said. He expects a similar figure for St. Louis this year because the Dome and America’s Center is also hosting championships for rhythmic, acrobatic, trampoline and tumbling gymnastics and USA Gymnastics’ national convention and trade show at the same time as the trials.

“Every square foot of that convention center is going to be filled with gymnastics events,” he said. “There’s going to be thousands of people downtown, not to mention there’s a Cardinals series that weekend.”

The trials come at a crucial time for those in the region who rely on sporting events for their income, said Patrick Rishe, who directs Washington University’s sports business program.

“Especially when these one-off events, like gymnastics or the wrestling championships, get delayed, moved or canceled, it’s like taking away someone’s bonus because these events don’t come around every year,” Rishe said.

Across the country during the pandemic, arena and stadium workers lost hundreds of millions of dollars in wages because of canceled or postponed events, he said.

Most of the money coming into St. Louis this weekend will take months to fully circulate into the community. The initial influx may help hospitality-related businesses bridge budget gaps or hire more workers ahead of the later summer months, said Charles Gascon, a regional economist at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.

He also notes the stark reality of the pandemic, which forced many layoffs in the hospitality sector. Businesses are still struggling to fill open positions.

“Do we actually have the capacity to feed this number of people and put them all in hotels?” Gascon said.

The sports commission hopes to ensure a smooth weekend by communicating the expectations and event schedule to downtown businesses, especially restaurants, Roseman said.

“When to staff up, when to expect people coming through their doors — there’s not always going to be a noon or six o’clock dining time,” he said.

The trials also bring less obvious perks for the region, beyond the dollars flowing into St. Louis.

“One of the main benefits to these kinds of events is you’re getting people who maybe didn’t have St. Louis on their radar,” Gascon said. “If someone is coming in for the zoo or a Blues game, they clearly already know what we have to offer.”

He added it’s difficult to place a dollar value on those kinds of new impressions.

“Ultimately that can build the rapport for the region in ways that are really difficult to do,” Gascon said.

For locals, the trials add to the list of regional amenities that are available throughout the year, Rishe said.

“We don’t have beaches, we don’t have mountains, we don’t have oceans, but we do have the St. Louis Sports Commission that goes out of their way to recruit events to come to our community,” he said. “Every year we can count on a few one-off events coming to St. Louis.”

Hosting the Olympic trials for both men’s and women’s gymnastics has been a major goal for the Sports Commission, which attracted the 2016 men’s team trials.

“We’ve always wanted to host this event,” Roseman said. “We don’t know if we’ll ever get the chance again.”

The trials this year also help maintain the city’s connection to the global sporting event, which St. Louis hosted in 1904.

“It’s been over 100 years since we hosted the Olympics and odds are we won’t be hosting ever again,” Rishe said.

But leaning into that heritage increases the city’s chances of having other Olympic sporting events, like the 2024 U.S. Olympic Swimming Trials, which St. Louis has put in a bid for, he said.

“Because St. Louis has done a good job of hosting in the past, pragmatically, we’re more likely to host these events in the future,” Rishe said.

Eric Schmid covers the Metro East for St. Louis Public Radio as part of the journalism grant program: Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project.

Eric Schmid covers business and economic development for St. Louis Public Radio.