Eugene business owners say World Athletics Championships crowds fell far short of their expectations — but hope visitors return for future events.
Sammy Rivera said after he finished watching the World Athletics Championships, he wanted to try a glass of Oregon pinot noir.
Rivera spoke with Oregon Business outside Prince Puckler’s Ice Cream in downtown Eugene on July 15. He was traveling with nine companions as part of a touring group from Puerto Rico that also traveled to Beijing in February to watch Winter Olympics in February. They were in Eugene cheering on Puerto Rican athletes, and boasted about seeing Usain Bolt break the 200-meter dash record in 2008.
Only one member of Rivera’s group — a track and field aficionado and admirer of Oregon track and field legend Steve Prefontaine — had heard of Eugene before the trip.
Rivera, seated on the far left, eats ice cream with some of his traveling group. Credit: Sander Gusinow
But the group told OB they were already planning their trip back to Eugene for the Prefontaine classic next May. And they were planning on enjoying some outdoor activities before they left.
Rivera’s group was part of a cohort of tens of thousands of sports fans who’ve converged in Eugene this week to watch the World Athletic Championships. But while some Eugene business owners reported above-average sales, many business owners who spoke with Oregon Business said the big crowds they prepared for simply did not materialize. Still, some are hopeful that the WAC — a biennial competition organized in 1976 as a sort of alternative to the Olympic Games, and held at rotating locations around the world — will further Eugene’s reputation as a travel destination for sports fans, particularly those traveling from overseas.
Andy Vobora, a vice president with Travel Lane County, told The Oregonian earlier this week that the agency expected between 35,000 and 55,000 visitors spread across 10 days. During a phone call with OB, Vobora said those numbers seem to have held. (On Tuesday, The Oregonian reported that ticket sales had topped 54,000 — but that’s a sum of ticket sales from each day of the games. On the opening day, ticketed attendance totaled 13,646 and on Day 3, ticketed attendance totaled 21,065.)
One of many running murals painted on storefronts for the Championships. Credit: Sander Gusinow
Vobora said his office’s estimate was based on an economic analysis done years ago. But he said he’s heard much higher numbers thrown around — as high as 100,000 or 200,000 — that were based on a sum of total ticket sales for the 10-day event and did not account for the fact that many attendees would buy tickets for multiple events. He’s not sure of the original source of that claim, however.
“They had sold like 100,000 tickets by the end of December, but ticket sales isn’t people,” Vobora said. “We were trying to educate people all along that that wasn’t the number of people coming.”
By comparison, roughly 60,000 people attend an average University of Oregon football game, and before COVID, single day spectator attendance at the US Olympic Track and Field Trials was close to 25,000 people, according to Vobora
“We knew the event wasn’t going to create lots of chaos. We were kind of touting more the international flavor. It’s still a lot of people but it’s not so much that it grinds things to a halt,” Vobora said..
Downtown businesses decorated with international flags and worked so hard to prepare for the event that on the eve of the first night of competition, it could be difficult to find a server even at quiet restaurants.
Erin Grover, manager of Mokes Coffee and Kitchen, told Oregon Business the makeup of the crowds was different, with more international visitors and travelers from elsewhere in the U.S., business was actually quieter than normal.
“We’re hopeful to catch more business,” Grover told OB. “I think most of us prepared for this event to the best of our abilities. But there’s still quite a bit of excitement for this in downtown. It’s still a big deal to have the Championships here and it’s an honor to host it.”
Tim Murff, co-owner and general manager of Sabai Cafe & Bar told OB on July 15 sales had increased by just 10%. Murff expects there will be plenty of room to adapt as time goes on and more events like this come to the city.
“I think this first World Athletics Championships is just about feeling things out a little bit,” Murff told Oregon Business. “We’ve had Olympic trials and other events here before, just nothing as big as this one. We’ve expanded our hours a little bit. These events bring in a lot of Europeans who don’t normally eat until later. This is just giving us all an idea of what this kind of big event will be like in the future.”
Murff wasn’t clear what ‘big events’ he was referring to, but he was optimistic about Euegne’s future as a more international destiantion.
Other business owners were less optimistic.
The Ninkasi tent at the RiverFront Festival. Credit: Sander Gusinow
“We in the business community have done a lot of work revitalizing this downtown area,” said one downtown restaurant owner, who asked not to be named in this story. “If this business they promised us downtown doesn’t materialize we’re going to have a mini riot on our hands. We have all hired people; we were told we needed to be all hands-on deck. I’m sure it’s been great for the hotels, but we’ve done a whole lot to prepare for just empty seats.”
Collin Cram, event coordinator and hospitality lead at Ninkasi Brewing Company told OB he suspects many locals left town before the event. He also attributed the lack of overwhelming business to Eugene’s somewhat isolated location.
“There has been talk and rumblings for a year plus about how busy it was going to be down here for this event. I think what that has done is encouraged locals to stay away and get out of town. And Eugene is nestled at the end of the Willamette Valley, and there aren’t any close metropolises like Portland to draw people from,” Cram told OB.
Vobora also suspects the six-figure numbers floating around “got people fired up in the community” and made them decide not to go out.
Ninkasi was the only alcoholic drink vendor operating inside the RiverFront Festival, an outdoor market at running concurrent with the Championships, Cram said the opportunity to sponsor the event was a “no-brainer” for the brewing company.
Even if the crowds weren’t as large as anticipated, Cram said the Championships serve as an opportunity to introduce products and marketing ideas to a new audience. In addition to being the only alcoholic drink vendor present at the Riverfront Festival, the brewery got permission from the OLCC to serve its new canned cocktail beverages to visitors.
Swiss runner Chiara Scherrer and her parents. Credit: Sander Gusinow
Former Olympic runner and New York-based chef Michael Stember opened a pop-up restaurant called Family Meal ’22, but said he expected the venture would break even over the course of the Championships. His real goal, he said, is to establish a reputation and foothold in Euegne. He believes the city will be even more of a major player in international track and field moving forward.
“This is about becoming a major part of the food and beverage offering within the track and field communities. For sponsors, foodies and traveling world fans, this is a perfect time to galvanize long-term partnerships,” Stember said.
“I’m not looking to make my year the most profitable year of all time. I’m charging dinners at a price point that’s a little lower than what I usually charge. Right now, the goal is serving a larger swath of people in varying socioeconomic ranges and tastebuds,”he added.
Stember said he is already in talks for another pop-up during next year’s Prefontaine Classic, and has already begun thinking about how to make his event memorable.
“Next year, we’re going to host on some farm land that’s gorgeous. And there’s a special barn that we’re going to trick out for next year,” Stember said. “This is not just a one-off. I’m sure I’ll be working with a lot of these partnerships long term and in the future.”
Vobora said his office is trying to get the word out that people should still go out and support local businesses — but also that he’s hearing positive feedback from those attending the event.
For 26-year-old Swiss runner Chiara Scherrer, her visit to Eugene felt like coming home. While sitting with her parents outside Sweet Life Patisserie, she noted that she had attended the 2014 World Junior Track & Field Championships and was excited to be competing on familiar ground. Her family visited Crater Lake on their previous visit, and Scherrer said she was deferring any further sightseeing until after the competition, but that she planned to explore more of Oregon’s outdoors once the competition was over.
“I’m a local here now,” she said, smiling.
Editor’s Note: This story has been altered from an earlier draft to more accurately describe attendance at the Olympic Trials.
To subscribe to Oregon Business, click here.