LEXINGTON, Ky. (FOX 56) – Wednesday marked the start of the Boys High School Sweet 16 Tournament at Rupp Arena.
Just like the girls last week, thousands of fans are expected to pack the arena to support their hometown teams.
The 16 teams will travel an average distance of about 104 miles to get to Rupp Arena, bringing with them family members, friends, and fans of all ages.
Those fans are expected to bring a lot more than high energy to Rupp however.
VisitLex said events like the Sweet 16 are a major reason for the city’s tourism numbers bouncing back to 97% of what they were before the pandemic.
The girl’s Sweet 16 brought in an estimated $2.8 million in direct business sales and the expectation is that the boy’s tournament will double that.
But that revenue only scratches the surface.
“It adds up in not only value in money, but it adds up in experience,” said Martina Barksdale, Director of Communications for VisitLex. “I mean, we know Lexington is a hidden gem, but we really want people to, and we love supporting, especially like our small businesses, our restaurants, our hotels, all of that and The Sweet 16 was a great way to do so.”
So what will fans be doing that generates such a significant economic boost?
Well, one of those things is eating.
VisitLex said there are roughly 51 non-fast-food restaurants located in the downtown Lexington area.
From Italian to Mexican or southern Fried Chicken, there is no shortage of options for fans coming to watch their teams.
Although winter months are typically slower with lower temperatures and less foot traffic downtown, events like the Sweet 16 come at a perfect time, bringing in millions of dollars to businesses.
Restaurants like Agave & Rye will be leaving the competition to the athletes, admitting that their business is best when businesses around them are doing well.
“Our servers are always suggesting their favorite local businesses,” said District Leader for Agave & Rye Payton Caines. “Someone can come here for dinner, and we can suggest a great place to go for drinks later. So, it works out for everyone.”
For many people, attending the state tournament is their one and only visit to Lexington for the year, so for them, getting out and exploring the local shops and restaurants is a must.
None of this would be possible however without the athletes.
There are only 6% of high school athletes that go on to play college sports, so for many of these kids, the Sweet 16 may be their one and only opportunity to play in a college arena, let alone one as big and well-known as Rupp Arena.
They get to shine in front of loved ones and with their hometowns cheering them on.
The Kentucky High School Athletics Association said thousands of tickets were sold well before the tournament field was set, meaning even fans who may not have a dog in the fight, want to come support some of the best athletes in the state.
Something they said is uniquely Kentuckian.
“It is something that is in our fabric here, said KHSAA Commissioner Julian Tackett. “The way the tournament is run, the way that the way the teams qualify it just that’s why you have to really You know, sometimes Twitter-verse gets excited about something they see, and they want to change something. And you just got to really be guarded because it’s served everyone very well. The people that support the event, it’s just it’s an odd dynamic. It’s tough to describe. And it’s very, very much uniquely Kentucky.”