By Sam Weiderhaft
Myrtle Beach has been a favorite vacation spot for visitors across the country for decades at this point. Exotic restaurants, thrilling rides, an abundance of shops among other attractions have highlighted the boardwalk and surrounding areas through the years, not to mention a beach that runs into the warm Atlantic Ocean.
“It’s a family-friendly, affordable destination,” said Jonathan Paris, Executive Director of Sports Tourism at Visit Myrtle Beach.
With Myrtle Beach being in the southern section of the country, there’s one sport that has captivated the region and brought together comminutes: football.
The Grand Strand has seen the effects of this gigantic sport recently. Coastal Carolina’s football program has had a winning record each of the last three seasons and boosted attendance with their new stadium expansion which first debuted in 2019. The Chanticleers had three sellouts through the 2022 season.
With that recent expansion to Brooks Stadium that pushed the capacity of 15,000 to 21,000, more opportunities became available to the Myrtle Beach area. Enter postseason football.
The idea for the Myrtle Beach Bowl formed on an island with an entirely different sport. In 2017, Hurricane Maria hit the U.S. territory of Puerto Rico causing widespread damage to the island. This moved the annual Puerto Rico Tip-Off, an early-season college basketball tournament that was first played in 2007, to the campus of Coastal Carolina at the HTC Center.
“They had a great experience here,” said Paris, remarking on the 2017 tournament. In 2018, the Myrtle Beach Invitational was officially started by ESPN Events to take the place of the Puerto Rico Tip-Off.
Things began falling in place for the conception of the Myrtle Beach Bowl, as the NCAA allowed for the creation of new bowl games prior to the 2020 season.
“Seeing what a great destination Myrtle Beach is, what a great community it is, seeing what Coastal was doing with their stadium renovations, it rolled right into that discussion,” said Paris.
With the success of the early editions of the Myrtle Beach Invitational, the Grand Strand was awarded a bowl game starting in the 2020 season and running to 2025, also owned by ESPN Events.
Paris, who’s been with Visit Myrtle Beach since January 2018, said the strategy of the city is to create that “first time visitor” with the bowl game and other sporting events.
“Hopefully that turns them in to future vacationers and folks that are just going to come back on leisure travel on their own,” Paris said.
In the first game, Paris considered the city lucky to have the bowl game played in a season that saw over 10 bowl games canceled due to COVID-19. With an attendance cap of 5,000, the first edition of the Myrtle Beach Bowl sold out in a matchup of Appalachian State and North Texas in 2020.
Last year, it was a matchup of Old Dominion and Tulsa with all attendance restrictions lifted.
“We were pleasantly surprised with the amount of fans that ODU brought down from the Norfolk area,” said Paris. “They brought busloads of students, their alumni associations did a lot of functions around town, that was great.”
The third annual Myrtle Beach Bowl will send two northern teams to the south as West Virginia’s Marshall will take on UConn on Monday, December 19th. When the matchup was announced, excitement was brewing with the likelihood of more tourism.
“With Marshall and the tie-ins to West Virginia that Myrtle Beach has, they’ll be strong,” said Paris. “There’s no doubt that there’s some UConn alums and UConn fans that have moved here in the last five years too.”
This will be UConn’s first appearance in a bowl game in seven years and the preparation began right after the announcement. Avelo Airlines added new flights to Myrtle Beach from Tweed-New Haven Airport and gave Husky fans a discount.
“We’re excited to celebrate UConn’s first bowl appearance since 2015 with special flights for Husky fans to cheer on their team in Myrtle Beach,” Avelo Airlines CEO Andrew Levy said in a press release.
Since the addition of the basketball tournament and bowl game, Myrtle Beach has seen more year-round tourism for a city that’s always been popular during the summer months. Now, the direction shifts to holiday programming while fans are in town to watch their teams.
“That’s really popped up the last few years,” Paris said. “We’ve been promoting that information to the teams and fan bases. The Winter Wonderland at the Beach lights festival on the boardwalk, the Christmas shows at our theaters, the North Myrtle Beach lights, the MarshWalk, we’ve been pushing the family-friendly, affordable holiday offerings we have now.”
Paris hopes to continue to grow the bowl game with exposure and tourism in the coming years. As far as Myrtle Beach, the city will prepare to host the 2023 Sun Belt Conference Track & Field Championships, the 2023 World’s Strongest Man competition, and the 2023 American Cornhole League Collegiate championships.
“We try to keep pushing the envelope and pushing events here that create tourism and exposure,” Paris said.
The 2022 Myrtle Beach Bowl is scheduled for Monday, December 19, at 2:30 p.m. ET on ESPN.