Runners compete in the World University Games. Credit: Pool Fotografi Universiad

North Carolina may not be the location of choice for the Olympics (at least, not yet), but it’s about to host the next best thing—the World University Games, an international sports competition for elite college athletes. 

The games, which occur every two years at locations around the globe, involve dozens of countries, hundreds of universities, and millions of tourists who pour into stadiums and arenas across the region to cheer for their favorite athletes. 

Raleigh mayor Mary-Ann Baldwin made the surprise announcement at a work session last week, just after the International University Sports Federation (FISU) voted to approve North Carolina as the host for the 2029 summer games. 

“I’m just thrilled. I’ve been waiting for the announcement to be confirmed,” Baldwin said. “We will have athletes from at least 150 universities throughout the world in Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, and Greensboro. [It’s a] $150 million estimated economic impact. The largest event ever hosted by the state. It is huge.”

The Triangle region lost its bid for the 2027 games, but the team’s compelling pitch set the stage for this year’s victory, said Baldwin. 

“When we went to Brussels [last year], unfortunately we were not awarded the [2027] games, but they hinted to us at that time, ‘What about 2029?’” the Raleigh mayor said. “I said, ‘You come with a contract, we’ll do it.’ Well, they signed the contract today.”

What are the games?

Like the Olympics, the World University Games has summer and winter competitions for different sports. The winter competition includes skiing, figure skating, and ice hockey, while the summer competition includes gymnastics, swimming, and archery. 

The summer games have 15 required events, including local staples like basketball, track and field, and tennis. FISU could also add three optional events for 2029, potentially baseball, rugby, and softball. 

This year’s summer games, held in Chengdu, China, are expected to draw some 7,000 athletes who will compete in 18 sporting events over 12 days. The 2029 games in North Carolina are tentatively scheduled for July 13 to July 25, but those dates could change, according to Hill Carrow, chairman and CEO of the North Carolina Bid Committee. 

This will be just the second time the United States has hosted the summer games. The last summer competition in the United States was in 1993, in Buffalo, New York. The winter games have also occasionally come to the United States. Lake Placid, New York, hosted the 1972 winter games and is hosting them again this year. 

Student-athletes ages 18-25 will likely compete in some of the Triangle’s best sports complexes, including the WakeMed Soccer Park, Cary Tennis Park, and USA Baseball National Training Complex, all in Cary. 

Over the last two decades, the town has poured more than $20 million into the construction and expansion of world-class sports complexes, drawing the attention of some national and international competition organizers. The WakeMed Soccer Park has been host to international friendlies as well as professional championships for men’s and women’s soccer. 

And of course North Carolina is a bastion for college sports. Greensboro is home to the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC) and recently hosted the ACC men’s basketball tournament. North Carolina has also hosted the NCAA Men’s Basketball Final Four twice, once in Greensboro and once in Charlotte. 

“As an event that features the best collegiate athletes from around the world, it is a natural fit for a state with 130 colleges and universities and more than 350,000 university students,” Carrow said.

What impact will it have on the state?

Like the Olympics, the World University Games requires local officials to join together in a massive organizational effort in the years before the games begin. Host cities are responsible for running the competition according to FISU guidelines, covering the on-site costs of staging the games, and accommodating the athletes, coaches, supporting staff, and officials who attend. 

Guidelines for the games are unique to each city but do include some general requirements such as paying for insurance and medical care for the athletes and staff. 

The local “organizing committee” is also responsible for providing transportation to and from venues, appropriate “sites, facilities, materials and equipment” for each event, interpreters for international delegations, and more than 20 guides and manuals for competitors, staff, and attendees, such as the athletes’ village map and competition schedule.

In return, the local organizing committee receives the revenue generated by ticket sales, national media coverage, national television broadcasting, and some national and international marketing and sponsorship. Overall, the games are expected to bring more than $150 million to North Carolina, according to Carrow. 

The chairman compared it to a “major corporate relocation … but with the added benefits of significant international tourism and worldwide branding exposure for our state and local communities.”

“The award … is the culmination of an extensive five-year effort by more than 1,000 individuals, 13 universities, five cities, five counties, the state of North Carolina, and 53 corporate and organizational sponsors to land this amazing event,” Carrow said. 

Arguably, the international exposure brought by the games is just as valuable as the revenue generated. An event like this could put North Carolina on the map as a destination for future sporting events, business headquarters, and tourists. 

“Our state has world-class facilities, a great enthusiasm for college sports, and legendary southern hospitality that will make these games a success,” Gov. Roy Cooper tweeted last week. 

The games could give North Carolina a “unique opportunity” to showcase the state, said Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, “including our renowned universities and all that our great state has to offer, to a worldwide audience of more than 400 million.”

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