The Go-To Guide: Family-Friendly Spectator Sports in Columbus
We #SavedtheCrew. The city’s dressed all in scarlet and gray. NHL hockey is upon us again, with the Columbus Blue Jackets hitting the ice after their first taste of playoff success.
We Central Ohioans love our sports, be it our favorite local teams or maybe The Memorial Tournament, founded and hosted by favorite son Jack Nicklaus. Newcomers—and even some longtime residents—might not be aware of the robust mix of live sports offerings, from baseball to bodybuilding, cycling to soccer. Though the Ohio Machine ended its run after the 2018 season when Major League Lacrosse shrunk its team count, the offerings remain robust.
We’ve compiled a list of some of the top opportunities to catch athletes in action—on the field, the ice, the golf course and even the streets. There’s something for almost every interest, and some of the ideas are inexpensive—or free.
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All American Quarter Horse Congress
Ohio Expo Center, 717 E. 17th Ave. (North Side), Columbus; quarterhorsecongress.com
Columbus is home to the world’s largest single-breed horse show, which marks its 53rd year in 2019. The event draws almost 25,000 entries and more than 650,000 people to the city for workshops, a trade show and nearly a month’s worth of competitions—including some for young riders—in cutting, freestyle reining, western pleasure and more. This year’s event takes place Oct. 1-27.
Arnold Sports Festival
Various locations throughout Columbus; arnoldsportsfestival.com
How many people could name a big-time sporting event after themselves, using just their first name no less, and get away with it? Arnold Schwarzenegger, former bodybuilding champ, actor and politician, has done just that.
His event has called Columbus home since its inception in 1989. The Arnold Sports Festival has expanded in those 30 years and is now the world’s largest multisport fitness weekend. And Columbus has embraced both “The Arnold” and Arnold himself, making this event part of the fabric of the city.
What started as a bodybuilding competition now includes 16 Olympic events, such as archery, boxing and soccer, and alternative strength events like Scottish Highland games and arm wrestling. Youth have their own competitions, including martial arts and cheerleading, and the Arnold SportsWorld Kids & Teen Expo caters to families.
The 2020 Arnold is slated for March 5-8. Upwards of 22,000 athletes from around the world are expected to participate in more than 80 events—a new record—drawing some 200,000 spectators.
Columbus Blue Jackets
Nationwide Arena, 200 W. Nationwide Blvd. (Arena District), Columbus; bluejackets.nhl.com
The action of NHL hockey—any hockey, really—is best experienced live and in person. Anyone who loves the game can tell you it’s not only great competition, but also a feast for the senses. And Nationwide Arena only enhances the experience.
The Blue Jackets work hard to build a family-friendly experience around the games themselves, offering young fans a feel for the sport firsthand in the IGS Energy Zone play area and fun with team mascot Stinger. The team offers bundled ticket packages, some of which include food, drinks and even skating passes for the OhioHealth Ice Haus at the arena. Also, the arena has multiple sets of family restrooms.
First-time attendees should be aware of the cannon that is fired every time the CBJ scores a goal. It can be startling for adults, even more so for young children.
The Blue Jackets’ home opener is Oct. 5, and the regular season runs through early April.
Huntington Park, 330 Huntington Park Lane (Arena District), Columbus; clippersbaseball.com
Take your kids out to the ballgame featuring the 2019 Governor’s Cup Champion Columbus Clippers. The minor-league baseball team has been the Triple-A affiliate of the Cleveland Indians since 2006.
Mascots LouSeal and Krash are welcome sights at Huntington Park, the team’s home since 2009. The venue, which seats more than 10,000, features great views of Downtown.
Strollers are allowed, and there is a play area and family restrooms. The lawn, where visitors can sit on a blanket, and bleachers are popular places to watch the game. The team offers packages and promotions for families and groups.
The 2020 season begins in early April.
Columbus Crew SC
Mapfre Stadium, 1 Black & Gold Blvd., Columbus; columbuscrewsc.com
This season has been a special one in Columbus. And, while the Columbus Crew SC didn’t make the playoffs this year, the fact that MLS soccer will continue in the city is a celebration in itself. (For those who don’t know, the #SavetheCrew grassroots fan movement and a local ownership group kept the franchise—which started here in 1996—from being relocated to Austin, Texas, this past offseason.)
Matches at Mapfre Stadium (originally Crew Stadium and the first soccer-specific stadium in the U.S. when it opened in 1999) are family-friendly, and pregame activities outside Mapfre Stadium are popular.
The Crew, winners of MLS Cup in 2008, recently announced plans to start construction on a new Downtown stadium. Supporters are invited to a groundbreaking on Oct. 10. The team will begin play in its new home in 2021.
Columbus Eagles FC
Otterbein University Memorial Stadium, 121 Center St., Westerville; columbuseaglesfc.com
The Columbus Eagles FC competes in the Women’s Premier Soccer League. The amateur team features numerous players from Central Ohio high schools.
Typically, the team plays eight home games in a season. The Eagles’ 2019 season spanned late March through early July. Memberships, which include admission to every home game, are available for the 2020 season.
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The Memorial Tournament
Muirfield Village Golf Club, 5750 Memorial Drive, Dublin; thememorialtournament.com
When the greatest golfer of all time grew up in your city and played high school and collegiate golf there, you can bet that when he decides to host a PGA Tour event in his hometown, it’s going to be big.
For more than 40 years, Jack Nicklaus has welcomed the world’s best golfers to Muirfield Village Golf Club to compete in The Memorial Tournament. It remains likely the area’s signature sports event outside of Ohio State football.
As with any PGA event, loud and/or unexpected noise is frowned upon, but the event still is family-friendly. Children ages 18 and younger are admitted free with a paying adult, and strollers are allowed on the course. The Memorial’s Clubhouse Kids program aims to educate participants about golf and provides a welcome pack with loads of fun stuff. Kids love getting autographs after players have finished their rounds (Wednesday after the Pro-Am is an ideal time), and Wednesday also brings Junior Golf Day and the evening Junior Golf Clinic. A tournament ticket is not required for the clinic.
The 2020 Memorial will be held June 1-7.
Nationwide Children’s Hospital Columbus Marathon
Downtown Columbus and surrounding suburbs; columbusmarathon.com
You don’t have to be a long-distance runner to be a part of this signature event in the capital city. More than 100,000 people watch this annual race that winds through Downtown, Bexley, the OSU campus, Grandview Heights and Upper Arlington. Indeed, the event is notable for its Patient Champions from Nationwide Children’s Hospital, who cheer on some 7,000 runners in the full marathon and 11,000 in the half-marathon.
Plus, a Kids’ Run and related expo are part of a day of fun for children and families.
This year marks the event’s 40th anniversary (and the 14th year for the accompanying half-marathon). It will be held Oct. 30. There will be nearly 100 live bands, DJs, entertainers, radio stations and various neighborhood parties along the route, which culminates with Celebration Village at the finish line.
Ohio Roller Girls
Ohio Building at the Ohio Expo Center, 717 E. 17th Ave., Columbus; ohiorollergirls.com
The Ohio Roller Girls, a competitive league for female roller-derby athletes that started in 2005, offers a fun and fast-paced alternative to mainstream sports. The sport may resemble your grandparents’ roller derby (and some of the players even have outsized nicknames and personalities just like back in the day) but these are modern athletes through and through.
The season typically runs from March through June.
Tour de Grandview
Streets throughout Grandview Heights; tourdegrandview.com
This early summer event has been held each year for more than a quarter-century. A field of international professional racers competes on a course that winds through the streets of this Northwest-area neighborhood.
For viewers, houses along the race course host fantastic house parties, and the Street Party features local bands, a beer garden and food trucks. And the free Kids Sprints Race typically attracts more than 100 children.
The 2020 Tour de Grandview is set for June 12.
U.S. Women’s National Team – U.S. Soccer
Mapfre Stadium, 1 Black & Gold Blvd.; ussoccer.com
Columbus has long been a home field for U.S. national teams in soccer on both the men’s and women’s side. If you’re still riding the high of this past summer’s Women’s World Cup win by the U.S. Women’s National Team, Nov. 7 offers a chance to see the team square off against Sweden in an international friendly (noncompetition) match.
The Central Ohio region has an abundance of colleges and universities, many of which field numerous, sometimes champion, sports programs. In addition to enormously popular events at Ohio State University, there also are other schools with solid fan followings. Best of all, ticket prices often are very reasonable—or even free.
Capital University in Bexley has nine men’s and nine women’s sports, including basketball, lacrosse, soccer, tennis and track and field. The Crusaders compete in NCAA Division III and the Ohio Athletic Conference.
Denison University in Granville fields teams and athletes in 10 men’s and 12 women’s sports, including cross country, field hockey, tennis and volleyball. The Big Red compete in the North Coast Athletic Conference and NCAA Division III.
Ohio Dominican University
Ohio Dominican University in Northeast Columbus has seven men’s and seven women’s sports teams, including basketball, golf, soccer and volleyball. The Panthers compete in NCAA Division II and are part of the Great Midwest Athletic Conference.
Ohio State University
Fans rooted for the Ohio State University Buckeyes long before there were professional sports teams in Columbus. Most popular, of course, are its football and basketball (both men’s and women’s) teams, but student athletes compete in a host of NCAA-sanctioned events.
Otterbein University in Westerville fields teams in 10 men’s and nine women’s sports, including baseball, basketball, volleyball, golf and wrestling. The Cardinals compete in NCAA Division III and the Ohio Athletic Conference.
Ohio Wesleyan University
Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware has 11 men’s and 12 women’s sports, including basketball, field hockey, football, golf and swimming and diving. The Battling Bishops compete in the North Coast Athletic Conference and NCAA Division III.