San Diego tourism gets a boost with the 2022 Transplant Games

Transplant Games of America.
San Diego has won a bid to host the 2022 Transplant Games of America.
(Transplant Games of America)

The six-day festival, which will be held in late summer, is expected to draw as many as 12,000 people to San Diego


Thinking ahead to a time when tourism will be revived — post-pandemic — San Diego has won the right to host the 2022 Donate Life Transplant Games, a six-day event expected to draw thousands of visitors to the county in late summer.

The Transplant Life Foundation announced this week that San Diego was the winning bid for the six-day festival, which every two years brings together thousands of transplant recipients, living donors and their families, those awaiting transplants, and transplant professionals from across the nation and around the globe.

The catalyst for the bid was Mark Neville, CEO of the Holiday Bowl Game Association, a transplant donor himself who became passionate last year about organ donation when he donated his kidney to a Houston woman who years earlier had been a nanny for his family.

The association, which submitted its bid for the games jointly with the San Diego Tourism Authority, already has had great success delivering to San Diego millions of dollars in tourism spending each year from the SDCCU Holiday Bowl game. While it’s unknown what kind of economic impact the games will yield, it’s expected that the event, to be held July 29 - Aug. 3, will draw between 10,000 and 12,000 people, said Neville.

“Our mission is to generate tourism for the San Diego region, and the platform we’ve used for 42 years is the bowl game held every December,” Neville explained. “We had revised our mission statement to diversify our event portfolio and bring additional events to San Diego to help the tourism industry, and I’m also passionate about generating awareness for donors. So we went to the Tourism Authority and put together a bid.”

Founded in 1990, the Transplant Games are held biennially and were supposed to be in New Jersey this year but were postponed until 2021 because of the coronavirus

The nearly week-long festival includes 20 athletic and recreational competitions for recipients and living donors, among them swimming, track and field, 3-on-3 basketball, pickleball, golf, and bowling, Neville said. There’s even one event called “Dancing with the Scars.”

A lot of the venues for the individual competitions will be at the UC San Diego campus, Neville said.

“As a donor, I get to participate, so we’ll have to come to an event I can medal in, so maybe over-50 surfing,” he added.

As part of the bid for the games, San Diego pledged to raise $1 million in cash or the equivalent in donated services or goods, Neville said.

He does not know how many other cities competed with San Diego but believes the Holiday Bowl’s longstanding reputation and the events it stages, including a nationally televised parade each year, contributed to the winning bid.

Typically, July is an easy sell for tourism in San Diego, with most hotels near capacity, but Neville said that in preparing their bid for the games, the Tourism Authority guaranteed blocks of hotel rooms in various parts of the city.

“The rich landscape and scenic beauty of the area enhances an unparalleled group of venues suitable for our transplant families,” Bill Ryan, president of the Transplant Life Foundation, said in a statement. “Add to this the chance to promote the efforts of major transplant centers like UC San Diego Health, Sharp HealthCare and Scripps Health allows us to promote our mission of increasing awareness to the health benefits of organ, eye and tissue donation.”

— Lori Weisberg is a reporter for The San Diego Union-Tribune