Selling Columbus for marquee sports events

Steve Wartenberg, The Columbus Dispatch

May 22, 2014

Many of the top officials at USA Track & Field were familiar with Columbus.

Not Desiree Friedman, a new hire at the Indianapolis-based sports organization.

"I knew virtually nothing about Columbus and envisioned it being not so much of a city ... more suburban," said Friedman, a native Californian and the group's associate director, constituent services.

A visit last week as part of the site-selection committee for the organization's 2017-18 annual meetings changed her perception. Friedman said she was impressed with the quick 10-minute drive from Port Columbus to Downtown and the abundance of hotels and variety of restaurants within walking distance of the convention center.

"The Downtown was so much more vibrant and happening than I expected it to be," she said.

This type of image metamorphosis is exactly what officials of the Greater Columbus Sports Commission strive to make happen whenever they host decision-makers for site visits.

"We have our work cut out to prove ourselves," said Linda Logan, executive director of the sports commission.

The pitch to Friedman and USA Track & Field was the start of an important yearlong period that Logan said could go a long way in determining Columbus' future as a destination for sports events and meetings of sports organizations.

The sports commission will host several big events in an attempt to beat rivals such as Nashville, Tenn.; Louisville, Ky.; Kansas City, Mo.; and Pittsburgh to host the NCAA women's Final Four, USA Gymnastics national championships and USA Track & Field's annual meetings.

There are several high-profile sports events to look forward to early next year.

Columbus will welcome the NHL All-Star Game in January and the second and third rounds of the NCAA men's basketball tournament in March.

"We have turned the corner," Logan said. "We've grown in so many ways and have a higher profile, and we're catching up."

And yet, Columbus still has hurdles to clear to land more and bigger events. A perennial issue is its image - or lack of one, Logan said.

"Our lack of an image means it's very important for us to tell our story effectively," she said.

Another full-service hotel connected to the Greater Columbus Convention Center would help, too.

"Other cities have a greater number of full-service convention hotels," Friedman said. "For our annual meeting, there are enough, but the bigger conventions would be looking for more."

Stephen Ducoff is another sports executive who didn't know much about Columbus and was pleasantly surprised during a recent visit.

"I'm embarrassed by how little I knew," said Ducoff, CEO of the Association of Chief Executives for Sport, or ACES.

The ACES will hold its annual meeting here June 3-6. It will include the chief executives of about 30 sports governing bodies, including USA Volleyball, U.S. Equestrian Federation, USA Gymnastics and USA Basketball, he said.

"What Linda (Logan) wants and what I want is for the CEOs to say, 'Hey, Columbus is cool; I'll talk to my events person and we'll consider Columbus for one of our events,' " Ducoff said.

The model for sports commissions is the Indiana Sports Corp. Founded in 1979, it has turned Indianapolis into a premier sports-event city.

Indianapolis hosted the 2012 Super Bowl; has been the site of six NCAA men's Final Fours, with No. 7 coming in 2015; and has hosted the NCAA women's Final Four twice, with No. 3 on the calendar in 2016.

"We were the first sports commission in the country and were part of the plan to revitalize our Downtown," said spokesman John Dedman.

Sports can be the marketing engine that changes or creates a city's image and puts it on the map, he said, adding that Columbus is on the right track.

"We've seen the success they've had," he said.

The annual budget of the Indiana Sports Corp. ranges from $3 million to $7 million, and it has a full-time staff of 24, Dedman said. The vast majority of its funding comes from private sources, such as sponsorships.

The local sports commission has an annual budget of $1.8 million and nine full-time employees. About 70 percent of its funding comes from private sources, such as sponsorships, and most of the rest from bed taxes.

A lot of money comes to town with a major sporting event. For example, visitor spending at the Super Bowl was $176 million, Dedman said. The NCAA women's Final Four generates $15 million to $18 million in visitor spending.

Columbus is after more and bigger events like those.

"We were bridesmaids the last time around," Logan said of the previous bidding process for the women's Final Four. "But I think we opened up a lot of eyes, and we're better-prepared this time around."

The women's Final Four selection committee will visit here in August or October, said Bruce Wimbish of the sports commission.

The selection of the four cities to host the Final Four from 2017 to 2020 is expected to be made by the end of November. Others in the running are Dallas; Houston; Tampa, Fla.; Nashville, Tenn.; New Orleans; and Pittsburgh.

Friedman and USA Track & Field has made or will make site visits to Raleigh, N.C.; St. Louis; Kansas City; Minneapolis; and Jacksonville, Fla., with a decision expected in July.

"Columbus is definitely on our radar, no matter what we decide," she said.