Pay for play: Competition stiffens to attract sporting events
By Molly M. Fleming
The Journal Record
OKLAHOMA CITY – In 1992, there were 12 sports commissions in the U.S. Now, there are more than 700, representing cities of all sizes.
Oklahoma City has been in the sports recruiting game since 1957 when the Oklahoma City All Sports Association was formed. The nonprofit organization works to recruit NCAA events. It has secured four permanent events in the city: the Women’s College World Series, the Big 12 Women’s Basketball Championship, the Big 12 Women’s Softball Championship, and the Big 12 Men’s Baseball Championship.
Executive Director Tim Brassfield said the city is lucky to have those four events parked here.
When OKC All Sports bid on events scheduled from 2019 to 2022, the NCAA passed on the city as a host for 11 events. Brassfield said there are some events the city wouldn’t be able to host, such as bowling, because there’s no local collegiate team.
But for the Division I men’s basketball first and second rounds, one reason Oklahoma City was passed over was that Missouri, Texas and Tulsa offered incentives to the NCAA.
Oklahoma City doesn’t have an incentive program, though there is an event sponsorship fund available, supported by the hotel tax.
“We’re up against tougher competition than we’ve had in the past,” Brassfield said. “We haven’t at this point had to pay them to come here. I think it’s something we need to adapt to and take a hard look at.”
Show Me the Money
In the Show Me State, the Amateur Sporting Tax Program started in 2013, though working with the legislators started in 2010. Missouri leaders recognized in the early 2000s that the sports recruiting business was changing, said Marc Schreiber, vice president of marketing and development at the St. Louis Sports Commission.
“It became clear to us here in Missouri we needed some level of public-sector involvement for us to be successful in terms of keeping events in our state,” he said.
The $3 million program can be used only for ticketed sporting events. The state reimburses $5 for every ticket sold to the applicant, likely the sports commission. The sports commission knows how many tickets will be sold for an event, so it can give the money to the NCAA upfront.
When the men’s basketball tournament went to Kansas City, Missouri, it was projected to have 19,000 people for each of two sessions. That’s 38,000 tickets, so the NCAA would have received $190,000 for having the tournament in the city.
Brassfield said he likes the $5 ticket fee because it’s directly related to the athletic event, so other residents won’t take on the cost. Schreiber said the program has been successful, and he said the Kansas City Sports Commission would echo his statement. He said he might not go as far to say it’s the reason St. Louis can still attract athletic events, but it’s helped maintain the tradition.
“Without the tax credit, we might have to rethink our strategic focus,” he said. “It might push us in a direction of owned-and-operated events, which would generate revenue for our organization, but not bring in new dollars for our community.”
In 2017, St. Louis hosted the Division I Men’s Wrestling Championship, one of the events Oklahoma City bid on for 2019 to 2022. The NCAA changed the format and took it to large arenas, including the U.S. Bank Stadium, home to the Minnesota Vikings.
The wrestling championship brought in 110,000 people, with nearly 91 percent coming from outside Missouri, Schreiber said. People were projected to spend $200 a night and stay up to four nights.
“That’s what makes that event so lucrative,” he said.
The Missouri program expires in 2019. He said some sports commissioners want the language changed so it’s not ticketed events only and would allow smaller cities to recruit amateur youth tournaments.
Playing on Tulsa time
Tulsa Sports Commission Executive Director Vince Trinidad said he and his colleagues started noticing a trend in their pursuit of athletic events.
“Oklahoma City was getting a lot of stuff,” he said.
In 2011, the Visit Tulsa fund was created. Tulsa Convention and Visitors Bureau Executive Director Ray Hoyt rallied 40 private investors and raised $1.2 million, which paired with the city’s $1.8 million raised from the hotel tax. The money was used to help bring in the Bassmaster Classic, attracting 100,000 people in three days, along with other athletic and non-athletic events.
In 2014, Visit Tulsa 2.0 kicked off, and private investors were again asked to help supplement the fund. Trinidad said he has about $1 million annually to recruit events. Tulsa will host the first and second rounds of Division I men’s basketball in 2019.
Trinidad said Tulsa-area business leaders wanted to donate to Visit Tulsa 2.0 because it helps improve the quality of life in the city.
“We have companies that were not part of the tourism industry but gave because they want a community with a great quality of life,” he said.
Back down I-44
The private investor model may not work in Oklahoma City because companies are already invested in tourism attractions. Oklahoma City Convention and Visitors Bureau President Mike Carrier said the Boathouse District, for example, has many corporate sponsors.
“If we try and go out and do too much through corporate sponsorship, are we hurting our own in some way,” he said. “Are there other opportunities to increase funds?”
A small portion of the city’s hotel tax can be used by the CVB to sponsor events. In fiscal 2017 it sponsored 96 events, such as horse shows and amateur athletic tournaments. The money pool ranges from $1.2 million to $1.3 million annually. The size varies depending on how many hotel rooms are rented each year.
In the last several years, the number of events recruited has grown. In FY 13, only 72 activities received the money.
But each event has to produce in order to get the money. Carrier compared it to the state’s Quality Jobs Act.
“We like the way this program works because there are results,” he said. “If you don’t produce what you say you will, you don’t get the money.”
The state also has a Quality Events Fund that can help attract large events such as the U.S. Senior Open, which was held at Oak Tree National in 2014. The community that hosts the activity can be reimbursed for production costs. The CVB used it for the Arabian Youth Show, for which the CVB is hoping to be reimbursed $125,000.
Carrier said since he’s been in the tourism business, the growth in cities offering incentives has been one of the biggest changes. Every state that has a program does it differently.
“What (Oklahoma City) has to do is continually be looking at what’s going on around us,” he said. “We have to continually look at other sources of revenue to help sponsor these events.”