Buddy Up

By Kim Chapman

As youth, collegiate, and adult teams huddle in preparation for the next event, the team behind these successful endeavors never stops working.

Youth sports partnerships bring prosperity to Alabama communities. Photo courtesy of Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Sports Commission

Youth sports partnerships bring prosperity to Alabama communities. Photo courtesy of Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Sports Commission

Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Sports Commission (GSOBSC), which promotes a multitude of traditional and unique athletic venues along the Alabama Gulf Coast, is a case study of partnerships at work.

“The development of our sports commission began as a willing partnership between the key stakeholders in the community,” says Beth Gendler, vice-president of sales for GSOBSC.

“From the initial meeting, we knew that without a cohesive effort, we would not have a successful endeavor. Everyone sitting around the table understood his or her organization’s role in addition to how others also played key roles.”

Thus in 2006, the sports commission was formed thanks to a cooperative effort among Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism (CVB), the Alabama Gulf Coast Area Chamber of Commerce, and the cities of Gulf Shores and Orange Beach.

“When the sports commission was first established, the vision was to create a free-standing organization that would work with all of the various island businesses and city recreation departments to recruit and service sporting events to fill our state-of-the-art athletic facilities and now more than 16,000 lodging units,” Gendler explains. “However, the GSOBSC board realized we would spend a sizable amount of money on the basic items required to establish a company, such as office space, insurance, equipment, and supplies. Thankfully, we had the vision to significantly cut costs in the beginning by utilizing resources already established.”

The commission then became a department within the CVB, where Gendler also serves as vice-president of sales.

“This move allowed us to utilize the expertise of the CVB’s marketing and public-relations staff,” Gendler says.

“Instead of having to hire people to fill these positions or subcontract it to an agency, we had a prime opportunity to rely on this already existing team.

"Their end goal is the same as ours: bring visitors to the area. They simply target leisure consumers while we focus on sporting events.”

Gendler adds that “by relying on partnerships during the formative period of our sports commission, we were able to make huge steps forward.”

GSOBSC is a key link between the potential athletic event and the parks and recreation departments of the local cities.

College softball is a big hit here. Photo courtesy of Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Sports Commission

College softball is a big hit here. Photo courtesy of Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Sports Commission

“We must ensure that a particular facility has availability before we approach various events,” Gendler says.

“Once we secure an event, we facilitate communication between the event director and the venues. We have varying roles throughout the course of a tournament; however, it is due to this team effort that we produce quality events, which have tournament directors returning year after year.”

Ken Grimes, city administrator for the city of Orange Beach, has seen the growth of this important niche market through the years.

“The substantial investment of millions of dollars over the past decade in athletic fields, indoor and outdoor facilities, specialized equipment, and trained staff to operate and manage all of this was the true Field of Dreams concept of ‘If you build it, they will come,’” Grimes says.

“For many years and even today, our traditional youth-sports programs compete on the best turf and courts in our state. Yet we continue to enhance our infrastructure offering to secure events and competitions that build our year-round economy.

"For every team that comes to the Alabama Gulf Coast, we know in each city and through our sports commission that there is a direct return on that investment.

"Having seen the impacts firsthand in our community with soccer national championships, youth baseball World Series, offshore powerboat-racing to every fishing competition possible, our businesses and our local governments know the importance of partnering to build and maintain the facilities necessary to compete.

"Being a coastal resort community during the summer months is our primary tourist economy, but we have shown tremendous success as a region by partnering to attract those off-peak events and competitions which fill the hotels and condos, sell some retail and food while providing a clean, safe environment for families to enjoy.”

Along the same lines, Grant Brown, director of parks and recreational cultural affairs for the City of Gulf Shores, also sees the value of this partnership with the sports commission.

“The opportunity to further diversify our main tourism economy by offering high-quality sporting venues along with our world-class beaches and resort-style accommodations, make our support of the Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Sports Commission a natural partnership,” Brown says.

“Working closely with our neighboring communities, we are attracting numerous events, bringing athletes and their families for a combined competition and vacation. Who wouldn't want to host their event along Alabama's sugar-white sandy coast?”

The partnerships of local businesses and GSOBSC annual sponsors play a significant role in the daily operations of the sports commission.

“We have found in-kind services to be a tremendously beneficial result of our sponsorship program,” Gendler says.

“By providing meals in hospitality tents or rooms for site visits, these budget-relieving items allow us to use previously allocated funds to enhance the event and take it to the next level.

"With this pool of in-kind resources, our partnerships allow us to have the confidence to continue to push the limit and recruit more events, knowing that we have the resources to fulfill their needs.”

“Our partnership with the sports commission is a profitable investment for Brett-Robinson Vacation rentals on many levels,” says Marie Curren, director of marketing and reservation.

“The commission has successfully ‘grown the pie’ of tourism for the area, and as a sponsor, we have the privilege of hosting thousands of guests who may never have been aware of our beautiful area without them.

"Many sports participants return to our rental properties with their entire family for a great family vacation. Many sporting events take place in spring and fall, and this has truly helped extend the season for our company.

"After six years of partnership, our occupancy continues to grow during each sporting season, and we anticipate that each year to come will provide the same positive results.”

Sporting events draw participants to the area's resorts. Photo courtesy of Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Sports Commission

Sporting events draw participants to the area's resorts. Photo courtesy of Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Sports Commission

“It goes without saying that relationship-building with event directors and owners is vital to our success,” Gendler says. “However, we approach these opportunities as ways to enhance already strong partnerships.”

Terri McCormick, the head softball coach at the University of Mobile, has worked with the sports commission to produce over nine events in the last four years, including the 2011 NAIA Women’s Softball Championship.

“After completing four years of partnership with the commission, for the Gulf Coast Invitational Tournament, I can say it has not only been a beneficial relationship for our program, but also for our institution,” McCormick says.

“The benefits that we have received are beyond what I would have expected. Through financial support and in-kind support from their membership, our tournament has become the largest NAIA event, outside of the national tournament. It has certainly been a benefit to us, and it keeps my team and up to 35 others coming back to the Gulf Coast.”

As the relationship with the University of Mobile shows, working together extensively on an event enhances the expected benefits for everyone.

Along the same lines, Sean Weaver of the Pleasure Island Volleyball Club has worked with the GSOBSC on several events, commenting that “most of all, having the endorsement of the sports commission brings a seal of approval to others that are looking for a well-organized and established sporting event. Their assistance is always greatly appreciated and needed when it comes to both of my events.”

“Thanks to the benefit of our diverse partnership base, we have made significant progress in the recent years,” Gendler says.

Steady growth of the sports commission is evident in the numbers. In 2008, the commission hosted 28 events resulting in 10,081 room nights and a $3-million tourism impact (total spending).

The growth continued as 2009 saw 51 events generating 23,155 room nights and a $7.6-million tourism impact. Most surprising of all was the continued upward climb in the face of an unprecedented event in the summer of 2010.

“The Gulf oil spill was certainly a challenge we did not expect to face; however, we relied on our strong partnerships in the community as we all worked to honestly answer the questions of our guests, including the tournament directors and concerned parents of sporting-event participants,” Gendler says.

Despite wide-spread tourism dollar-loss across the entire Gulf Coast region, sports commission figures for 2010 soared through the roof. In 2010, the commission recruited and/or serviced 68 events--17 more events than in 2009, and generated 38,142 room nights for the island--a 64-percent increase over the 23,155 room nights in 2009.

Ultimately, these events resulted in a $12.8-million tourism impact, a $5-million increase over the previous year.

“Partnerships across all levels have been the single biggest factor generating our success,” Gendler says. “Excellent and constant communication among all involved groups has resulted in positives for everyone.

"As we grew and succeeded, our sponsors, industry partners, and cities also reaped the benefits of our partnership. These key relationships are the cornerstone of our sports commission.”

For information on the Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Sports Commission, visit www.gulfshoresorangebeachsports.com.

Kim Chapman serves as the public-relations manager for Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Tourism, which is the official destination management organization that promotes 32 miles of Alabama’s sugar-white beaches from the tip of Fort Morgan to the Alabama-Florida state line. A life-long area resident, she also has the opportunity to handle the media-relations needs for the area’s sports commission.