Late-arriving fans trickle into an early-round NCAA Division II women’s basketball tournament game at Clayton State University last Friday. Area officials say some sort of sports body is needed to promote athletic venues and events in the county.
JONESBORO Do Clayton and Henry counties need a regional sports council which could promote their athletic venues and access to travel infrastructure?
The answer varies based on whether you ask business, recreation or economic development officials in the two counties. Some say county-specific groups are needed while some say nothing is needed at all.
Others aren’t sure because they said the topic hasn’t been brought up for discussion.
However, if you ask Clayton County Parks and Recreation Director Detrick Stanford about it, he’ll tell you something — whether its a sports council or some clever marketing campaign — needs to be done at least for Clayton County.
“We need something to market the venues we have,” said Stanford when the topic came up during a chamber of commerce event at the state capitol last month.
NCAA’s are good from publicity standpoint
Last weekend, Clayton State University hosted the South Regional of the NCAA Division II Women’s Basketball Tournament and local officials couldn’t have been happier.
Eight college teams participated in the regional and seven college basketball games were played in Morrow over the span of one weekend. More than 900 people packed into the university’s 1,100-seat basketball arena to see the Lady Lakers face South Carolina-Aiken Saturday night and the arena was approximately 85 percent full for the Sweet 16 round game against Limestone Monday night.
“From a public-relations standpoint, this is a huge deal to have this level of tournament in the county,” said Clayton County Economic Development Director Grant Wainscott.
But there are more venues out there to promote and at least one cautionary tale of what can happen if a venue isn’t promoted enough.
Lost opportunity for beach volleyball
Clayton County built its International Park to host the first-ever Olympic beach volleyball facility for the 1996 Olympics. The centerpiece of the park was the beach volleyball stadium, but without something in place to market facilities and attract tournaments, the county struggled to bring in events.
The obscurity of the event, and Clayton County’s distance from the ocean combined to make the sport a tough sell in metro Atlanta. Stanford said, in retrospect, the odds may have always been stacked against the county.
“Clayton County was probably never going to be a destination for beach volleyball,” he said.
Now, the facility can’t host beach volleyball anymore. Stanford said the venue, now known as the VIP Complex, was converted to a small concert arena years ago. A stage now sits where bikini and Speedo clad beach volleyball players once competed for gold medals.
If organizers of a beach volleyball tournament wanted to come to Clayton County, Stanford said they would have to make do with the smaller courts adjacent to the VIP Complex.
Why a sports council?
Last month, the formation of the Fayette County Sports Alliance was announced.
Those events have turned some heads, and raised questions about when the conversation would begin over whether a sports council was needed either on a county-specific level or a regional basis.
“With us having our strategic economic development plan, we are working much more closely with our economic development office, with all of our cities and with our county,” Clayton County Chamber of Commerce President Yulonda Beauford said. “And, so that may be a topic of conversation for all of us to come together again and address that as a potential next step.”
Sports councils or alliances are typically used to promote athletic venues in a specific area, in attempts to attract regional or national tournaments to that area.
There are at least 17 sports councils or alliances in Georgia, according to the Georgia Department of Economic Development’s website. Most of those groups are run by local convention and visitor’s bureaus, but some are organized by a chamber of commerce or a county department.
The Atlanta Sports Council, for example, is run by the Metro Atlanta Chamber of Commerce.
Clayton and Henry counties are surrounded by six sports councils or alliances in Atlanta, Alpharetta and Cobb, DeKalb, Fayette and Gwinnett counties in its immediate area. Most of these groups are limited to a specific city or a county, but there are some which are more regional in nature.
The 22-year old Augusta Sports Council is one such example.
Officially, its mission is to strengthen “the quality of life and economic well-being for the city of Augusta through recruiting, supporting and attracting sporting events.” However, the membership of its board of directors crosses state line with one member representing the University of South Carolina-Aiken.
The Augusta group has been involved with more than 600 events and generated a $200 million economic impact over the last two decades, according to augustasportscouncil.org/.
Clayton and Henry counties have different approaches to sports issue
The Augusta numbers sound impressive, but a similar regional sports council designed to promote Southern Crescent athletic venues doesn’t appear to be on the horizon.
Stanford said a regional group which would have stretched from across several counties was planned at one time but it never came to fruition and he isn’t sure why.
Henry County Chamber of Commerce President Kay Pippin was skeptical such a group could benefit her county. She said the county already hosts several soccer, lacrosse, tennis, baseball and softball tournaments with a sports council in place.
“In 2012, Henry County hosted over 40,000 visitors attending 34 softball and baseball tournaments alone,” Pippin said. “These wonderful teams and their other visitors invested over $11 million in our local economy.”
Pippin added that the biggest sports venue in the Southern Crescent — Atlanta Motor Speedway — has its own marketing staff and likely doesn’t need a sports council’s assistance.
But, the idea of something akin to a sports council has taken root in Clayton County. Wainscott, the county’s economic development director, said his department is already looking at kick-starting its dormant sports office in the coming weeks.
The county’s parks and recreation department, city recreation departments, private sports venue owners, the Clayton County Chamber of Commerce and the Clayton County Convention and Visitor’s Bureau would be involved, he said.
“We want to market the facilities we have and attract more tournaments to the county,” Wainscott said.
Clayton County had its fair share of tournaments in recent years. In addition to the recent NCAA tournament at Clayton State, the Clayton County Tennis Center regularly hosts annual tournaments for historically black colleges and the Georgia High School Athletic Association state tennis championships.
The Steve Lundquist Aquatic Center in Jonesboro also hosts county swim tournaments.
Wainscott said he has discovered a little-known indoor soccer facility and a volleyball tournament in the county in recent weeks.
“A lot goes on already and I don’t know that all of the partners really know how much is already going on,” he said. “I think that’s one of the valuable things we can learn is to understand what’s already being done and what we can not only do to support, but to grow that.”
With that in mind, it would appear Clayton County may have answered the regional sports council question.
Regardless of whether a region-wide body is needed, Clayton County may move forward without its neighbor.
“You’ve got to crawl before you walk and there’s already a lot of people walking in the county,” Wainscott said. “Our goal is to circle the wagons and provide as much support as possible.”