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Tacoma could become amateur athletics capital

Here in our little corner of newsprint we’ve ruminated over economic development opportunities, or lack of same, for Tacoma: Military support and spin-offs? Trade logistics? Education? Museum districts? Maybe so. Clean technology and green energy? Sure, us and every one-stoplight town in the universe. A financial services district minus Russell and, most recently, Rainier Pacific? Hmm, better rethink that one.

But lately a new idea has cropped up that has a lot to like about it: It’s not beyond the realm of possibility to achieve (unlike, say, the dreams of every town 25 years ago to be the next Silicon Valley). It’s relatively inexpensive to promote and operate. And best of all, Tacoma already has a head start on making it happen.

That idea: Making Tacoma the amateur sports capital of the Northwest.

We won’t claim credit (or the royalty fees) for coming up with this idea. Instead we’ll credit a TNT reader who was following up on a recent column about what economic-development niches Tacoma had to work with.

“Youth sports is a huge industry,” wrote Greg Sheldon, who himself is involved in a youth-sports organizational effort, to set up a local three-on-three basketball league. “And it’s a healthy industry (fights childhood obesity problem). And it’s an inclusive industry (brings people of different race, socio-economic, religions together) that promotes a vibrant society. And it can fill hotels, restaurants, shops, etc. with out-of-town families who would probably never set foot in Tacoma if not for a major soccer, baseball, basketball, football, lacrosse, etc. event.”

Nor is he the only one to whom the idea has occurred. TNT business reporter C.R. Roberts recently wrote about Mat Classic XXII, the state high-school wrestling tournament that brings more than a thousand wrestlers, as well as their coaches, fans, parents – and their money – to Tacoma.

Roberts quoted Tim Waer, executive director of the Tacoma-Pierce County Sports Commission, who noted the list of high-school tournaments (girls soccer, football, gymnastics, basketball, track and field, boys soccer, debate, bowling) that already call Tacoma home, as well as hopes to recruit more (golf and baseball). “All told, Tacoma is the home of sports championships, by far,” Waer told the TNT.

The commission’s own calendar lists sports events going well beyond high-school championships: archery tournaments, kayak and dragon-boat races, triathlons and running races and golf (including a high-profile event, the U.S. Amateur Golf Championship in August).

The challenge, then, is to build on that base, to make Tacoma the acknowledged and recognized home for amateur sporting events in this region.

Here’s what’s attractive about this strategy. It’s much less expensive than the pro-sports recruitment and retention game that Seattle is trying to play in. Many of the necessary facilities are already in place; furthermore, the city doesn’t need gilded sports palaces with luxury suites required for pro sports necessary to succeed in amateur sports.

And, there is precedent for this strategy. Indianapolis has pro sports and the Indy 500 (at one time one of the premier events on the American sports calendar), but it also has the self-generated image as the Amateur Sports Capital of the World. That’s a title it backed up with a concerted strategy to build not just the facilities but the recruiting muscle necessary to attract events to the city and the organizational expertise to make those events’ sponsors happy once they arrived.

The organizers of state high school tournaments and championships and other amateur-sports events might not need luxury suites, and they may not threaten to move to Oklahoma City if they don’t get their way. But they can easily go to Spokane or Yakima or the Tri-Cities or the Portland-Vancouver area or somewhere else in the Northwest, if they don’t like the facilities, the accommodations and the attitudes they find here.

How do you make sure those events come and their participants and fans want to come back? Sheldon proposes an effort by various civic and governmental entities working together “to put together a comprehensive plan for preparing our infrastructure of facilities, event development, event promotion, and other strategic elements; we could become a hot-bed for national, regional and local youth and adult sporting events. Having a great reputation as a recreational destination would also have a major impact on our ability to attract businesses.”

Such a strategy would also make it incumbent upon Tacoma to avoid the sorts of missteps, complacency, miscommunication and bruised feelings that wind up costing it opportunities and established events – such as the recently departed Wintergrass, to cite the example of an event in a different activity but one which many had assumed was a permanent fixture here.

Is Tacoma up to that challenge? Just as those tournaments and championships offer participants opportunities to succeed, the amateur-sports industry (for lack of a better term) offers multiple opportunities for Tacoma to score some long-term economic victories.

But in order to win, Tacoma first has to decide it wants to play – and will be serious about it when it does.

Bill Virgin’s column on business and economics appears Sunday in The News Tribune. He is editor and publisher of Washington Manufacturing Alert and Pacific Northwest Rail News. He can be reached at bill.virgin@yahoo.com.

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