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Bill Virgin: Sports idea just might have wings

Sometimes trial balloons don’t have the lift to get off the ground. Other times they’re not tethered so they float away, never to be seen again. Or they leak and deflate. Or someone takes a shot at them and hurries the deflation along.

But on occasion a trial balloon proves a success by ... well, how exactly do you know if a trial balloon is a success? And what do you do with it if it is?

Too bad about the limitations of trial balloons as metaphorical device, because it appears we might just have the makings of a successful one here in Tacoma and Pierce County.

Last March, this column, as part of its ongoing discussion of economic development opportunities and niches for the region, floated the idea offered by a reader to make Tacoma and Pierce County an amateur sports event hub for the Northwest.

A city of this size is bound to land some events anyway, but a concerted amateur-sports-center effort turbocharges the idea, by making creation, recruitment and retention of such events a deliberate strategy.

Amateur sports events help fill the hotels, restaurants and stores, they leverage existing facilities and they’re a lot cheaper to recruit, organize and host than, say, professional sports teams.

As it happens, the amateur-sports idea is taking flight in Tacoma, as illustrated by recent news from the Tacoma-Pierce County Sports Commission, the entity charged with the task of making sports a significant part of the area’s tourism and entertainment mix and making this region a destination spot for amateur sports.

The commission recently announced it has landed the state high school golf championships in 2011 and 2012.

That May event occurs the same week as state track and field championships at Mount Tahoma High School (an event that had been in Tacoma, then moved to Pasco before returning here); state baseball championships; the boys state soccer championships in Sumner; and the boys soccer championships in Lakewood.

These events welcome various classifications, from 1B to 4A schools. Add that all up and what you have is Spring Championships Week – a nice marketing campaign that gets to the heart of the opportunity and challenge for Tacoma and the sports commission.

The challenge: What do we do with this? The opportunity: Hey, we can do something with this.

Marketing and emphasizing the idea of a concentration of amateur sporting playoffs and championships in town not only promotes the individual sports and events, it also grabs mindshare to promote Tacoma and Pierce County as the logical host for them.

So the sports commission is trying to add to its portfolio of events including wrestling and basketball championships, dragon boat races on the Thea Foss Waterway, the Tacoma Twilight Criterium cycling event in June and baseball tournaments this summer.

For all the sports and fitness activities that people engage in, each has some sort of regional or national organization that has some sort of event that would be a nice addition to the local sports calendar. Those local clubs, groups and organizations can serve as the hosts for those national events.

But capitalizing on the economic potential of amateur sports is more than just a matter of filling the calendar with events. It’s a matter of raising the profile of each event and of coming up with a unified campaign to promote the city as a place where those events step up from being a once-a-year get together.

So the commission is looking at ways to add to the Twilight Criterium to make it a multi-day event. It’s kicking around some sort of opening all-sports ceremony for Spring Championships Week. It’s considering a sports summit, at which local clubs, teams and organizations could promote themselves and their activities to the public, and exchange ideas and information on issues in amateur sports.

In this endeavor Tacoma has a model to emulate – in the form of the Spokane Regional Sports Commission, which boasts an impressive résumé of everything from opening-round games in the NCAA basketball tournament to international figure-skating competitions.

Tacoma and Pierce County aren’t there yet. The region needs more events, more high-profile events and more image-building. It needs more facilities, from a renovated Tacoma Dome to more softball fields and more multi-purpose fields that can handle soccer, rugby, lacrosse, even ultimate Frisbee. A major factor in keeping Tacoma and Pierce County from making the leap to amateur-sports capital is “the quality of our venues,” says commission executive director Tim Waer.

But achieving recognition and status as a regionally, even nationally significant amateur sports center is eminently more achievable, and much sooner and at less expense, than attempting to be the center of whatever the next hot high-tech industry is. It’s also far more sustainable as a strategy than pursuing those high-tech dreams.

The sooner Tacoma becomes that sort of city – where it’s an automatic choice to host such events as the national trial-balloon-floating championships – the better.

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.

Ed. Note: The last paragraph of this column was updated to correct a typo.

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