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You don’t have to have pros to become a destination sports town

Barring the occurrence of mass hypnosis and conversion of David Stern, the NBA owners and the Sacramento ownership group planning to buy the Kings, Seattle-area sports fans will not be watching men’s professional basketball beginning this autumn. Or, more than likely, next autumn. And perhaps not for many autumns after that.

The world of major-league-level professional sports is hideously expensive and fraught with petty bickering and political infighting, and that’s on the good days when things are going your way. As Seattle and the Chris Hansen investor group should have known from the saga of the original Sonics and their departure, and have just gotten an expensive reminder of, things often don’t go according to the script you wrote.

Tacoma was well-served in resisting the siren call of getting involved in a pursuit of an NBA team. For multiple reasons, that’s a venture that would produce a maximum of disappointment and expenditure in time, effort and money for little reward. Don’t think so? Ask Renton how it’s enjoying that new arena for the Clay Bennett-owned Sonics the community had hoped to get.

But the local sports calendar will hardly be bereft of events for spectators to spectate at because the Sonics version 2.0 won’t be around to fill it, least of all here in the Tacoma area.

You have missed, unfortunately, the canoe, kayak and stand-up paddleboard competition in Gig Harbor, and the Greco-Roman wrestling tournament at the Tacoma Dome (Greco-Roman wrestling around here? Who knew?), and you needed to get up early today to catch the Tacoma City Marathon. But still to come in the weeks ahead are dragon-boat races, high school golf and track-and-field competitions, a college golf tournament, a triathlon, and soccer, baseball and lacrosse tournaments – to name a few.

These are amateur competitions, involving student and weekend athletes, not the high-profile events involving well- practitioners of professional sports. But there are some significant dollars associated with the events, in the form of dollars spent by visitors on lodging, meals, entry fees and other activities.

Building Tacoma’s status as an amateur-sports hub is one of the components of this column’s economic-development strategy for the region. If everyone else can have an economic development strategy, so can we. The other components, for those keeping score at home, include leveraging and organizing local colleges to make this a higher-ed center, using the port as a lure for more shipping and logistics company offices, tapping the talent coming from the military installations, the Museum District as a tourism core and advanced materials and composites manufacturing.

Just to review, amateur sports work well for a city such as Tacoma because they make use of facilities already in place (no need to build them or the activities from scratch), and are far easier to recruit. Dollars coming to the community from Spokane or Pasco or Bellingham spend just as well as those from New York, Chicago or Los Angeles, and they’re a lot less expensive to acquire.

Sending that message is the job of the Tacoma South Sound Sports, an organization that works on recruiting and organizing local sports events.

Last week, as the Hansen group and its Seattle backers tried to figure out what to do next, representatives of Tacoma South Sound Sports were before a City Council subcommittee to make a pitch for increased city commitment to the organization.

About half of its $500,000 annual budget is funded with a room-night assessment, according to Chief Executive Tim Waer. The rest comes from Tacoma, Fife, Puyallup, Lakewood, Gig Harbor and Pierce County. Tacoma’s contribution last year took a 10 percent cut, and it may be facing another one. That’s the wrong direction to go, Waer maintains, given the return on investment amateur sports can bring to the region and the city’s budget.

That’s probably a message city council members and administrators don’t want to hear right now because, in fairness to them, it’s a message they’re hearing from everyone. The Earth might stop rotating from the ensuing earthquake if some recipient of public funding ever went before a council or legislature and said, “Nope, we don’t need more. In fact, we can take a bit of a haircut.”

Still, the potential in amateur sports is intriguing enough that the community as a whole needs to take a look at how sports recruitment and promotion is funded, and if it’s not to come from cash-strapped public entities how it might be done through private channels.

Sports organizations are already employing some innovative approaches to stretching dollars and making events possible. By using mats from a February high school tournament that were already in place at the Tacoma Dome, the state wrestling association was able to hold a folkstyle-wrestling tournament the day after.

Waer says investment in portable sports courts would allow a venue such as the Dome to host basketball, volleyball and team handball tournaments with dozens of games going on simultaneously in one location.

“There are opportunities out there that match our city so well,” Waer says, for local, regional, national, even international events, provided the region signals its seriousness about competing for them.

And those opportunities, unlike an NBA franchise, are well within reach of a city the size of Tacoma, as Spokane has already proven (another attraction of the strategy: there’s plenty of room for Tacoma to play and it doesn’t have to compete with Seattle to do so).

It would be unfair to say that Tacoma could have a thriving amateur sports sector in the time it will take Seattle to land an NBA team and build an arena. But that’s because Tacoma already has a solid foundation in amateur sports on which to build — and because Seattle’s road to adding another professional-sports franchise appears, at the moment, to stretch to an endless horizon.