Published in Nonprofits
Mike Guswiler, president of West Michigan Sports Commission. Mike Guswiler, president of West Michigan Sports Commission. Photo by Katy Batdorff

Sports Commission finds success in attracting amateur competitions

BY Sunday, January 22, 2017 11:58am

Growing the region’s economy through sports-focused tourism has paid off for the West Michigan Sports Commission despite the less-than-perfect timing.

The organization began operating in 2007, just before the United States entered into the worst recession since the Great Depression. It was formed through a public-private partnership led by Grand Rapids businessman Peter Secchia to capture a portion of the estimated $10 billion national youth and amateur sports market for West Michigan.

WMSC President Mike Guswiler said the organization’s recognition as a finalist in the midsize organization category of the MiBiz Best-Managed Nonprofits Awards validates the tremendous economic potential that amateur sporting events present for the city and the region.

“We work with 40-plus sports and tournament directors locally and they have helped us develop relationships so we can go out nationally,” Guswiler said. “Attracting sporting events is very intensive.” 

The WMSC began with a $450,000 operating budget. In its first year, it secured 21 sporting events, attracting 33,900 visitors and generating $7 million in direct visitor spending, said Kim Skeltis with Blue Blaze Public Relations LLC, who nominated WMSC for the award.

Last year, the organization hosted 80 events and 150,000 visitors, activity that generated $48.5 million in direct spending.

“As the WMSC prepares to celebrate its 10th anniversary, it boasts a decade of growth even its founders couldn’t have foreseen,” Skeltis said. “The organization has attracted a cumulative 568 sporting events that drew more than 880,000 visitors and generated more than $240 million in direct visitor spending.

“It reached this point through strong management and an entrepreneurial spirit that guides the organization daily.”

Guswiler said WMSC is competing with about 125 independent sports commissions in the U.S for a piece of that $10 billion pie. Tournament directors’ priorities include a venue that meets their needs; accessibility to the destination; and the availability and close proximity of hotels, restaurants, and family-friendly attractions.

In 2014, the WMSC opened the Art Van Sports Complex in Rockford as a way to better position the organization to attract a variety of sporting events including softball, baseball and soccer tournaments. The complex has hosted 35 tournaments that have generated $8 million in direct visitor spending. Its success accounts for 23 percent of WMSC’s total operating budget, making it the second-highest revenue generator for the organization.

The 79-acre sports complex, 99 percent of which was funded through private donations, has eight playing fields, including one specifically for youth athletes with disabilities.

“With youth amateur sports, a family will spend anywhere between $600 to $800 per trip.  Multiply that and you’re talking millions of dollars over one weekend,” Guswiler said. “When we started the capital campaign to build this complex, we focused on what traveling baseball and softball teams would need to have.”

Salesmanship was key in securing events such as the Meijer State Games of Michigan, Michigan High School Athletic state championships, collegiate sports championships, and gymnastics and volleyball tournaments.

As a result of the success of the in-state event, the WMSC beat out cities including San Diego, Calif. and Virginia Beach, Va. to host the State Games of America this year from Aug. 3-6.

The biennial event is expected to bring in 12,000 athletes and 30,000 attendees who are expected to generate about $5 million, Skeltis said.

“Anytime you can increase the quality of the venues you have, you increase the impact you can have,” Guswiler said. “We don’t want to be a best-kept secret anymore.” 

West Michigan Sports Commission:

  • Mission: To promote Michigan’s West Coast as the premier venue for hosting a diverse level of youth and amateur sporting events, enhancing the economy and quality of life in the region.
  • Service Area: West Michigan
  • Executive director: Mike Guswiler
  • Number of employees: 9
  • Annual budget: $1.8 million
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