By the time you read this, the 2017 Senior Games Presented by Humana, in Birmingham, Alabama, will be only a few weeks away. We’re expecting upwards of 10,000 people to travel in, including athletes, their families and friends. The economic impact is substantial too; when we had our event in Cleveland, the city enjoyed a $36 million boost. Obviously, these Games are good business for any city interested in hosting.
This will be the 30th anniversary of the National Senior Games. We started in 1987, and we actually have athletes who have been to every single Game since then. We’re really looking forward to some special celebrations to mark this milestone and help those long-time athletes celebrate.
Types of Athletes Who Attend
To be eligible for Senior Games, individuals need to be age 50 or older. We’ve noticed this demographic comes to the Games ready to play, but that can mean one of two very different objectives, depending upon which group of athletes you’re talking about. The first group is the very serious, competitive athletes – they will travel in with the express intention of getting a medal and/or a personal best. They’ll enjoy themselves but make no mistake: they’re going to give it their all.
Then there’s the other group: the people for whom the Games are more of a social activity. Those people definitely enjoy their sport, but they’ll also build in a few extra days to go sightseeing, see a ballgame, explore the restaurants and museums and catch up with the friends they haven’t seen since the last version of the Games. We welcome both groups – and their families, with whom they often travel. No matter which group an athlete falls into, our mission is to make sure they have a good experience.
The hub of activity is The Village Health and Wellness Expo. This year, it will be located in the Birmingham Jefferson Civic Complex (BJCC) where several sports are also held. Athletes come to The Village to check in and pick up their packet of information, buy a souvenir shirt and meet up with friends. The Village also features vendor booths, entertainment and a variety of health and fitness activities such as tai chi demonstrations and health screenings. Humana, the presenting sponsor, has the largest presence with interactive displays and engaging activities that are always athlete favorites. There will also be a special 30th Anniversary exhibit area commemorating three decades of National Senior Games.
Trends in Sports
Pickleball is our fastest-growing sport. It was added to the National Senior Games in 2013, and that year, we had a total of 362 players. In 2015, we had 652 players. This year, we will be close to 900 players. It’s a good sport for a lot of the people who formerly played tennis; they enjoy being able to stay active and use the same skills in a sport that doesn’t have as much running (and hence, as much impact on their joints), since it’s on a smaller court.
Something we continue to see is the strong participation across the board from senior women who didn’t participate in sports when they were young because they went to school prior to the advent of Title IX. Now, they’re getting out and participating in all of our 19 sports. It is great that we can give them the opportunity to be competitive.
Each Set of Games is a Little Different
Because each city is different, so is each Senior Games. If a particular city is extremely humid and hot in the summer, we will schedule the games earlier in the summer months. This was the case with the 2017 Games in Birmingham, Alabama. In addition, we have made other concessions to the weather. Many of our outdoor events are going to be starting earlier in the morning to hopefully alleviate some of the humidity. We have increased our number of hydration stations and ice chests with towels for several of our competitions.
We get requests all the time, asking us to consider a variety of activities. We have a process in place in which we research the popularity of the sport, the number of states that are offering a particular sport at their Senior Games and the number of senior athletes who are participating in that particular sport across the country.
Over the years, we have created partnerships with a number of national governing bodies, and they play a large part in the success of our events. We work with such governing bodies as USA Track & Field, USA Pickleball Association, ASA Softball, USA Volleyball, USA Triathlon, USA Badminton and USA Masters Swimming. We utilize certified officials for all of our sporting events. We follow the NGBs’ rules with the ability to modify the rules for our competitions.
Choosing a City
Our next Games will be in Albuquerque, New Mexico, in 2019. We have started the bid process for the 2021 Games as well. We’re sometimes asked what goes into a city, and it really comes down to a number of things, all of which are important:
Venues: Of course, we need the venues for each of the 19 sports we’ll be offering, and they have to be of an appropriate size to handle the number of athletes that will be participating. (In general, it’s great if a city has venues that are relatively close to The Village Health and Wellness Expo, but in most cases, that’s a convention center that is located in a downtown area, and some facilities, particularly things like golf courses and softball fields, tend to be in outlying areas, so you have to be realistic in your planning.)
We consult with the city’s convention & visitors bureaus, as well as the sports commissions, to assist with venue suggestions. They are the experts on which venues would work for our demographic – and which venues are closest to hotels and attractions as well as restaurants and other conveniences.
The Right City: We want to find an attractive, affordable city people are going to want to visit – and if possible, extend their stay and explore. Of course, we also like to find a city that will also really embrace the event and roll out the red carpet for our athletes.
The city needs to have a major airport and be well-connected to the major highways because people fly in and drive in from all over the U.S. to participate – and their families and friends will do the same. Venues should have appropriate amounts of parking for those who plan to drive or get rental cars.
Something we also look for (of course) is an appropriate amount of hotel nights available with restaurants and attractions for our athletes and families to visit in their free time. Hotels should be available in a range of price points, since attendees have different priorities and a wide range of preferences.
As you can no doubt tell, a lot of discussion and planning goes into site selection, and we’re always glad when people enjoy the city we’ve selected.
As we get ready to head for Birmingham and the 30th anniversary of our Games, we can be proud of what we’ve accomplished, and we look forward to what’s ahead in the years to come. SDM