When the Grand Rapids Gymnastics Club in Michigan held a large meet at Grand Rapids Community College several years ago, the event attracted about 200 athletes and raised a four-figure dollar amount that helped defray the club’s operation costs.
Gymnastics dad Mark Bowen, a senior financial advisor who is now an owner of Grand Rapids Gymnastics, thought the amount of work the club put into hosting the meet didn’t match up favorably enough with the return on investment. He approached SMG, the management organization that operates the DeVos Place Convention Center in downtown Grand Rapids, and inquired about the possibility of relocating the meet to make it more appealing to out-of-towners and attract more participants.
After all, Bowen reasoned, the facility — the centerpiece of a revitalized downtown and nestled alongside the Grand River — already hosted youth basketball and volleyball events. You never know until you ask, he thought. So he did.
“SMG then connected us with [several] other groups to ultimately enable us to get the concept off the ground,” Bowen says.
And just like that, Gymnastics on the Grand was on its way to becoming Michigan’s largest gymnastics event.
“The sticker price to use the facility was literally 10 times more than what were paying at the community college,” Bowen says. “It was a big risk; I’m not going to lie. We ask a lot of parents to put in a ton of work for something that essentially is a fundraiser. We have more than 300 volunteer shifts during that meet. It’s just amazing what parents will do. The whole idea is to throw an event that is second to none.”
That event, held annually at DeVos Place in early December since 2010 and sanctioned by USA Gymnastics, now generates five figures for Grand Rapids Gymnastics and boasts an economic impact of several million dollars for the city. More than 2,200 gymnasts participated in the 2014 event, with more athletes expected at this year’s meet, slated for Dec. 4-6.
“We knew we needed the event to be at the same time of year every year, and the only time that was available at DeVos Place was early December, which isn’t what most people think of as gymnastics season,” Bowen says. “So we decided we were just going to change the way everybody thinks.”
A signature gymnastics event such as Gymnastics on the Grand can serve as a springboard to greater things, and Grand Rapids is experiencing that right now. The West Michigan Sports Commission recently added Gymnastics on the Grand as a qualifying event for the 2017 State Games of America. Grand Rapids Gymnastics then will oversee the gymnastics competition when the city hosts the State Games of America in August 2017.
Grand Rapids and other gymnastics destination cities are on to something. “Our phone has been ringing,” says John Lynch, director of sales & entertainment for The Wildwoods Convention Center in Wildwood, New Jersey, referring to the response generated by the popularity of the United States Association of Independent Gymnastics Clubs New Jersey State Championships — first held at the facility in 2014 — and the long-running USAIGC Regional Championships. Both events are staged in May in cooperation with the Flyers’ Gymnastics club in nearby Hammonton.
“People have seen gymnastics at the convention center, and they like what they see.”
But just think: What if Mark Bowen had never inquired about moving a fundraiser for his daughter’s gymnastics meet to a larger venue? Would Gymnastics on the Grand even exist today?
There isn’t one answer to the question of how to grow one event and welcome more like it. Here is a review of how a number of destinations have leveraged their strengths to get gymnastics flying high.
The Wildwoods, New Jersey: Capitalizing on the Atmosphere
In May, The Wildwoods Convention Center welcomed the USAIGC New Jersey State Championships back for a second straight year. “It’s grown into an awesome event that is now on the calendar and has a long-term plan with the convention center,” says John Lynch, the facility’s director of sales and entertainment.
While the convention center is near capacity during prime gymnastics season in spring, Lynch is open to discussing the possibility of hosting gymnastics events at other times during the year. After all, Gymnastics on the Grand has made a city that annually averages 75 inches of snow a destination in December. “We as a community would love to see gymnastics here at another time of year,” Lynch says, adding that the convention center offers a scenic view for all seasons. “When you have competitions here, your backdrop is the Atlantic Ocean. A 236-foot-long glass wall that runs from floor to ceiling gives you the feeling you’re on a cruise ship — especially when you’re sitting on the bleachers and looking out.”
The convention center unfolds permanent, retractable bleachers on one side of the exhibit area, which provides 35,000 square feet of competition space. Awards ceremonies, weather permitting, are held on the beach.
Wichita, Kansas: The Strength of the YMCA
In some cases, it’s not always a local club that helps put a city on the national gymnastics map. For Wichita, it was the entire Greater Wichita YMCA system that led to this Midwestern destination hosting the 2015 YMCA National Gymnastics Championships at the Century II Performing Arts & Convention Center. Held for the first time in Wichita, the event was expected to bring in 5,300 gymnasts, family members and coaches from YMCAs all over the country this summer.
Ranked nationally among the best Ys in terms of operating budget and size, the Greater Wichita YMCA played a lead role in delivering the championships to Wichita, thanks to one female employee of the Y. Like Mark Bowen in Grand Rapids, she approached Visit Wichita, the city’s convention and visitors’ bureau, and proclaimed that the city would make an ideal host for the event. Everything took off from there.
“I think we would have brought the championships here eventually,” says Susie Santo, president and CEO of Visit Wichita. “But I 100 percent believe that if she hadn’t come here to ask us to get involved, she would have dropped the idea and not picked it up again. What she did was right in line with our strategy of becoming a player in the sports market.”
Next, Santo has her sights set on securing a major USA Gymnastics event in Wichita.
Raleigh, North Carolina: Thinking Outside the Lines
Convention centers aren’t the only venues suitable for gymnastics competition. In Raleigh, North Carolina State University — home to Reynolds Coliseum and N.C. State’s gymnastics program — has brought in regional USA Gymnastics events, as well as hosted NCAA Regionals in 2004, 2009 and 2012. Although the 65-year-old facility is closed for renovation until next summer, Reynolds will welcome regional action again in 2018.
As a result of the work at the coliseum, Tori Collins, associate director for the Greater Raleigh Sports Alliance, says all is quiet on the gymnastics front in Raleigh right now. But with expected upgrades to include the installation of air conditioning and a smaller seating configuration that will better suit the intimacy of gymnastics, the renovated facility likely will host more gymnastics events in the future.
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: An Inclusive Stunt to Raise Awareness
Members of 14 gymnastics clubs in the Pittsburgh area, led by two-time Olympic gold medalist Gabrielle Douglas, set a new world record for simultaneous cartwheels in June 2014. (And before you ask: Yes, there is such a thing.) The 735 participants smashed the old record of 482 set in 2009 in The Netherlands.
The stunt, conducted on the Roberto Clemente Bridge, was part of the city’s Olympic Day celebration and promoted the 2014 P&G Gymnastics Championships in August at the CONSOL Energy Center. That competition was tied to the USA Gymnastics National Congress and Trade Show, an educational and industry event held at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center. All told, more than 15,000 gymnasts and gymnastics enthusiasts visited Pittsburgh that week.
“That event opened the doors for us to host other USA Gymnastics events,” says Jennifer Hawkins, director of sports marketing and development for SportsPITTSBURGH. “We know we can do it now.”
Lubbock, Texas: Local Clubs Help Lead the Way
Local clubs have helped put Lubbock, Texas, on the gymnastics map, with no fewer than three large-scale events taking place at the Lubbock Memorial Civic Center in 2014 and early 2015. The USA Gymnastics Trampoline and Tumbling 2014 Region 3 Championships happened last May, the gymnastics portion of the inaugural Texas Games occurred last July, and the Gymnastics Extreme Winter Classic was held in January 2015.
The facility offers 40,000 square feet of column-free space, pullout bleacher seating for 1,400 spectators and permanent balcony seating for almost 1,600.
The city needs a lot more seats for the Kellogg’s® Tour of Gymnastics Champions. That’s why that event is held at the United Supermarkets Arena on the Texas Tech University campus. With the city among the more popular stops on that tour, Lubbock officials say the event reflects the popularity of the sport in Lubbock. “It shows that we have people who like gymnastics and that we can support the Olympic Trials or the Junior Olympics National Championships,” says Scott Harrison, director of sports for the Lubbock Convention and Visitors Bureau. “That is our goal.”
Greensboro, North Carolina: Capitalizing on Outstanding Facilities
Greensboro is another city hoping to bring in the Olympic Trials, and it’s getting closer to that goal — thanks in large part to premier facilities. In June, the Greensboro Coliseum Complex hosted the 2015 USA Gymnastics Championships, showcasing 1,800 of the country’s best gymnasts in acrobatic and rhythmic gymnastics, plus trampoline and tumbling. Event organizers cited the ability to host all events under one roof as one of Greensboro’s major selling points. “That was up there with some of our biggest events ever,” says Brian Ambuehl, a sports sales manager for the Greensboro Area Convention & Visitors Bureau.
Last year, for the first time, the coliseum welcomed the AT&T American Cup and the Nastia Liukin Cup. “We don’t have a long gymnastics track record,” Ambuehl says. “But because of the facilities we provided during the American Cup, USA Gymnastics offered us the 2015 Championships. We’ve got those two big events under our belt now, and people in the gymnastics community know we can host these type of events.”
Akron, Ohio: Welcoming Families
By now, it’s clear that gymnastics’ appeal is reaching new heights. “The sport is ripe,” says Jim Mahon, vice president of marketing and brand management for the Akron/Summit Convention & Visitors Bureau. “We’re seeing more competitions and a growing field of competitions. We need to be very deliberate where we put our time and resources, and gymnastics is a growing segment of our sports marketing.”
Gymnastics is known as one of most family-oriented sports, with participants traveling in family units and often tying competition trips into family vacations. With Ohio’s Summit County home to a family-friendly destination such as one of the most visited national parks in the United States (Cuyahoga Valley National Park), Mahon says his team is trying to attract more gymnastics events by partnering with multiple clubs in the area.
Most significantly, Perfect Balance Athletics — which currently hosts events at the Summit County Fairgrounds — is considering moving its events to the John S. Knight Center, a convention facility located in downtown Akron, beginning in 2016. That move has the potential to bring in both larger competitions and more gymnasts.
As Mahon says: “At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter where the events are being held, as long as they are held here.”