The Tuscaloosa Tourism and Sports Commission, formerly known as the Tuscaloosa Sports Foundation, is technically still a new kid on the sports commission block, but the Commission's performance is nothing close to novice.
The Commission, recently renamed when it joined forces with the Tuscaloosa Convention and Visitors Bureau, brought more than 60 events to Tuscaloosa in its first three years, including some coveted events that would be considered a coup for any city. The secret? It is threefold: experience, relationships and never, ever being afraid to ask. And the secret weapon? A coach's tenacity.
A Sports Great Joins the Sports Game
Home of the University of Alabama and its fierce and famous Crimson Tide, Tuscaloosa is certainly no stranger to the world of premier sports event hosting. But in 2007, they decided to make it official, establishing the Tuscaloosa Sports Foundation with the mission of enhancing the sporting life in Tuscaloosa County and West Alabama by attracting quality sports events to the area at the youth, amateur and professional level as well as by promoting volunteerism, fund raising and education.
Charles R. "Chuck" Sittason, retired Chairman of Regions Bank, and legendary former Alabama Basketball Coach and University of Kentucky Athletics Director C.M. Newton worked to achieve some of the Foundation's first successes and laid the groundwork for future successes by establishing relationships with Tuscaloosa's key players: the City of Tuscaloosa, Tuscaloosa County, and City of Northport, the Park and Recreation Authority (PARA), West Alabama Chamber of Commerce, Tuscaloosa Convention & Visitors Bureau, The University of Alabama, Stillman College and Shelton State.
After securing funding and government support, the Foundation needed one more thing: a leader. The organization needed someone with a strong athletics background, and, as it turned out, Don Staley, 14-year University of Alabama and 13-year Radford University soccer coach with over 300 Division I wins under his coaching belt, was looking for a new challenge. Sittason, the foundation's president, believed the non-profit organization found a perfect fit, envisioning Staley as the face of the city's sporting-event future.
As the Foundation's new executive director, Staley had the support and help of a full roster of community leaders, and the Foundation went right to work, seeking events that Tuscaloosa could offer the perfect home. But Staley had another plan, too.
"As a college coach for all those years, I learned from a lot of people. You learn from coaches growing up, coaches at camps and clinics, and especially the coaches who are better than you and beat you," says Staley. "So I looked for some coaches. I had some amazing mentors: Jack Hughes, the executive director of the Gainesville Sports Commission, Roland Loog, director of the Gainesville Convention and Visitors Bureau, and Bill Hanson, associate executive director of San Antonio Sports. And then I was able to get some on-the-job training in San Antonio. I flew in for a major basketball event in the middle of a huge storm when they had to move the event. I got off the plane in my sports coat, but right away I threw that to the side to jump in the back of a truck and help. That's what sports people do."
"The Tuscaloosa Sports Foundation is off to a great start because of key volunteer leadership and a likable and energetic executive director," says Jack Hughes, executive director Gainesville Sports Commission. "Don Staley hit the ground running and wasn't afraid to ask for help and opinions from other National Association of Sports Commissions peers. Don and the Tuscaloosa Sports Foundation are building the foundation they will need to sustain a successful organization for many years to come."
Staley and his team bring that spirit of cooperation to every event that comes to town. In an almost unheard of collaboration between two of football's biggest rivals, the cities of Tuscaloosa and Auburn teamed up on a proposal to rotate as hosts for the Alabama High School Athletic Association Super 6 Football Championships. The event met with resounding success and rave reviews from all involved, and the city is poised to take on more high profile events in the future.
One of those events will be the United States Adult Soccer Association (USASA) Region III Soccer Championships 2011, which will be hosted by the University of Alabama Student Recreation Center. The event follows a spectacular showing by the Foundation, which hosted the 2010 USASA Region III finals earlier this year.
"The Region III USASA National Cup Championships were hosted by an organized, focused and professional group. The infrastructure in place was indisputable and the experience of everyone at the Tuscaloosa Sports Foundation in addition to the professional leadership provided by Don Staley yielded the best Region III Championships in my memory," says Kim Bowen, director of programs, USASA. "I am very pleased to be returning in May 2011. I also plan to speak with this group about their potential interest in hosting the USASA National Finals in the future."
Getting the Relationship Right
One of Staley's main goals, besides the obvious one of bring sports events to town, was to truly make the Foundation part of the community, and to build the relationships that would make that happen.
"I was given some advice by one of the most well respected people in the industry when I first took this new job," says Staley. "Dr. Susan Blackwood of the San Antonio Sports Commission told me when starting a sports foundation partnering with the community's top organizations and cultivating quality partnerships brings significant credibility to your organization and cause. We've worked hard to accomplish that."
One of those key relationships was with University of Alabama Director of University Recreation George Brown, whose collaboration and generous support allowed a number of the Foundation's earliest events to succeed.
"We've been so fortunate to have such strong partners, like George, in this city," says Staley. "Don Kelly, the executive director of the Tuscaloosa Park and Recreation Authority, has been another crucial partner for us."
Staley and his team also took on the task of mastering the city's resources-as well as laying the groundwork for continuous investment.
"We're a sports town, so we've definitely got some remarkable facilities," says Staley. "But it's also important to keep our performance and resources at their optimum level, and we're doing that by educating everyone about the necessity of continuous investment in sports infrastructure."
With an eye toward consistent improvement-not surprising for a foundation run by a former winning college coach-the Tuscaloosa Sports Foundation already has strong working relationships with the Tuscaloosa Park and Recreation Authority (PARA), The University of Alabama, Stillman College and Shelton State,giving them access to some stellar facilities that can host almost any sport.
A Partnership for the Ages
In 2010, the Tuscaloosa Sports Foundation began its newest partnership,joining forces with the Tuscaloosa Convention and Visitors Bureau to become the Tuscaloosa Tourism and Sports Commission. Teamed up and in their new riverfront home along the Black Warrior River, the Commission will provide Tuscaloosa sports rights owners a full range of sports event planning know-how, coupled with the expert tourism support of the CVB.
"We're so grateful for everyone involved," says Staley. "The City Council has offered incredible support, and Mayor Walt Maddox has been a visionary and the driving force behind all kinds of big events, from the Blue Angels and the USA Triathlon, now in its fourth year in Tuscaloosa, to our incredible hot air balloon races. I'm thrilled to have his wife Stephanie, a respected leader in the sports industry, joining my team as well. We've also got a great partner in Robert Ratliff, 14-year executive director of the CVB, who has really embraced this and rolled out the red carpet for us. The new Tuscaloosa Tourism and Sports Commission is shaping up to be an exciting thing."
Big things are happening in Alabama. So, if you want to see how today's sports legends go about creating the next sports legends, take a little trip to Tuscaloosa. They'll be happy to see you.
Visit the Tuscaloosa Tourism and Sports Commission at: www.tuscaloosasportsfoundation.org.