Taking It To The Next Level - Talking to the Greater Columbus Sports Commission
With the Nationwide Arena lease proposal passing the Columbus City Council, one of the factors to consider is where the team (and the city) may go from there - particularly in terms of potentially attracting events like the NHL All Star Game and Winter Classic.
A big force already working to bring these type of events into Columbus is the Greater Columbus Sports Commission, who published a report on potential events that included the ASG, the Winter Classic, and the NCAA Men's Hockey Tournament.
I reached out to the GCSC, and both Executive Director Linda Logan and Marketing / Communications manager Bruce Wimbish were gracious enough to take time for a phone interview where we talked about the challenges of presenting the city, what they hope the future holds, and their new Game On ColumbUS campaign, which will be Sponsoring the Jackets games on Fox Sports Ohio.
MW: I'd like to go ahead and start and ask what the GCSC is - a lot of our readers may not understand.
Linda Logan: We are the one organization that is dedicated to bringing sporting events to the city - promoting economic development, building the image of Columbus through sports, and improving the quality of life for the people who live here. We're doing good things for Columbus through sports.
Bruce Wimbish: We're trying to bring sports tourism into Columbus - we specialize in that, not just large groups but families and individuals to attract people from out of town and into the Columbus region.
MW: Speaking of the sports tourism - you submitted a bid for the NHL's 2013 season all star game, which seems like a prime opportunity for that. Can you talk about what went into submitting that bid to the NHL?
LL: Sure! We submitted a bid for 2013, but that may also have some carryover to 2015, the next available year assuming the NHL takes part in the 2014 Olympics. We worked together with the Blue Jackets as the member organization in the NHL, partnering with us because we do the bids for a living, while they brought the hockey expertise. A large part was the availability of facilities - not just Nationwide Arena, but also the Convention Center and hotels.
The NHL starts by looking for some basic answers - how many daily flights come into Port Columbus, how many hotel rooms are available, how many suites in those hotels, etx. The bid is a combination of the availability and a showcase of the community. As part of the bid, we include testimonials from other groups who have been here - fortunately for us the NHL's been here and had a great experience when Columbus hosted the 2007 NHL entry draft and the Willie O'Ree All Star Weekend, and USA Hockey held a training camp here that went very well. We also seek out special, unique locations in Columbus for events to take place during that week as well to emphasize the hockey flair and Columbus' distinctions on the bid.
MW: What would be a an example of one of those distinct Columbus locations that you might suggest?
LL: Could we actually have an event at COSI? Could we close the streets around the North Market for an indoor / outdoor festival? Perhaps holding an event in the Short North or another great neighborhood? All those things are unique to Columbus.
MW: What are some factors that stand out for Columbus compared to other potential host cities - what are some things that give Columbus the edge?
LL: I'll start with our facilities, first and foremost. Nationwide arena is a crown jewel of the NHL by being so state of the art, plus it does have the attached second ice surface (the Ice Haus) and the great fan experience. There's also the Blue Jackets' ownership and their front office and their great reputation in the NHL, and you build out. We have such a thriving arena district and how it connects to the Convention Center and Short North, which puts everything (including the majority of the hotels) within easy walking distance. That's very special - other cities have similar assets, but they won't have them in such close proximity and allowing visitors to arrive, park their cars, and be able to do everything on foot.
Our central location is also a big asset - we can draw not only from cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, or Detroit, but to attract visitors from Canadian cities like Montreal, Ottawa, and Toronto, which is also a consideration.
BW: At a high level, we also talk about the All Star Game, Winter Classic, and other hockey events - we want to make Columbus an even bigger hockey town. It already is because of the Blue Jackets, the OSU men's hockey program, and the growth of youth and adult hockey at the Chillers over the last several years, but we see a strategic window over the next 5 years that can really make Columbus into a hockey town with these high profile events.
We also feel stronger about our competitive position to secure these type of events because of the new Hilton and expanding our hotel package compared to what we had in the past for the NHL or for events like the NCAA tournament. It gives us a big strategic edge.
MW: I was going to ask about the new Hilton - that's very positive.
LL: Actually, the NHL was one of the groups that went on record to say during the last bidding cycle that to be truly competitive, we really needed a "headquarters" hotel to add to our package, so they helped us make this happen.
BW: One more quick thing - along those lines of making things happen, there is a very large sense of pride in the NHL about the Blue Jackets because they see the impact their franchise in Columbus as had on the entire city, particularly with the revitalization of downtown through the Arena District, and how much they want to see them succeed here. They realize how great an ASG could be if it was hosted here.
MW: I think a lot of Jackets fans would agree with you - they'd like to see the ASG and would like to also see the Winter Classic take place here. The GCSC has mentioned that they'd like to bid for hosting the WC here - are there any major differences between bidding for the two events and how they're packaged?
LL: Officially we haven't bid for the Winter Classic but I know the Blue Jackets have discussed it with the NHL, and from our end we've spoken to other cities who have hosted it in the past. We feel it would be a natural progression after hosting an All Star Game, and with a bid like that all the partners would get a big bigger - not just the Jackets and the GCSC, but OSU would be a big player in making that happen, the logistics of more tickets to sell, and a more non-traditional event, but one we think could do well here.
MW: It seems like you've had positive feedback from the NHL - is it fair to say the NHL has a fairly strong interest in Columbus right now for being an event city?
LL: I would say we're very competitive on their list of sites for future events and we're getting some very positive feedback both from the Blue Jackets and the NHL.
MW: Does the presence of the Jackets and having a pro level team in town help with attracting other types of events to Columbus?
LL: I think Columbus has the best of both worlds when you think about us as a sports city - we have some of the finest colleges and universities - a major college town, but also a major league city, and very few cities can boast both. The presence of the Blue Jackets and Crew in the last decade and the renovation of the Clippers makes our job very favorable.
MW: Just to shift gears a bit - one of the possible bids the GCSC discussed in recent discussions about the future of the arena district was for the NCAA Men's Hockey Championship. Can you talk about that?
LL: Sure! Ohio State and the Sports Commission worked together to bring the 2005 Frozen Four here, and we'd like to stay in the rotation for any NCAA hockey. At the time the games were held at the Schottenstein center, but the NCAA has changed the rules that the games have to take place at a neutral site, so with Nationwide we're positioned well for that in the future.
We're also bidding on some of the regional events, including possibly the Big Ten hockey tournament in the near future. We certainly want to get our hat in the ring for that.
MW: In addition to Ohio State, is that also something where you might partner with Miami University, who also has a D-1 hockey program, even though they're not part of the local Columbus area?
LL: I think that any of the Ohio schools - BGSU also has a great hockey program - would benefit from a Frozen Four here, and potentially also drawing from the region. When Detroit hosted the Frozen Four, they drew a lot of interest from Ohio, so we think that we would draw just as well from schools in Michigan.
BW: In the Business First article we also outlined some economic impact from visitor spending - not just from direct spending but media value. In addition to the CBJ and OSU hockey season, this is all additional money that would come in. Without those programs and these teams, that would not be possible.
MW: Linda, you spoke last night in defense of the Arena proposal that was passed by the City Council. In terms of the sports tourism - what does the arena deal mean to the community, particularly if it should fail?
LL: It really does secure our reputation as a major sports destination. Imagine the loss of the NHL team and how that would look around the country. We want to show our strength and how well we're positioned, not just for our current major league teams and tenants, but also to attract new events to the city. We're a very vibrant city that is continuing to grow, and stability in the Arena really helps our efforts.
BW: In the media, a lot of the statements around the arena issue have been about preserving jobs and businesses, but we're also telling the side of the story about growth - there's a full spectrum of what this means to us - not just keeping what we have, which is great, but so many opportunities in the next five years. Not just sporting events but new large scale construction in the Arena District. We want to match that with some of the business that we bring here on a higher level than we have in the past.
LL: By keeping the team here, the arena strong, the district vibrant, all of that plays into getting events like the NCAA tournament on a regular basis, of the women's final four, of the Men's Hockey tournament. Even on the convention side, it adds to the "destination Columbus" appeal that adds to more visitor taxes, strengthening the city budget, the funding for the arts, for human services. It's so important - we're proud to be the stewards of Columbus and selling the destination, but also for what it means for what we can bring in to Columbus and to give people a chance to get up close and personal with events that maybe in the past they've seen on TV or had to drive to another city.
We also see some great role models that come to the city - athletes that have done amazing things for the community and that helps to attract people to live and work here and see that Columbus is such a cool city.
BW: Getting back to the Winter Classic, I really believe the OSU men's hockey game to be held up in Cleveland at Progressive Field in January will be something we'll visit and take in to help us understand how the event would work in Columbus. The Blue Jackets have something unique in partnering with Ohio State and Ohio Stadium - it's such a historic venue. The previous Winter Classic hosts all had a certain level of attractive history - original six cities or high profile teams playing in historic sites. The CBJ may not be at that level yet, but with the strength of our sports community and the historic landmark that is Ohio Stadium, we are getting interest. The team may not have the cachet of some of the other host clubs, but with Ohio Stadium, that would be an experience like no other.
MW: I agree - and the last thing I wanted to ask about was the Game On ColumbUS campaign that the GCSC started. The goal was to promote interest in not just the Blue Jackets but the Clippers and the Crew, and I wanted to ask what kind of feedback you've received both from the Columbus community and a larger perspective?
LL: I'll start with the larger and let Bruce go into detail - he's been the steward of this effort and has done an excellent job with it. We have gotten some very good feedback from around the county because we don't know of another city doing something like this - we really couldn't find a similar program with collaboration of teams in the same market. With that said, we've had good feedback from the Sports Business Journal, the Houston Chronicle, and a few other national publications talking about it, which is great for selling Columbus as a destination. On a local level, it's been really nice to see the three teams come together - it took us a few months to get there but the results have been fairly promising to raise the profile for all three teams, and I think it can be so much more than that.
BW: We have a really special group of teams - and a special city - I can tell you from personal experience of working in Cleveland and in pro sports where teams really compete for people's discretionary dollars that if one team struggles the others normally jump on that to capitalize on fans who might leave the bandwagon.
Our teams have been getting behind Columbus - and the bicentennial next year - and the fan pride. They see the fan pride that Ohio State has, and want to bring that in and engage fans together gives them a better chance than competing individually.
We worked with the City of Columbus, and Mayor Coleman as the city's #1 sports fan has helped the partnership. We also just announced that Fox Sports Ohio will be a partner with Game On ColumbUS to help promote it. The teams have shown a lot of spirit and we're hoping to grow it through the next year, including some fun things in store for the Blue Jackets opening night.
We want to celebrate the Clippers repeating, the Crew pushing to the playoffs, and the Jackets having perhaps the most exciting offseason in their history and being able to get all that momentum and rally around that together.
MW: Do you expect that this will lead to more collaborative efforts between the three pro teams?
LL: I do. We already do the Morning Sports Report every summer and the three teams come together for that, but wouldn't it be nice if there were more Game On ColumbUS programming that could give back to the community to encourage sportsmanship or the front offices working together for the same goals. We really feel that there is a lot of opportunity.
BW: The challenge of this isn't going to go away in a year, but so much of what we talked about in the next years - not just the Jackets but Crew events and things with the Clippers like the Big Ten baseball tournament that we partner with - this has a lot of legs to catch on, and one of the best examples is the Facebook page. A lot of fans have taken to it and that the mainstream media needs to take notice and support our teams more. Fans are picking it up and that mantra of Game On Columbus may just go on for a long time.
LL: The one thing I also want to mention also is the growth of youth hockey. Columbus is the host of 19 state championships - soon to be 20 when the State HS football championships come to Columbus in 2014. The OHSAA championships at Nationwide Arena are a big thrill for everyone involved and we've all seen it grow each year. Kids across the state set their sights on Nationwide Arena and the Blue Jackets have been a big part of the growth of hockey across the state. I think that program there has a lot of opportunity to grow, and we see new teams in the hunt each year. I don't want to leave them out because it's a great event I think we'll see grow in the future.
MW: You're right, that is a fantastic event that's come from having the Jackets here and the growth of youth hockey.
LL: I just think we have so much to be proud of here, and the reactions of people who have visited this city. When the Blue Jackets were first starting to sell tickets, they did a video featuring a mock up of the Blue Jackets celebrating after winning the Stanley Cup - what this community could become as we envision our future in hockey, and it's great to think about how this city would be engaged by a great playoff run and capturing the ultimate prize - I just think Columbus would be on fire.
BW: And it all starts Friday Night!
Our thanks again to Linda and Bruce for their time. If you're interested learning more about Game On ColumbUS, you can "like" them on Facebook.