When Eric Carlyle started Compete Sports Diversity in 2006, the initial years of the organization were anything but smooth sailing.
“We couldn’t get anybody to return our calls for the first eight years,” he said. “The last 10 years have been instrumental in change and we’re so glad to see that, not only for our business, but also for the people that are participating in sports.”
Compete’s mission is to connect, educate, empower and inspire mission-driven LGBTQ+ sports. Carlyle and his team have gone from getting sent to voicemail to signing a partnership with Molson Coors, which was announced at this year’s Sin City Classic in Las Vegas during the second week of January.
“We just kept focusing on the vision,” Carlyle said. “We had major Fortune 500 companies tell us that they never would support this community. And they’ve come around and many of them work with us now. So it was really just knowing that we needed to make a difference.”
Under the Vegas Lights
Compete produces many events throughout the year for its members, but there’s nothing quite like the yearly pilgrimage to Las Vegas for its Winter Conference. The organization has partnered with the Sin City Classic since 2007 and has held an annual conference that coincides with the event since 2016.
The annual “Petey Awards” is a signature event that celebrated its 14th edition and has been produced in partnership with the Sin City Classic for the past eight years. The Winter Conference also includes educational sessions and networking opportunities.
After the awards are given out, sports begin competition around the Las Vegas region, providing a safe place for LGBTQ+ athletes to compete and enjoy themselves. From pickleball to volleyball to esports and everything in between, the Sin City Classic has something for everybody during Martin Luther King Jr. weekend.
“Being able to support and celebrate LGBTQ+ athletes across the U.S. is extremely important,” said Connor Shane, Compete Sports Diversity’s chief operating officer. “The Sin City Classic is the largest LGBTQ+ sports tournament in the world. So, the partnership that we maintain with Sin City Classic is one that I hold very dear to my heart. I know Compete has very much respected this relationship for over a decade.”
Shane says roughly 25% of the attendees at the Winter Conference this year were new to that event. It offers Compete the opportunity to bring cities, sponsors and partners together in one place and offers a platform for those in the industry.
“Having the representation for LGBTQ+ athletes is really an asset that we use to say, ‘You know what, LGBTQ+ athletes are here, they’re present, they’re winning and they are not going anywhere,’” Shane said. “The Sin City Classic is proof of that. The organizers have done such a good job over the past several years that I would love to continue this relationship for the next few years, and I plan to.”
Going to the Next Level
“Within the last 10 months, we have signed 8–10 strategic partnerships and major relationships that are going to galvanize our success for the next decade,” Shane said. “Several of those are public, including our relationship with TEAMS and Northstar Meeting Group that includes our presence in a DEI-based sports environment at the TEAMS Conference every year.”
Both Carlyle and Shane agree 2024 will be a year of substantial growth with new money and sponsorships coming in.
“Our relationship with Express Conferences is very important to us and they have developed an LGBTQ+ specific conference,” Shane said. “They provide not only the education, but an environment for only LGBTQ+ associations, organizations and sporting organizations to come in and ideate about some of the future challenges and best practices that they handle.”
“Sponsor United is a very important tech-based sponsorship identification platform that allows us to, in a matter of 10–15 minutes, find detailed information on any major sports sponsor in the United States that spends dollars or buys assets in order to promote and market their own brands or their own organizations.”
Compete has also signed a deal with Collective Best, which will provide free event consultation to all of Compete’s event organizers.
The Molson Coors sponsorship joins the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals as mainstream brands that are not only giving money to Compete, but expanding the organization’s reach.
“Molson Coors will be partnering with us to sponsor Compete events throughout the year,” Carlyle said. “But they don’t just sponsor Compete events, they also step up and sponsor our partners and sports organizers as well. The Arizona Cardinals not only sponsor Compete in all of our events, but they also sponsored the Lynn Lewis Foundation Invitational this year for $15,000.”
The Lynn Lewis Foundation is non-profit organization that was created to increase breast cancer awareness, particularly in the women’s football community.
“So I absolutely think 2024 is going to be the biggest year yet for Compete Sports,” Carlyle said. “The biggest shift we made this year was planning with the corporate partners who are coming in and helping.”
Education is Key
The new sponsorship money is going to have a ripple effect when it comes to what Compete’s members and partners want expanded the most — educational content.
Shane points out 50–70% of Compete’s partners are interested in more education. And with that in mind, the organization has hired Josh Magallanes to be the new education director.
“Josh will be running our education program, but he’ll also be joining us as a partner in the education business,” Carlyle said. “Our current education director has retired after 15 years with us. Getting Josh was big, because he was an athlete and a coach and is now an educator, which is exactly who our audience needs to hear from.”
Shane says Magallanes will chair the education department, which will expand with future hires so that Compete can take its education to another level in three phases.
“Number one, the overall educational content at every Compete meeting, whether that’s a conference, a summit, or our presence here at Sin City Classic,” Shane said. “The second thing is diversity summits. For every Compete member, it’s included in their membership — silver membership and above — to have a personalized diversity, equity and inclusion summit. And third will be individual consulting with Josh and some of our DEI education speakers. We have access to over 100 public speakers that come from different walks of life that are available to host DEI.”
In addition to all the in-person events Compete will continue to host, Carlyle is excited at the implementation of virtual sessions as well, which is another fresh initiative in 2024.
“The newest thing we’re doing this year is a monthly virtual education session, in addition to our in-person events,” Carlyle said. “We already have the live version and now we’re adding the virtual element to our education platform on the third Thursday of each month. There’ll be different speakers from different organizations to train and educate all of our members.”
From all of the unanswered calls and frustrating moments during the early years of Compete’s existence to where it is now, Carlyle is thrilled with the progress. But that doesn’t mean he’s not motivated to continue pushing forward.
“What we’re most excited for in 2024 is that we can help more people,” he said. “The more corporate partners that we can secure for our members, the more tournaments they can put on and more cities can house those events, and everybody turns out a winner. Helping our members find dollars and support from their communities is what I see to be our biggest and most exciting thing for 2024.”