CVBs and sports commissions often get the stiff-arm from local universities when it comes to using campus venues for sports events. By contrast, the Greater Grand Junction Sports Commission in Colorado has been received with open arms by Colorado Mesa University. In fact, the university had a major hand in establishing the sports commission in 2013, and since its launch the commission has generated an estimated $11.8 million in economic impact for Colorado’s Western Slope region.
The collaboration’s success owes much to the region’s thriving sports culture, said Tim Foster, president of Colorado Mesa University. “It’s successful because we have a community that has seen success from sports events,” he said. Grand Junction, about halfway between Denver and Salt Lake City, has hosted the NJCAA World Series for 60 years. The city also hosts the annual Special Olympics Summer Games for Colorado.
“We noticed sports commissions in different communities,” said Foster. “Clearly, we have a lot of facilities in a lot of sports. We’re active in the community and said, ‘Hey, we think we should create one of these.’ ”
Embracing the Community
Residents have always supported events that come to the city, such as the Tour of the Moon Cycling Classic. “It isn’t as though you’re in some city where nobody ever goes outdoors,” Foster said. “It’s a community that embraces that lifestyle.”
Colorado Mesa’s campus is part of that embrace. For example, Special Olympics uses practice fields, the aquatic center, the weightlifting room, residence halls and other campus venues, said Jennifer Stoll, executive director of the sports commission. City venues are also used for the event, which draws some 1,200 athletes. “We’ve also done camping on campus for cycling events,” she said, citing the Ride the Rockies recreational tour. Swim meets and 5Ks are in the mix as well.
Stoll became familiar with sports commissions while working in professional golf and thought the community could use a dedicated body to highlight its assets. In 2008 she met with Foster and other community leaders to plant the seeds of the idea that blossomed five years later when the university hired Stoll.
“When I got hired, the goal was to use my operational background to assist with some of the larger community-wide events that the university is a part of, and then explore this notion of formulating a sports commission as well,” Stoll said. Since its launch, the commission has evolved from planning events for the university and other entities to registering as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. The university provides funds and office space, supporting the commission like any other on-campus department, said Stoll. “I’m technically a university employee,” she said. In addition to the school, the commission collaborates with three municipalities within Mesa County—Grand Junction, Fruita and Palisade. In 2017, more than 2,600 athletes participated in events that drew 6,050 spectators, generating $2.6 million in direct spending and $3.9 million in total estimated economic impact.
To the best of Stoll’s knowledge, no other sports commission has the same arrangement as Grand Junction’s. “It’s definitely a one-off,” she said. “One of the things that I hear very frequently when I travel to sports tourism events is how difficult it can be to work with a destination that is home to a university.”
The underlying problem is one of educating the educators about the value of opening athletic venues to non-university events, according to Stoll. “Granted, we are very blessed to have a visionary leader here,” Stoll said of Foster’s involvement. “But from the sports tourism perspective, if I were to strip that [advantage] away, it’s really about the education component. How do we, as sports tourism professionals, educate those decision-makers at our local universities about the benefit of sports tourism to the university?”
Using campus venues for outside sports events creates exposure for the community and also brings visitors to the campus who otherwise might not set foot there, Stoll said. “You never know if they have siblings or nieces or nephews or grandkids who are looking to make a decision about their future education,” she said.
Stoll emphasized that the relationship runs both ways. “We try to help out wherever we can from our different departments on campus by asking, ‘What can we do for you this time around?’ We really try to make it more of a two-way street rather than us constantly asking for things.”
“We try to make it more of a two-way street rather than us constantly asking for things.” Jennifer Stoll, Greater Grand Junction Sports Commission
Since the launch, Stoll said a few industry colleagues have expressed interest in emulating Grand Junction’s model. She said that a close industry friend had recently called to ask how the friend’s destination could improve its relationship with a local educational institution. “She was picking my brain about what works here and why it works and how to facilitate that relationship,” said Stoll. “I do get asked the question fairly often.”
Stoll asserts that other sports commissions can replicate Grand Junction’s model, although not necessarily to the extent that the university is paying the director’s salary and providing office space. Over the past five years, she has noticed officials from other universities attending sports-tourism trade shows with sports commission representatives, “but I have yet to see a full-fledged structure come out of a university like it has here.”
For his part, Foster said a similar relationship is doable in any location on any campus in any community. “It’s easier here because we’re 250 miles from everything,” he said. “We know we need to work together. Here, the city has given us money to help us expand the campus. You go to other communities and the city sues the campus not to expand. You go, OK, let’s try to do things together.”
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