Sports Commissions Don’t Just Boost Tourism. They Build Communities

Today’s guest columnist is Ingrid Wicker McCree, chair of the Durham Sports Commission Board of Directors.

As a former college athlete, coach, instructor and athletics administrator, I have seen it repeatedly throughout my life and career: Sports are a true common denominator and force for good in our world. Beyond their individual benefits—improving physical and mental health while building leadership and teamwork skills—they also have the ability to bring people together and foster a sense of community. A love of sports can transcend cultural, social and economic barriers, bringing together people from varied backgrounds, with different beliefs and values.

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The passions and benefits associated with sports make people willing to travel for the experience. The sports tourism industry in 2021 generated a total economic impact of $91.8 billion, supported 635,000 jobs and produced $12.9 billion in taxes in the United States. Sports commissions play a fundamental role in driving sports tourism for cities, counties and states, but they operate primarily in the background, and are not well known to those they benefit.

From their roots in local chambers of commerce, where early work to promote communities and events prompted the creation of specialized committees focused on sporting events, sports commissions evolved into independent organizations. The first, Indiana Sports Corp., was founded in 1979, and has gone on to stage dozens of national and international events, including a Super Bowl and 11 NCAA men’s and women’s Final Fours. In essence, sports commissions are organizations dedicated to bringing sporting events to their area and ensuring they are successful. They offer a range of services to help make this happen, including marketing and securing corporate sponsorship, providing volunteers, and acting as a liaison for sports teams, hotels, transportation providers, attractions, restaurants and venues, and in some cases running the events themselves.

What does success look like for a sports commission?

Therein lies the beauty of these organizations; each commission can define success for itself based on the facilities, offerings, needs and make-up of people and businesses in the areas they serve. However, one crucial ingredient to success is diverse leadership that reflects the people and localities being served, including a staff and board who know more about the city, seeing it through a particular lens, supporting the event bidding process by articulating what the community has to offer an event.

Inversely and equally important, a diverse group will best understand what a particular event has to offer the community. This leadership is also hugely important in putting together the best event once it is secured and maintaining a focus throughout the process on the social benefits to the area’s residents. I am incredibly proud and grateful to serve as chair for the Durham Sports Commission (DSC) Board of Directors where both the board and staff leadership strongly echo the diversity of the storied city of Durham, N.C., where I have spent nearly 30 years living and working.

I would venture a guess that few other sports commissions have executive, deputy and assistant directors who all represent diversity. Unfortunately, it would be just that—a guess—as demographic data for the industry is unavailable. The Institute for Diversity and Ethics in Sport (TIDES) recently released their 2022 Racial and Gender Report Card, which provides an evaluation of hiring practices of women and people of color in leading professional and amateur sports and sporting organizations in the United States. The opportunity exists for TIDES, perhaps working closely with the Sports Events & Tourism Association (Sports ETA), to incorporate sports tourism/sports commissions into future reports to the benefit of the industry and the events, people and regions they serve.

In addition to their responsibility to ensure events are sustainable and provide clear benefits to the local community, sports commissions are also called to provide support for the development of young athletes and sports professionals, especially those in underrepresented groups. I am particularly proud of the DSC’s One Team, One Durham Fund (1T1D) that supports youth sports development in the area with grants awarded to local nonprofits. Partly funded through proceeds from the commission’s sporting events, it is an example of reinvesting sports tourism dollars directly into the community and demonstrates a commitment to creating a tangible social impact. After all, at the heart of the sports commission is the community. Sports are the vehicle through which we strive to invigorate our communities both socially and economically.

I also encourage all sports commissions to incorporate educational elements into their mission statements. It’s important to partner with colleges and universities to create internship and volunteer opportunities, as well as with sports and recreational management classes to inform young people about careers in sports tourism. Together we can continue to grow this incredibly important industry and further create inclusive and representative organizations that reflect the communities we serve.

Dr. Ingrid Wicker McCree spent 14 of her 28 years with North Carolina Central University as director of athletics and currently serves as the chair for the Durham Sports Commission Board of Directors. Wicker McCree was the first female to permanently hold the AD title at NCCU, where she played a key role in the university’s transition to NCAA Division I.

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