NAGAAA Commissioner Chris Balton is paid to run a family-owned signage company. As such, he is used to taking a hands-on approach. But even he admits that was not the best method to organizing the NAGAAA’s events, including its World Series that now includes nearly 190 teams.
“We did things the hard way,” Balton admits.
What he means is he and other NAGAAA volunteers like Catherine “C.J.” Kelly, who does marketing and consulting, rarely asked for help. They conducted site visits, coordinated with hotels and prepped fields without the help of any organizers. “We worked in the shadows,” says Balton.
That’s no longer the case. By cultivating relationships through industry events like Connect Sports’ Diversity Events Summit, Jan. 31-Feb. 2, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, NAGAAA’s organizers have learned valuable lessons.
As a result, the event and volunteer-based organization continues to grow. At the same time, Balton and company have become a model for other LGBTQ sporting outfits.
Opening Doors, Hearts
Balton readily admits his perception was cities were not eager to host thousands of LGBTQ athletes for a weeklong completion. NAGAAA’s raison d’etre is based upon providing a safe space to athletes who did not have one.
It’s only natural, and not uncommon among LGBTQ organizers, that fears about acceptance would creep into their professional lives.
While NAGAAA has existed for 43 years, it was not until 2010 that Balton and company made contact with a CVB or sports commission. Fortunately for them, their first impression of how local organizers can help from an industry legend.
Linda Logan, executive director of the Greater Columbus Sports Commission, introduced NAGAAA to the true power of the sports tourism industry. Easily the best NAGAAA World Series to that point, the experience helped drive membership up 20 percent.
More importantly, Logan’s professionalism demonstrated that NAGAAA was not it alone.
“Had we known help was available in 2000 or 2005, we absolutely would have used it,” Balton says, noting NAGAA returned to Columbus in 2015 and will be back in 2020.
Many LGBTQ counterparts are still learning that lesson, he says. It points to the fact that LGBTQ sports, as a whole, represent a larger number of athletes and big business propositions for cities. But organizers are used to operating in a silo, and have been afraid to share secrets of success.
It’s taken group sessions like the LGBTQ coalition meetings hosted by Connect Sports to break the ice, Balton and Kelly say.