Gray Williams, CSEE, is well acquainted with the assets her area offers as a sports tourism destination, as well as its drawbacks. With the establishment of the Greenville-Pitt County Sports Commission and her position as its executive director, Williams has the platform to accentuate the former and remedy the latter.
One decided advantage in this Eastern North Carolina county is a vibrant partnership with East Carolina University, a public university with a large complex of Division I sports facilities. Williams, who came to work for the Greenville-Pitt County CVB (Visit Greenville NC) four years ago to help attract more sports events, knows the relationship is special, citing ECU’s willingness to co-host tournaments, championship games and other competitions within its spaces.
“We have a really unique relationship with East Carolina University that a lot of other cities our size that have D1 facilities don’t have,” says Williams, who started collaborating with ECU’s soccer program when her sister played for the Pirates several years ago. “It’s a revenue stream for them, and they understand that once young people come to East Carolina for a sporting event, there’s such a better chance for them to attend in the future.”
All in on Sports
Another selling point for the region is its reputation for excellence in local youth sports, especially baseball. Stallings Stadium at Elm Street Park, the home of Greenville Little League, is considered one of the premier Little League ballparks in the country, and the venue routinely hosts state or regional tournaments after the local league’s schedules conclude each summer. And in 2014, Sports Illustrated honored Greenville as “Sportstown USA.”
In the time that Williams focused solely on sports events within Visit Greenville NC, her side of the office brought in 83% of the sales. That success allowed the decision-makers in the CVB and local lawmakers to see and respond to Williams’ request for a separate sports commission with an independent budget and a concentrated effort on widening the area’s sports footprint.
“Seeing that growth, I really pushed for us to be able to brand ourselves separately and really go for the larger events,” she said. “I didn’t know the extent of this position, and I don’t think Greenville knew the extent of this position until it was created because we have such a sports-friendly community.”
Joining Williams as the sports commission’s other team member is Director of Sports Development Paul Sheehan, MBA, MS. Sheehan’s efforts will allow Williams to focus more on advocacy so that lawmakers and potential private donors are aware of the area’s most pressing need—a greater variety of sports facilities to house events. At the top of the wish list is a multipurpose indoor facility, something the area lacks right now, but Williams said that all types of facilities are needed to unlock Pitt County’s potential.
“We’ve done studies, and we’ve presented to city council, but we’ve got to be more proactive and more aggressive telling what the economic impact could be,” she said.
In addition to casting a vision for more venues, Williams is also leading the charge for more hotel rooms and other amenities that could attract event bids. New facility plans can draw the surrounding businesses, or new hospitality offerings can crop up and prompt developers to build a facility. Whatever the order of events, Williams is quick to point out both the needs and the potential upside for everyone who lives in the region.
Greenville will always be known as a baseball city, and Williams hopes the commission can help build on that reputation while shoring up major local soccer and lacrosse tournaments that are already established.
But the sports commission is also leveraging access to ECU facilities to carve out a new niche in sports, similar to regional spelling bees, robotics competitions, America’s Battle of the Books and Odyssey of the Mind. As long as an event ends with a winner, it falls under the purview of the sports commission and that broad perspective has opened the door for more cerebral athletes.
“Adding the new sports commission to our destination portfolio and working with our advisory board and partners will increase opportunities to recruit larger events, and help us gain national recognition as a sports tourism destination,” said Williams.