A life-altering pandemic; an economy in freefall; mass unemployment and a tumultuous election—the past year delivered chaos and misery to many, including the sports tourism market. That said, we asked two of the industry’s more influential players, Blake Thompson, owner of Teammate Basketball in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Michelle Russ, CSEE, Vice President of Sales, Sports & Events for Alabama’s Gulf Shores & Orange Beach Sports Commission, about how 2020 upended their world and why 2021 will end up strongly.
How challenging has the past year has been?
Russ: Like most destinations, lower visitation and event cancelations due to the pandemic have impacted our budget, as well as income for tourism-based businesses in Gulf Shores and Orange Beach.
Thompson: We had a significant amount of event cancellations in 2020. The grassroots sports domain is full of large-hearted people who serve youth in a volunteer capacity. So, while the cancellations were met with a universal understanding given the circumstances, there was also a general despondency knowing the opportunity to give children positive experiences through sport was quickly dwindling.
What trends do you see for 2021?
Russ: Safety is still a concern among travelers, but the interest in traveling to beach destinations is high, which gives us hope and optimism. We have events on the books, and will get creative and be flexible with sports planners to safely facilitate events where possible. In the long run, increased sanitizing, limited additional contact and touch-free options for registration, etc. will most likely become the norm, and will be embraced by all if communicated properly and in advance.
Thompson: Teammate Basketball is slated to host events in over 15 states in 2021. Of course, we want to return to hosting large events. We’re also aware that progress has to be made in diminishing the threat of COVID-19. Unfortunately, there was a stigma that claims anyone who is “pro-event” or “pro-gathering” is insensitive to all those whom this devastating pandemic has affected personally. One can take seriously the genuine collective effort to defeat the pandemic while also having the objective to host events practically, and as safely as possible.
How have you adjusted in your own work role over the past year?
Russ: Flexibility and creativity have been key through the last year. While the majority of our events were canceled in 2020, we were able to host a few safely through the summer and fall by getting creative. In June and July, we hosted the USSSA Global Sports World Series for youth baseball and softball. Our local municipalities worked together to adapt COVID-19 health and safety guidelines, which were seamless at each sportsplex for teams and families, and we pre-recorded opening ceremonies and coaches’ meetings to avoid having large crowds.
Thompson: [COVID] allowed us to have some time to think inwardly and forwardly. Taking time to dissect our approach and improve the participant experience has been useful. We’re slowly getting back to hosting our tournaments, and we’re confident our product is returning stronger than before.
What are some of the positive takeaways from the past year?
Russ: Our industry always does a great job of sharing tips and information. In 2020, we came to rely on knowledge gleaned from our colleagues. The professional organizations we belong to provide workshops, guidance and valuable tools that could be used within our local markets. Within our organization, the teamwork and cohesiveness between departments was amazing. From changing visitor messaging to informing our industry partners, we did not miss a beat.
Thompson: Some positives for me, and hopefully in general, are an increased value of personal relationships, a greater appreciation for things like our jobs, our freedoms and our connections. I think we can all appreciate the fact that regardless of industry, we’re having to take hygiene and cleanliness more serious than ever before—that’s not a bad thing at all.
How has the past year made you a stronger and wiser professional?
Thompson: I’ve learned that leadership does not come easily. It’s hard to become stronger and wiser if we are never faced with challenges. This past year has helped me to avoid dwelling negatively on adversity, to embrace adversity and to appreciate the resiliency it produces.
Russ: I feel as if I’ve learned more about the people I work with because of virtual meetings, which sometimes included an appearance from a family member or a family pet. I, and my team, grew more flexible, more understanding and more tech savvy. It was a tough year, but we listened, learned, made decisions and adapted to our environment.
Top photo: Blake Thompson; not pictured: Michelle Russ