Eric Engelbarts was in on the groundwork for the summer state games and now is busy organizing the winter games premiering next month. Photo by Jim Gebben
At 32, many professionals are thinking about their next career move.
But Eric Engelbarts has found a spot he likes, and he doesn’t see giving up his role as executive director of the Meijer State Games of Michigan anytime soon.
In its fourth year, the summer state games hosted 31 sports and more than 6,000 athletes. Although that’s a significant increase from the first year, it has a long way to go to match other state games.
Engelbarts knows that and wants to continue to build the event he helped launch.
“When you look across the country, Iowa gets 16,000 athletes; Nebraska has 60 events; California holds the opening ceremonies in Qualcomm Stadium,” Engelbarts said. “The sky’s the limit. A lot of other states have had 20-plus years to grow. It’s hard to tell how much it could grow.”
Although he sees himself sticking with the state games arm of the West Michigan Sports Commission, it’s not the career path Engelbarts anticipated when he was younger. But now, looking back, it all makes sense to him.
He grew up in the small town of Polo, Ill. For some perspective, the event he manages attracts nearly three times as many athletes as his hometown’s population. His high school graduating class had 49 students, and the majority of athletes focused on football because the school didn’t offer much more. It was a “Friday Night Lights” mentality, according to Engelbarts.
Playing sports was fun and took up a lot of his time, but Engelbarts also spent time helping out the high school athletic director behind the scenes, making sure the sporting events ran without a hitch.
“I love all sports,” he said. “I was grooming myself for this job.”
His mother was president of a convention and visitors bureau in Illinois, and he was set to follow that path: He majored in recreation, parks and tourism administration at Western Illinois University in Macomb.
At that point, he was unfamiliar with the possibility of pursuing a career as part of a sports commission, but everything he was doing seemed to prepare him for it. He eventually received a master’s degree in sport management and recreation from Springfield College.
“When you look back on your life, you begin to realize all the things you did were for a reason,” he said. “My two degrees melded together for a perfect fit for a career in sports commissions.”
His early career involved stops in seven states — from an internship at Disney World in Florida to working for the Madison Square Garden Co. in Connecticut. Prior to his arrival at the West Michigan Sports Commission, he worked as an events director at the Alabama Sports Festival, where he worked with various sports committees and helped put on individual events, ensuring they ran smoothly.
In 2007, following two years in Alabama, he saw a job ad for an event manager posted by the West Michigan Sports Commission on the National Association of Sports Commission’s website. He applied, was selected for an interview and got the job.
The Grand Rapids location works nicely for his family: It puts them roughly halfway between his hometown and wife Susan’s hometown of Albany, N.Y.
In 2008, the WMSC was in search of a signature event and decided on something 30 other states already had: state games. Engelbarts spent two years helping build the event, assisting the sports commission in accomplishing its main goal of putting “heads in beds” in Grand Rapids hotels.
As the Meijer State Games of Michigan has grown, so has Engelbarts’ role.
“The program essentially took over my life,” he said. “The commission decided to make it its own operating arm, and it’s my task to handle the administrative duties.”
Engelbarts oversees the budget, scheduling and operational roles, as the Meijer State Games is a self-sustaining arm of the WMSC, much like the Art Van Sports Complex being built in Rockford.
Now it’s his job to take the state games as far as it can go.
“It’s been so fun and cool to be involved from the start,” he said. “I keep telling the board of directors, I want it to be the best in the nation.”
On Feb. 14-16, Meijer State Games of Michigan will launch a second annual event: the winter games. The first incarnation will host thousands of athletes in 13 sports. With the opening ceremony a little more than a month away, Engelbarts is hard at work trying to make the winter event as successful as the summer games have become.
Although some of the sports and their organizing committees will be the same — basketball and racquetball, for instance — several others are new, such as skiing and snowboarding, speedskating and snowball softball.
The winter-oriented games and holding the opening ceremonies on a ski hill brings a whole new set of challenges to him and his team, Engelbarts said.
“The summer games are much bigger, but the winter games (include) different sports, and it’s a tough thing to launch. (We are) trying to get the word out and fit into calendars.”
Unfortunately for the winter games, one major event of the summer games will be somewhat scaled back in February. Hockey is the “crown jewel” of the summer games, according to Engelbarts, because high school and club teams aren’t in the middle of their season, which allows for regional teams to provide serious competition at the games.
Engelbarts said it’ll take about three years for the winter games to gain a momentum similar to the summer games, which also are still growing.
“It’s just to create an additional event, keep people coming to town for a worthwhile event,” he said of the winter games.
Every once in a while during West Michigan Sports Commission events — such as the current Fatbike GRR Race Series, whose finale is scheduled to be part of the winter games — Engelbarts has the urge to participate. But as he’s performing his administrative duties, ensuring the events go off without a hitch, he remembers why he chose this profession: He enjoys it.
Outside of work, Engelbarts doesn’t have as much time for the active sports life he used to enjoy, although when he finds time, he likes to golf. He’s traded being an active athlete for a loving home life, which he spends with his wife and three sons, who are ages 6, 2 and 4 months. He also dabbles in homebrewing, a fitting hobby in Beer City USA.
Although he doesn’t see himself moving from his current role, especially in the immediate future, there is one job that intrigues him. Should the Olympic Games return to the United States, Engelbarts would like to have a hand in the organizing. But he said he wouldn’t want to work for the Olympics for life. Each Olympic Games takes years to plan and would lead to burnout, he said.
“I love working for the state games program,” he said. “But I would love to be involved if we host the Olympics again. Even though I do it at the state level, to work with amateur athletes of that caliber at an international level would be awesome.”