A week after the Winter Olympics begin in Sochi, Russia, more than 2,000 athletes will come to Grand Rapids from across Michigan for the Meijer State Games of Michigan Winter Games.
When the West Michigan Sports Commission began thinking about a winter edition to the State Games in 2010, the chance of coinciding with the Winter Olympics wasn’t at the forefront of the planning process, said Eric Engelbarts, executive director of Meijer State Games.
Eventually, however, the possibility of launching the event as the Olympics were in progress became real.
“We were going into our second year, so we were thinking about starting the Winter Games in the third year as an addition, but it just didn’t pan out,” Engelbarts said. “We typically work 12 to 18 months out, so looking at last year, we were like, ‘If we’re going to do this, next year is an Olympic year.’
“That was definitely something that went into my mind as we were planning it last year.”
The prospect is exciting, Engelbarts said, because there are Olympic athletes from Michigan who have paired with the organization to help promote the event. Specifically, Engelbarts cited several speed skaters who have created videos that will begin to pop up as the Winter Games nears.
Although the number of athletes coming to town for the 13 sports is estimated at 2,000, Engelbarts said that number is unscientific because not all registration funnels through the WMSC office. The number hopefully may be more comparable to the first summer event that had 3,500 athletes for 15 sports, he said.
“In the summer, hockey was a lot of that. The teams were coming, and when you start putting all those team sports in, the numbers start to climb,” he said. “The Winter Games (have) more individual-oriented sports.”
Engelbarts said the hockey commission had some trouble finding prime ice time and bidding on it, but the bigger issue comes from teams not qualifying for their playoffs and wanting a tournament to play in.
All of the events are self-sufficient; whatever they make in sponsorships and registration fees is what they get to spend.
“They have to be able to run on their own,” Engelbarts said. “Worst-case scenario is we break even. But we hope to make a profit to be sustainable.”
Still, major sponsors such as Meijer, Subway and Metro Health help make the Winter Games different from other sporting events.
“The cost for a participant is almost the same as if you were at a different event,” he said. “The fee is the same, but you get opening ceremonies, you could be on TV, you get a bunch of PR and media … the great medals.
“There’s no reason not to come, definitely not because of the cost.”
Prior to this year, the games were still a “revenue line” for WMSC, but now they will operate on their own. If there is a budget shortfall, however, the commission will still “help out.” The goal is to be a self-sufficient nonprofit so that the event can continue every year.
Hockey will be played in the Winter Games, but many age groups, including high school, are still in league play, so the summer session of hockey also will remain.
Other winter sports include archery, basketball, BMX-indoor, bowling, fat bike, racquetball, rowing-indoor, ski/snowboard, snowball softball, snowshoe/trail running, speed-skating and wrestling.
The Michigan Winter Games are the 10th in the nation, with New York’s games ranking as the most prestigious, Engelbarts said. Those games are held at the Lake Placid Olympic Training Center.
“It’s pretty top-notch and that’s what we aspire to be,” he said. “But we don’t have that facility. As far as resources are concerned, we use what’s available.”
One venue, which has been ranked as one of the top terrain ski parks in the Midwest, is Cannonsburg Ski Area. The opening ceremonies will take place there, followed by the Big Air ski show that will be put on for those coming to the ceremonies, Engelbarts said.
“The skiing and snowboarding communities have really embraced the Winter Games,” he said. “They were really looking for something like this.”
Running two annual statewide athletic events can turn into a logistical nightmare, Engelbarts found. He said he created a “grand scheme of things timeline” to help with organization and thought he could work on one event at a time. But at some point, he realized he was working on both winter and summer events at the same time.
“I thought we could plan Winter Games, get through it, then plan Summer Games, and then we’d concentrate on that wrap up,” he said. “Then I look at the timeline and I’m doing everything at once.
“The Summer Games are so big, so demanding you have to start early — and we’re going to be up to 38 sports this summer. So we’re looking at opening up the registration and updated the website like right now, when we should be concentrating on the Winter Games.”
Much of the Winter Games stress has come from the creation of its website, which includes about 50 pages of new material.
Engelbarts recently announced the addition of new summer sports, including bocce ball, waterskiing, urban downhill skateboard, horseshoes and cycle cross.
Urban downhill skateboarding presents a major logistical challenge as it will run through downtown streets, necessitating the closure of roads around Grand Rapids Community College, Spectrum Health and other area businesses.
“It was far-fetched. Not a lot of people could pull it off; it was kind of a personal project,” Engelbarts said.
Engelbarts said he had a lot of help on the project, from one of the founders of Bustin Boards, a New York City based longboard company, to Kendall College of Art and Design, which has seen skateboard design become a “hot topic.”
Hosting two events every year will help the organization further its mission, which not only includes bringing money into Kent County, but helping promote participation, sportsmanship and healthy living. Adding mainstream and obscure sports, such as horseshoes, also will accomplish that goal.
“We have so many stories about entire families who drive back with a whole bunch of medals and stories about being together,” Engelbarts said. “By adding a second games, it gives people a reason to train all year.
“Right now we call it the best kept secret in the country, but we want more people to know and get out and compete.”