Sports commission builds area’s athletic profile


The Art Van Sports Complex in Plainfield Township is comprised of multiple baseball and softball fields. Courtesy West Michigan Sports Commission

With the West Michigan Sports Commission’s inaugural Gridiron Classic this week, the organization’s summer is nearing an end.

The Gridiron Classic marks the beginning of the high school football season with three games at Grand Valley State University’s Lubbers Stadium — something the WMSC has had on its mind for several years, said President Mike Guswiler.

Guswiler said the Detroit Sports Commission approached him with the idea when its Prep Kickoff Classic event quickly grew from a three-game set-up to seven games over three days. Detroit’s event was sparked by a major prep football event held in Cincinnati.

WMSC’s event was stalled for several years because the season started on Labor Day weekend and teams didn’t want to play that Saturday. This year, because of a late Labor Day weekend, the commission is able to hold the event.

No matter how big it gets, the Gridiron Classic likely won’t be a huge addition to the WMSC’s main goal of “putting heads in beds,” Guswiler said. He added that it will help create an awareness of the WMSC and grow sports in the community while generating some revenue for operating costs.

“High school football is huge in Michigan, especially West Michigan,” Guswiler said. “Promoting that is our focus, while generating an impact on our nonprofit.”

Eventually, the plan would be to trade teams back and forth with the Detroit Sports Commission and start a statewide rivalry.

The beginning of football season also heralds the coming end of the baseball season. This year was the WMSC’s first baseball season at the Art Van Sports Complex in Rockford. Guswiler said it was even more successful than expected.

Heading into the complex’s first season, Guswiler said projections showed approximately 5,000 hotel rooms booked for the summer. Despite a slower start than expected with a tough early April, Guswiler said the organization’s hotel booking system and conversations with tournament directors saw between 6,500 and 7,500 hotel rooms booked. There were several weekends in June and July where Guswiler said teams had trouble finding available hotel rooms in Kent County.

There still are several baseball tournaments left, so those numbers will grow.

The numbers surprised the WMSC, showing a larger portion of teams coming from outside the region.

“We estimated, or hoped, about 50 percent would come from out of town,” Guswiler said. “It was about 56 percent on average. They were coming from Illinois, Wisconsin, Indiana and New York.

“We even had a team from Vietnam — that’s way out of town.”

With a baseline established to measure how operators were able to accomplish the WMSC goals, Guswiler now is looking toward the future.

He said most of the growth will come by filling in some age groups and filling out early spring tournaments. Looking ahead to 2016, the Art Van Sports Complex already has 22 tournaments booked.

In 2017, the WMSC will host the International Softball Congress World Championship, which will help fill up August, a traditionally slow baseball month, bringing 65 teams to the area.

“We have contracts with event operators and a relationship with them,” Guswiler said. “Teams have experienced the complex and want to come back. As we get through next year, it’s going to set us up to look seriously at starting that Phase Two to finish the final four fields and finish the complex.”

Beyond the first season at the complex, which was the WMSC’s primary focus, Guswiler pointed to the NCAA Championships the region hosted this year. He said the events held with area partners such as GVSU and Calvin College help develop the relationship with the NCAA championship staff in Indianapolis.

“Our eyes are always set on the (Division I) golden egg of men’s basketball, and we haven’t been successful with that yet,” Guswiler said. “But we were successful in securing nine championships with our local partners.”

West Michigan hosted DII women’s golf, outdoor track and field, DIII women’s basketball and volleyball and will host the men’s regional golf next year.

The local college partners and WMSC will continue to discuss the capabilities to bring in more championships, but Guswiler said there are several DI sports that other destinations don’t put forth a lot of effort to attract.

“The NCAA has a hard time placing sports like rowing, lacrosse, wrestling,” he said. “So we’ll start having those discussions now and bid on as many as we can when the cycle opens fall of 2016.

“We have established a pretty good track record hosting the championships, and that is part of creating the relationship with the NCAA.”

West Michigan is also preparing to host the 2017 State Games of America. Earlier this summer, Guswiler and Meijer State Games of Michigan Executive Director Eric Engelbarts went to Lincoln, Nebraska, to check out this year’s State Games of America — following another successful State Games of Michigan, which has grown significantly since its inception.

“Lincoln did a great job of promoting and getting the community to buy in,” Guswiler said. “That will be our effort as we’ll see 15,000 to 20,000 people in our community during those three to five days.”

As the region waits for the national event, Guswiler hosted the National Association of Sports Commission board of directors this summer in preparation for April’s NASC Symposium here. Guswiler said the symposium will bring to town approximately 1,000 of his counterparts and other governing bodies such as the United States Olympic Committee, NCAA and the Amateur Athletic Union.

“Many have never seen our area and will be exposed to it for the first time,” he said. “We expect to capitalize on that.”

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