Summer Games kick off with eye toward 2017


More than 7,500 participants are expected this week for the Meijer State Games of Michigan. Courtesy Meijer State Games

As the 2017 State Games of America draw closer, the West Michigan Sports Commission continues to ready itself to host, starting with some changes to this week’s Meijer State Games of Michigan – Summer Games.

Some of the changes to the Summer Games occurred recently with the addition of several major sports to the lineup. The games will kick off Thursday with the opening ceremonies at Fifth Third Ballpark.

The opening ceremonies also will see some adjustments through working with a new management company to help streamline and raise the quality of the event.

“All of it is in preparation for 2017,” said Eric Engelbarts, Meijer State Games executive director. “We’re doing little changes along the way so we can put on a great event and have it refined and tuned down to a science.”

This year, with the completion of the Art Van Sports Complex, both baseball and softball will be included in the games. Soccer will be part of the games for the first time, as well.

Engelbarts said there might be a few more sports missing from the lineup that will be implemented by 2017 in accordance with the national event, but for the most part, everything is in place.

“We’re full blown getting into the State Games of America mode,” he said.

At the end of July, several members of the sports commission will head to Lincoln, Neb., for this year’s State Games of America. Engelbarts also has sent out more than 60,000 postcards to state games across the country to be handed out to medal winners in preparation for the event.

This year’s Summer Games actually began last weekend with the girls lacrosse tournament, synchronized swimming and cycling time trial. More than 37 sports will take place this weekend, and the soccer tournament will take place Aug. 8-9 for logistical reasons.

Engelbarts said mainstream sports are difficult to get into the tournament rotation.

“There’s a soccer tournament every weekend — same with baseball. Unless you have a connection to get you in or an open day, you have a hard time getting an event up and running,” he said.

For sports with a less mainstream following, the Meijer State Games can act as a marquee event for the summer schedule. Pickleball, for example, was started partially because the United States Pickleball Association came to Grand Rapids to campaign for an event as a strategic plan to get the sport into every state-games event across the country.

Pickleball combines elements of tennis, badminton and ping-pong and is played on a badminton-sized court with a slightly modified tennis net and using a paddle and plastic balls. It’s the 50th anniversary of the beginning of pickleball, said Keith Wolverton, the pickleball tournament director.

Wolverton said there are more than 200,000 registered pickleball players globally, with large tournaments across the country. He said there are eight courts at Belknap Park and 14 at MVP Fieldhouse, and the Grand Rapids Pickleball Club is extremely active.

“It’s a lot of seniors, but it’s a family sport,” he said. “It’s very active. There’s a competitive side to it, but it gets people out, meeting people, talking to people. It’s a fantastic sport.”

This year’s pickleball tournament will have more than 300 participants and will be played on 15 courts over a three-day period. Last year, the tournament has 272 participants.

“It’s taken off like wildfire,” Engelbarts said of the sport’s three years in the State Games of Michigan.

Starting with lesser-known sports such as pickleball, horseshoes or bocce ball allows the State Games to solidify the sport as a staple and establish a name for it while trying to build the more mainstream sports.

“It’s easier to start with a developing sport. They’re looking for opportunities to get out in front of people, and there aren’t that many existing events that are around that you have to compete with.”

Engelbarts points to lacrosse. Boys lacrosse has been difficult to build because of dozens of tournaments throughout the summer. Meanwhile, girls lacrosse has topped out at 30 teams this year.

“There are so many teams and so much potential, but there’s these other tournaments that draw all the teams,” he said. “We’re not going away; we’ll be the same weekend every year. It may be a small tournament, but it’s going to run. You just have to chip away at it, and something will break and we’ll be on it.”

Engelbarts said the bocce ball tournament, which will take place at Noto’s Old World Italian Dining, will be a relaxed, happy-hour type of setting.

Sports like bocce ball and pickleball also contribute a unique aspect to the West Michigan Sports Commission’s goal of attracting tourists who book hotel rooms and eat out at local restaurants: an older demographic. Pickleball, in particular, attracts seniors who travel from state-to-state for tournaments.

“(Seniors) have disposable income, money and time,” Engelbarts said.

There’s also “the dead zone” demographic: collegiate and young adults who may stay four to a room and eat off the dollar menu.

“Then you have the youth that (is accompanied by) a full family. You get one kid and you get five people.”

Thanks mostly to baseball, the State Games of Michigan has grown in participation by about 500 people this year, up to 7,500 participants. Despite the growing number of athletes, sports and two additional weekends this year, Engelbarts said the games will return to a one-weekend event in the future.

“With it being a multisport Olympic-style event, we want everyone to enjoy the opening ceremonies together and feel as though they’re a part of something bigger,” he said. “If we wanted to be an event management organization, we’d pick the best date for each sport and run them year-round. That’s not the goal.

“Other states (games) have been around for 30 years and have morphed into multiple weekends, but it was necessity.”

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