NAGAAA Commissioner Chris Balton is paid to run a family-owned signage company. As such, he is used to taking a hands-on approach. But even he admits that was not the best method to organizing the NAGAAA’s events, including its World Series that now includes nearly 190 teams.
“We did things the hard way,” Balton admits. What he means is he and other NAGAAA volunteers like Catherine “C.J.” Kelly, who does marketing and consulting, rarely asked for help. They conducted site visits, coordinated with hotels and prepped fields without the help of any organizers. “We worked in the shadows,” says Balton.
That’s no longer the case. By cultivating relationships through industry events like Connect Sports’ Diversity Events Summit, Jan. 31-Feb. 2, in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, NAGAAA’s organizers have learned valuable lessons. As a result, the event and volunteer-based organization continues to grow. At the same time, Balton and company have become a model for other LGBTQ sporting outfits.
Opening Doors, Hearts
Balton readily admits his perception was cities were not eager to host thousands of LGBTQ athletes for a weeklong completion. NAGAAA’s raison d’etre is based upon providing a safe space to athletes who did not have one. It’s only natural, and not uncommon among LGBTQ organizers, that fears about acceptance would creep into their professional lives. While NAGAAA has existed for 43 years, it was not until 2010 that Balton and company made contact with a CVB or sports commission. Fortunately for them, their first impression of how local organizers can help from an industry legend.
Linda Logan, executive director of the Greater Columbus Sports Commission, introduced NAGAAA to the true power of the sports tourism industry. Easily the best NAGAAA World Series to that point, the experience helped drive membership up 20 percent. More importantly, Logan’s professionalism demonstrated that NAGAAA was not it alone.
“Had we known help was available in 2000 or 2005, we absolutely would have used it,” Balton says, noting NAGAA returned to Columbus in 2015 and will be back in 2020. Many LGBTQ counterparts are still learning that lesson, he says. It points to the fact that LGBTQ sports, as a whole, represent a larger number of athletes and big business propositions for cities. But organizers are used to operating in a silo, and have been afraid to share secrets of success.
It’s taken group sessions like the LGBTQ coalition meetings hosted by Connect Sports to break the ice, Balton and Kelly say.
After the great experience in Columbus, NAGAAA has aligned itself with some of the most respected sports commissions and CVBs in the country. Working with the likes of Monica Paul (Dallas Sports Commission), Jason Aughey (Tampa Bay Sports Commission) and Cathy Kretz (Travel Portland) has paid off.
For instance, Paul informed Balton NAGAAA qualified for local grant money when the World Series was held in Dallas in 2014. She walked the group through the process, which resulted in additional resources to bolster the event. “We are able to do a lot more marketing and bring more awareness that we are in a city,” Kelly says of the grant money. “It helps us increase simple things like cooling tents for players.”
In Tampa, NAGAAA found a similar opportunity. Kelly says that it is not a prerequisite for host destinations to have grant money, but NAGAAA at least knows that is an option. “If we know the money is there to qualify for it, we reach out and get it.”
As they’re learned more, Balton and Kelly have learned what to negotiate for, including hotel rebates. Each additional team added to the World Series means thousands of dollars in hotel bookings, dining out and shopping—money that goes back into the community hosting them. “We’ve learned we are a valued commodity, and we did not know that,” Balton says.
Above and Beyond
More than anything, NAGAAA’s biggest takeaway from its run of success is to ask for help—to not do things the hard way. “You feel like you don't want to ask for too much you don't want to take advantage,” says Kelly. “But every time you call a sports commission, they say, ‘We are here for you,’ and they honestly mean it.”
That assistance can take on many forms. Lance Aldridge, then executive director of the Austin Sports Commission, was on speed dial desperate to help in 2016 when the Texas Capital received 13.5 inches of rain the week NAGAAA was in town. “We bought every bag of quick dry in Austin and San Antonio and went to Houston to get more,” Balton recalls. Workers and equipment were in short supply. But a message from Aldridge brought out 200 people to help sand and rake fields so the games could go in.
In Tampa last year, the championship venue was rained out. But, the Tampa Bay Sports Commission found a new field within 12 hours and helped line up the logistics. The event was still a home run. “We never would have got that done, even to the point of beer permits in that park, without the commission,” Balton says.