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Promoting Philly as an attractive site

Pitching for sporting events was still a novelty when Philadelphia decided to field its first team 20 years ago.

Pitching for sporting events was still a novelty when Philadelphia decided to field its first team 20 years ago.

Today, with the National Association of Sports Commissions representing more than 400 organizations, you're in the minority without a mechanism to lure national and international games to your town.

"Back in the day, I'd go [to sports commission] meetings and there would be 30 or 40 people there," says Larry Needle, executive director of Philly's Sports Congress. "We'd kind of compare notes and everyone would know each other. Now that's evolved into literally hundreds and in some instances thousands of events looking for homes and certainly hundreds of communities out there looking to host those events."

More than a few have found their way to this region since the creation of the Sports Congress, and even the one that didn't — the 2016 Summer Games — elevated the region's profile, evidenced by the Olympic trials for table tennis and gymnastics heading here in 2008. That pursuit of the Games, says Needle, involved a cooperation that "really bodes well for the future of the city and the region."

The Indiana Sports Corporation is accepted as the pioneer of this genre of commissions, born in the wake of the passage of the Amateur Sports Act in 1978. At the time it was a bold step, notes former ISC president Dale Neuberger: "Smart people elsewhere would have said it was a venture that was doomed to failure." And today? Neuberger puts what he called the incremental economic impact at close to $3 billion along with the confidence and push it has brought to community development. "When I arrived in 1982, it was a city with a significant inferiority complex, a 'we're not worthy, we're not up to other cities in the country.'"

Not all that different a mantra, some would say, than Philly's oft-documented emotional barrier that has spread like moss amid the perceived shadows of the Northeast's other major cities.

Civic leaders David Brenner, Fred Shabel and Tom Muldoon, and Villanova coaching icon Jim Tuppeny, were among those on the ground floor of Philly's Sports Congress in '87. "It wasn't at that point a completely novel approach," says Needle, who has served as executive director since 1996. "But there's no question that we were one of the first in the industry to recognize the significance to the community and be willing to invest in the market."

Drawing off a reported annual budget of $500,000, the group joins many other communities in a perpetual courtship with the reps of collegiate and national governing bodies and professional leagues. Ken Shropshire, faculty director of the Wharton Sports Business Initiative, notes these commissions have become an essential part of the overall strategy that cities employ to draw business. "That whole Olympic saga," he says, "really does set forth why you want somebody that thinks about it for a long run. If there's any seriousness to that, the only way it will happen is that you've got somebody doing it."

Those available events, of course, increase during Olympic years as the many governing bodies decide where to hold their trials. Steve Penny, chief executive officer of USA Gymnastics, says he's bringing his premiere event here next June for reasons that run the gamut from this area's significant interest in gymnastics to its rising profile as a destination city to what he calls "a combination of great resources that gives you confidence that your event will be successful if it's held there."

And it's not just assuring that the planning and execution will be handled down to the smallest detail. A comfort level also is important. USA Track & Field, for instance, just awarded the 2012 Olympics trials and the '09 and '11 national championships to Eugene, Ore., in part, because of the familiarity with each other. USATF CEO Craig Masback said: "We've encouraged cities to bid for multiple years so we can create locations where there is a deep reservoir of experience in hosting our events. Then, we're not reinventing the wheel every year."

Penny sees the same value in bonding. "When you develop good relationships," he says, "and ones that are successful that you can trust, that goes a long way, and I think that's what we've been able to develop in Philadelphia."

Needle terms his organization's role primarily as a facilitator, except for the Army-Navy Game, which it is intrumental in running. Otherwise, he credits others, either the pro team or university or venue, for stepping up and taking the lead role and the financial risks that accompany it.

Already on the docket are another round of men's postseason basketball, the NCAA wrestling championships, and the U.S. Open at Merion. Chicago's fate in 2009 will determine how soon the region might bid for another Olympics. If it gets the 2016 Games, the next chance for a U.S. city could be several decades away. Still, Needle says, there are other priorities, including those that don't involve leaving the back yard.

"Look at the existing events we have in the city, the great annual events that we have, that in many cases are volunteer-driven," he says, noting events such as the Penn Relays, cycling championships and regattas. "We want to see how we can further assist them in their effort and raising their profile and bringing even more people into the city to either participate or watch. Moving forward on that is certainly high on our radar." *