ATLANTIC CITY - Amid the fallout of casino closures and tumbling employment, officials announced Tuesday a sports-related tourism plan that they hope will put the resort back in the game.
The nonprofit Meet AC, formed in April with $8 million in backing from the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority to attract more conventions and meetings to Atlantic City, announced the creation of the Atlantic City Sports Commission.
Its mission will be to "continue to grow into a destination for sporting events" in a city that has a storied history of such competitions, from heavyweight boxing to surfing and swimming championships, said Jim Wood, Meet AC's president and chief executive.
"Sports is big business," Wood said during a news conference at Boardwalk Hall. "Even during the Great Recession, sports became an even bigger business as the sector continued to grow. With the formation of the Atlantic City Sports Commission, we are positioning Atlantic City to attract even more sporting events to our city year-round."
The National Association of Sports Commissions - there are about 120 such commissions nationwide - found in a recent economic-impact study that amateur sports events generate nearly $8 billion annually. And there are about 1,000 sporting-events rights holders planning many events each year.
In Atlantic City, that could translate into tens of millions of dollars of positive economic impact, Wood said.
Coming to town next week will be 25,000 cheerleading and gymnastics enthusiasts and their families for the weekend-long 18th annual Star Struck Invitational, which is expected to generate as much as $6.9 million in spending at hotels, restaurants, shops, and casinos in Atlantic City and the surrounding area, along with 4,000 hotel room nights locally, Wood said.
"With the Atlantic City Sports Commission, we will have a more comprehensive approach to going after this kind of business, going after these sporting events in what is a very diverse marketplace," Wood said.
Local officials are fans of the plan.
"I think this a great strategy for Atlantic City, because whenever you talk about sports, it's something that everyone can relate to," Mayor Don Guardian said. "Bringing big sporting events and sports-related conventions in is not an entirely new thing for Atlantic City. But I think a unified, concentrated approach is going to mean a lot for the city."
Lacy Lee Baker, executive director of the National Fastpitch Coaches Association, based in Louisville, Ky., said her group was excited about Atlantic City's Northeastern location for its 2019 convention. She says she expected to double the number of attendees over last year's event in Las Vegas, which drew about 1,400 coaches.
"This is such an amazing location, so close to a huge population center," Baker said. "We're really looking forward to seeing what our numbers will be."
Baker, who is also one of the 59 board members of the Louisville Sports Commission - a group formed 15 years ago that has overseen events including the Kentucky Derby and NCAA Regional women's basketball tournaments - said she thought Atlantic City's sports commission was off to a good start.
"I think the potential is definitely here for this to be a very successful strategy for Atlantic City," Baker said. "The facilities for this are certainly here."
Baker made her assessment in one such facility Tuesday.
Despite Atlantic City's woes, Boardwalk Hall continued to be ranked one of the top entertainment venues in the nation in 2014 by two industry publications, Pollstar and Venues Today.
Venues Today ranked Boardwalk Hall the second-busiest venue of its size in the nation. The 14,000-capacity hall was also ranked as the 56th-busiest venue in North America overall.
Global Spectrum, which took over operation of Boardwalk Hall last year, said it increased the number of ticketed events in the venue 26 percent in 2014 and sold more than 250,000 tickets.
The versatility of the historic hall, built in 1929, may be the key to its success.
When it opened - just at the nation's economy was collapsing with the start of the Great Depression - it claimed the world's largest clear ceiling span, 456 feet by 310 feet, beneath a 14-story-high barrel vault ceiling. The seven-acre facility was constructed without view-obstructing pillars or posts.
Events held there include the annual Miss America Pageant, indoor rodeos, arena football, and concerts such as one by Fleetwood Mac Jan. 24.
John Palmieri, executive director of the CRDA, who did not attend Tuesday's news conference, said the agency plans to continue to work with Global Spectrum.
"While we continue to work with our contracted operations company, Global-Spectrum, and provide incentives to bring events to Boardwalk Hall and the Atlantic City Convention Center, we look forward to leveraging Meet AC's ability to maintain a presence in the sport-promotion business world, and draw attention to the benefits of bringing additional events to the area," Palmieri said in a statement.