Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Losing Even When You Win

The recent news about the host city selection for a distant Olympic Games reminded me of my time marketing Anchorage, Alaska and two Olympians with whom I would cross paths after I arriving in Durham a quarter-century ago.

While up there, we twice earned the right to represent America in a bid to be the host city for the Olympic Winter Games.  We narrowly lost, but I took away an understanding that when it comes to hosting mega-sports events, host communities nearly always lose, even when they win a bid.

There are often ancillary reasons for hosting sports events but research has repeatedly shown, that due to hidden costs and the diversion of resources from more important needs, most of the time hosting huge sports events doesn’t pay, unless that is, you own a media outlet

Media owners are often behind efforts that lead otherwise P & L-conscious business leaders to pursue events by seeking to subsidize them from the “public trough” even when the tax revenue expected doesn’t cover the subsidy.

Often seduced elected officials swoon even when the subsidy is in-kind through such costs as trash collection and public safety etc.

Bob Uchitel was behind the idea for Anchorage to bid to host the Winter Games.  Bob’s family had mob connections in New York, Miami and Las Vegas including famed mobster, Meyer Lansky.  Both families had Ukrainian roots.

A year after I was recruited to complete the start-up of Anchorage’s community destination marketing organization, Bob arrived there too.  He intended to start a construction company but ended up founding Multivisions, Alaska’s first cable-TV service, the year ESPN was launched.

Spokane, my previous post, had awarded its first cable franchise in September 1974 as the world’s exposition there was winding down.  A friend of mine worked for the affiliate Cox Cable TV, a Georgia-based media conglomerate that got into cable in the 1960s.

For years I kept a promotional golf ball she gave me with the slogan, “get some balls, try cable TV” printed on it.  Polls this month show Americans now prefer original cable shows to network television but cable is also hearing a death knell of its own, created by cable-cutters and award-winning streaming content.

In Anchorage, Uchitel was always brimming with big ideas for big events and threw even bigger parties.  He was the consummate promoter, often bullying people if they questioned his vision, as was part of my job description whenever called out to his office.

He was well-intended and I learned shortly after departing Alaska that Bob’s lifestyle had tragically caught up with him at only age 44.

Today, having forgotten that it dodged a bullet by just two IOC votes, old warriors are trying to rally a new generation in Anchorage to bid to host the 2026 Winter Games.

The reason hosting the Olympics comes closer to making any sense compared to hosting most other sports events is that the huge television revenues associated with hosting the Games can fund some of the facility construction.

Without the construction impact, the visitor impact of hosting an Olympics is minimal when adjusted for the business it displaces.  And the "old saw” that the facilities can be leveraged to host subsequent events to offset ongoing operating costs is just another round of the medieval “feast of fools.”

Some interesting and memorable people came to visit me soon after we set up temporary shop in Durham’s historic Brightleaf Square.

The first to do so was an elected official from Raleigh suggesting that all I had to do was contract Durham’s marketing out to his community.  No thanks!

But he did introduce me to an illusion I would soon discover was held by many in Wake County; that the region was centered around Raleigh.  I would spend two decades helping folks understand that the super region surrounding these two airport-linked regions and communities is “polycentric” with no dominant center.

This means they have far more visitor potential than centric regions because they can get several bites from the “tourism” apple.

Next to visit was Jim Goodmon, a powerful, wealthy and charismatic Raleigh media executive and today the owner of the Durham Bull, three-time winners of The Governors Cup and the runner up in last night’s national championship playoff, and a successful downtown Durham real estate developer.

Leveraging a hundred million dollars or so in local tax dollars, not to mention federal and state tax credits and including related sports and entertainment facilities, his company has taken the “Brightleaf” model to soaring new heights by creating the award-winning American Tobacco Campus out of an old Lucky Strike factory.

Back then Jim was shopping an intriguing proposal to host preliminary games in Durham for the 1994 World Cup by burying the field and then-surrounding track of Duke’s Wallace Wade Stadium under seven feet of dirt.

The plan was to then somehow within weeks convert it back in time for football season.  Duke and therefore Durham passed.

But folks over in Raleigh came away understanding that benefiting from my experience in Alaska, our organization understood a thing or two about vetting mega-sports events including a policy to first vet any proposals involving facilities or underwriting with stakeholders with those who would be expected to provide them.

In general, there are just too many other far less costly and far more sustainable ways with which to generate visitor-centric economic and cultural development.

That didn’t stop Raleigh sports enthusiasts over the years from periodically trying to put Durham in a corner or calling for my head when Durham, after careful vetting, elected to pass on various schemes.

Communities can be in close proximity but culturally as far away as distant planets when it comes to the idea of subsidizing large events.

The next two people who dropped in to see me were Durham coaches, known for producing sports events here.  To me they epitomized Durham in many ways, including one being black and the other white.

In the days preceding desegregation, one at Duke and the other at North Carolina Central, an historically black college, they had defied Jim Crow by having their track teams practice together, travel together (refusing to stay where both weren’t welcome) and compete together.

Eventually, Al Buehler and LeRoy Walker became Olympic team coaches and officials and created and hosted a series of famous track meets in Durham, without asking for public underwriting other than in-kind services.

Both were stunned as they took seats in my tiny, temporary digs to see a poster hanging behind my desk advertising a basketball game in Spokane, earlier in my career starring North Carolina’s All-American, David Thompson, and the USA team vs. the Russians during Expo ‘74.

Earlier in 1974, Thompson had led North Carolina State University to victory over Bill Walton and UCLA, breaking that team’s unbelievable streak of seven consecutive national championships under legendary coach John Wooden stretching back to my senior year in high school.

Thompson is credited with taking college basketball above the rim, helping to invent the alley-oop, serving as Michael Jordan’s role model growing up and being named one of the five best players of all time.  Seeing him play in the old Spokane Coliseum was the first time North Carolina as a state ever crossed my mind.

His trip to Spokane came less than two years after the USA team had lost for the first time ever in the Olympics to Russia due to an extremely controversial call with three seconds remaining that nullified a successful foul shot.

Of course, this was also the Games where the Olympic spirit was nearly snuffed out when eight Palestinian terrorists took nine Israeli athletes hostage and murdered them.

In my office, the two coaches noted that while I was watching “Skywalker” Thompson pay back the Russians in basketball out in Spokane that summer, USA Track & Field, led by the Pacific Northwest’s legendary Steve Prefontaine, was running down the Russians in a dual meet the two coaches put on in Durham.

It was one of many events created and hosted locally over the years by these two friends. 

Within less than a year of his victory here, Prefontaine was killed when his MGB sports car flipped.  We reminisced about Gerry Lindgren who was one of only two people to ever beat Prefontaine in an NCAA Championship.

Two years ahead of me, Lindgren was a running wunderkind in high school who ran one of the five top performances ever. In the early to mid-1960s, kids my age would actually listen late on the radio as the diminutive Lindgren would run down the world’s top distance runners.

Walker and Buehler then updated me that a few years before our visit, Lindgren developed debilitating schizophrenia and for a while disappeared.

They guessed correctly that before leaving Spokane for Anchorage I must have also witnessed 1972 Olympic Gold Medal-winner Frank Shorter win the first Lilac Bloomsday Race in Spokane in 1977, the year before I would leave for Anchorage.

By the time we were visiting in my office in Durham, that unique 12 K event had grown from 1,000 runners to more than 60,000 each year, proving that some of the most lucrative sports events are homegrown.

Within a few months of that first visit Dr. Walker was elected president of the United States Olympic Committee and would continue to drop by my office regularly throughout the rest of my career.  He passed away last year at age 93, a member of 14 halls of fame, 15 counting my own.

The year after I retired, a touching documentary was produced about Al Buehler’s life and traced their time together.  Produced by Duke and NBA legend Grant Hill and former NBC reporter Ann Rubenstein Tisch, it was directed by another NBC alum, Amy Unell of Durham’s StoryTales Productions.

The script was written by John Larson.  He was an Emmy Award Winning Dateline reporter during my time in Durham but I knew John back when he was the award-winning anchor during my time in Anchorage for local KTUU-TV, an NBC affiliate.

Seeing the documentary at the historic Carolina Theatre following the Duke-NCCU football game earlier this month inspired this post.  The documentary is available for streaming on on Netflix and for purchase on iTunes.

Al is now a very spry age 85.  He was always the detail guy, LeRoy the promoter.  Together they made an extraordinary team.  About nine years before I was recruited to Durham, Al also learned to play the century-old carillon atop Duke Memorial United Methodist Church not far from my house.

Hearing it regularly waft through the urban forest of Durham is reassuring.

No comments: