How to lure good sports, big bucks to the area


Published: Sunday, January 25, 2009 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 23, 2009 at 5:56 p.m.

Amateur sports tourism has been a growing industry, and Jack Hughes has reason to believe that will continue, even in this year of doom and gloom economic predictions.

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Jack Hughes, executive director of the Gainesville Sports Commission, at his downtown office.

Aaron Daye/Staff Photographer

Facts

Jack Hughes

  • Title: Executive director and chief operating officer, Gainesville Sports Commission
  • Personal: 62; married; two children; three grandchildren
  • Education: Bachelor in natural sciences, University of South Florida, 1971
  • Dream partner for lunch: Physical anthropologist L.S.B. Leakey
  • Hobbies: Wildflower photography
  • Best advice received: “Be patient.”
  • Recent favorite book: “Nine Florida Stories” by Marjory Stoneman Douglas
  • Favorite sports movie: “Bull Durham”

Hughes is executive director and chief operating officer of the Gainesville Sports Commission and through April is chairman of the National Association of Sports Commissions.

A study commissioned by the NASC showed that of people who traveled for team sports in 2008, 59 percent planned to travel the same amount this year, while 29 percent planned to travel more. Families that travel for youth soccer are also forgoing their usual one- or two-week vacations for three- or four-day mini vacations around their children’s sporting events.

“That’s an encouraging trend for a community like ours which is heavily dependent on that youth support travel and the fact that we’re a drive market — people don’t mind driving in here on 300- 400-mile one-way trips,” Hughes said.

“If their kids are eligible to travel to regional and national championships, they’re not going to miss it.”

The Gainesville Sports Commission plays its part by organizing about 20 events a year and helping host others with an annual economic impact of about $12 million.

It also promotes cultural activities and locations in the area to its event visitors.

The commission is a private nonprofit with a staff of three, a handful of interns and an army of volunteers. Its funding comes from a portion of the bed tax, a $110,000 grant from the county to host and bid on events, funding from the city of Gainesville for the Gainesville Senior Games and as a member of the commission, $30,000 to $40,000 in memberships from companies such as hotels and restaurants, and about $80,000 in donated goods and services.

It was formed in 1988 as the Gainesville Sports Organizing Committee and is overseen by a 25-member board.

Hosted events include high school championships, AAU and other youth tournaments and championships and the Sunshine State Games.

Hughes emphasized that the GSC schedule also includes a wide variety of events throughout Alachua County: fishing in Hawthorne and Micanopy, a BMX dirt bike event in High Springs, softball in Alachua.

They are working with the city of Newberry on the Easton-Newberry Sports Complex Regional Archery/Recreation Center that recently broke ground and to try to land a 16-field Cooperstown Dreams Park if county commissioners will add a penny to the hotel bed tax.

Among numerous events in Gainesville is the Esynchro Age Group Synchronized Swimming National in June and July, with 1,200 girls and about 3,600 parents and grandparents visiting for 10 days.

The community could host more events if it had more facilities, Hughes said. The area is way ahead of where it was when he started here 12 years ago, but is lacking facilities compared to similar-sized communities around the state.

“A part of that is the perception that the University of Florida’s facilities are available,” he said. “They’re there, and we use them quite often and others use them often, but the reality is the facilities there and at our schools and Santa Fe College, they’re primarily there for their respective students.”

For example, he said cheerleading competitions have outgrown most local facilities and come at a time when UF’s O’Connell Center is most active.

The multipurpose auditorium discussed as part of the new fairgrounds would be able to host such events, as well as volleyball and basketball tournaments and matt sports such as wrestling and martial arts. It would also provide a venue for ongoing local league sports and events.

“I think everyone in this community ought to think about having that back on our radar screen when times get better because the opportunities are there for bringing more and more people to our community,” Hughes said.

Because of his interest in facilities, Hughes championed the Wild Spaces Public Places half-cent sales tax county voters approved in November.

More sports commissions are getting involved in quality-of-life issues, he said. That includes providing facilities for parent-run athletic events, with those parents then providing a ready base of volunteers when events come to town.

Hughes first got into event organizing through his original field as a botany and zoology student when he organized the first Earth Day event at the University of South Florida. Later, while working as a plant researcher at Louisiana State University, he helped organize sporting events as a member of the local Jaycees.

The instant gratification led to a career change.

“Basic research I enjoyed, but it was three or four years between the time you actually accomplished something and you were able to publish and people became aware of it,” he said. “With sports, you feel good about it while you’re doing it, it’s done, you get a sense of accomplishment and you’re on to the next project.”

After the federal research funding ran out, he convinced the National Sports Festival to let him organize its torch relay. The relay went well and he was hired to do two more.

Hughes would go on to manage the U.S. National Hot Air Balloon Championships, the torch relay for the 1993 World University Games, and ran events and venues for the Olympics and the Paralympic Games in Atlanta. He was also sports commission director in Gainesville, Ga.

While the Olympic and Paralympic events were winding down, he responded to an ad with the Gainesville Sports Commission and was hired after presenting a marketing plan for Gainesville.

Contact Anthony Clark at anthony.clark@gvillesun.com or 352-374-5094.

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