Established in August 2016, the nonprofit Durham Sports Commission was designed to attract and promote athletic events within the Bull City. Funded by the city and corporate sponsors, the organization has made a major splash during its initial two-year run, culminating in its role in bringing the ACC baseball championship tournament back to Durham last month for the first time since HB 2.
We spoke with executive director Ashleigh Bachert about the DSC’s founding, the challenge of overcoming the negative stigma associated with the so-called bathroom bill, and some of the exciting events the commission has planned for the near future.
INDY: Can you just tell us a little bit about the organization and the impetus for forming it?
ASHLEIGH BACHERT: Yeah! The organization was formed on July 1, 2016. The idea is that Durham was missing out on the opportunity to host events similar to what people around us were. There really wasn't one organization that could help with the bidding process. There wasn't one organization that could say, “Hey, is this right fit for Durham?” So Duke, Central, and the Bulls were doing great with sports tourism as kind of a byproduct of what they naturally do, but when the Bulls and Capitol Broadcasting Corporation decided they wanted to go after ACC baseball a few years ago, they realized they needed to have a commission, since there was a lot in that bid packet that was not in their purview. Things like hospitality, hotels, and things the city was willing to provide. So CBC and the Bulls sat down with community leaders and said, “We've got to do this. It will help us out tremendously.” And that was the initial impetus for forming the sports commission, in order to help with the ACC bid.
I think as a community and statewide, we were really mortified by HB 2. I know it had a deleterious impact on bringing events to town. The ACC relocated all of its events, for one thing. Can you talk a little bit about your experience when all of that was unfolding and how that affected your efforts?
The sports commission was formed in July 2016, and the board didn't get in until August, at which point HB 2 was still in place. The board did make a push to speak to legislators and ask them to repeal HB 2. We had just found out that the ACC was going to be leaving [Durham] and going to Louisville for that year, and we knew that anything less than a repeal would be disastrous for future efforts moving forward. By the time I was hired, we were waiting on pins and needles for the repeal to happen. We were meeting with event owners left and right who said, “Hey, you guys had HB 2. We aren't allowed to put a championship or an event in your city or your state.” So my first national conference selling Durham, being a hometown girl and knowing this is not who we are at all, I knew it would be tough selling our city with the terrible stigma of this law. Luckily, it was repealed on the very last day of that conference, but even then the stigma remained for a time. We would put in bids for events and people would have the wrong idea about our state. And frankly, it still makes certain events difficult to go after, and especially and obviously those that are LGBTQ-focused. So it was a rough go-’round for a time there.
Can you describe what your organization's working relationship with the Durham Bulls is?
A: The Bulls are a major partner of ours. With respect to bringing the ACC baseball tournament back to town and to have it not only in 2018 but also to gain back the year that was lost and host it again in 2019, the Bulls came to us immediately and said, “What can we do? How can we work together?” It requires a huge financial outlay in terms of the facilities that are required, and so we began discussing how we could combine resources to make this feasible. Ultimately, we took on organizing ACC Fan Fest, which had previously been owned by the Bulls. Where they had previously incurred all of the expenses, we now incurred those expenses and became fully in charge of that event. We assisted with the rights fee for ACC baseball, and we worked with the ACC to make sure the head coaches were taken care of, that we were able to roll out the red carpet for teams, and a number of other administrative undertakings. So we are grateful to the Bulls for coming to us as a relatively new organization and saying, “Hey, we can really use your help and we trust you guys.” That was a really huge in on our side. It was almost a proof of concept for why we were created and, as a two-person staff, we definitely walked out of that meeting giving one another high fives.
You guys were responsible for the ACC Baseball Tournament Fan Fest, which was a really marvelous event held outside Bulls Stadium featuring live music, autograph sessions with players, and a general air of merriment. How was that conceptualized?
Two thousand sixteen is the first year that the ACC had ever hosted Fan Fest in conjunction with their baseball tournament. The Bulls thought that this would work because they had seen it work with other ACC championships. So they conceived it–it was something that Louisville did last year as a couple-day event. We saw what the trend was, we were going to do a Saturday-only event. And we
Do you have revenue projections for the tournament?
The board lives and breathes off of the economic impact projections and final numbers. That’s a huge indicator for them on if we’re doing the right things. The 2016 ACC Baseball tournament brought about $5.2 million into the community. We’re projecting $9.6 million for this year’s championship. It’s huge when you can add another two teams to the tournament, expanding it from ten to twelve teams. The games are spread out a little more, which gives people more time to spend in the city. Luckily, we ended up with a phenomenal field this year–the local teams are playing really, really well. But we also ended up with some teams that travel really well. We will go through the numbers from hoteliers and things like that about a week or two after and really start crunching the numbers and figure out what that final economic impact was for the city, but right now we’re projecting around $9.6 million. It’s huge.
What other stuff does the Durham Sports Commission have coming up?
We’ve landed the 2019 USA track and field youth outdoor national championship, which I believe is the first national championship that’s been held within Durham. And we’re expecting anywhere between four thousand and six thousand athletes, so anywhere from fifteen thousand to twenty thousand people will be coming in for that weeklong event next June. We are still working with a lot of our local events–we’ve got an international tree climbing competition that will be coming back this October, and the Triangle Curling Club is looking to do a Rotary International curling event. So no day is the same! No event is the same, for sure. I never thought I’d be talking about international tree climbing and then turn around and talk about a track and field event in the same sentence.