Missouri Show-Me Games' strength is participation

Friday, July 16, 2010 | 8:00 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Ken Ash, executive director of the Show-Me State Games, is proud of the fact that the Games are thriving.

He also thinks he can explain why the Missouri Games are so successful: "We think it ought to be fun. We're more interested in participation than competition."

At the height of the state games movement in the mid-1990s, 37 U.S. states hosted annual amateur athletic competitions, down to 34 today, according to the National Congress of State Games.

In the early 1980s, then-Missouri Gov. Kit Bond heard about New York's Empire Games, an Olympic-style athletic festival for amateur athletes that was the first state games in the country. He brought the idea home, established the Governor's Council on Physical Fitness and Health and charged the newly-formed group with finding a location and creating a culture that would make the Games work in Missouri.

MU agreed to operate the Games, bringing the competition to Columbia. The Governor's Council and MU determined early on that the right focus for Missouri's games was "health, fitness, family and fun." They then set about building both the culture of the Games and a business model to ensure sustainability.

Ash, who has worked for the Games since 1989, acknowledges that it took the first few years to find the right mix of events, facilities and partners to encourage athletes from around the state to travel to mid-Missouri to compete.

Ash also knew that the Games would need to be self-funding.

While the University continues to provide administrative and overhead support for things such as office space, accounting services and event facilities, the remainder of the revenue needed to actually operate the Games is generated through a combination of donations and sponsorships, entry fees, fundraising events and merchandising.

"The total university's in-kind gift is around $80,000 this year," estimated Ash, "The university is one of our biggest sponsors, but currently the Missouri Lottery is the largest."

This is a business model that worked in Missouri, though other states have tried different strategies for both financing and operating the games.

"It was (then-Missouri Governor) Ashcroft's idea not to get the state of Missouri directly involved in supporting the games. It was probably the best decision there ever was," Ash said.

Some states, like New York, have directly funded all aspects of their state games. However, in January 2009, the Empire State Games' entire budget was eliminated from the state budget, forcing cancellation of the summer 2009 games. A scaled-down version of the Empire State Games is being held in Buffalo, N.Y., this week, funded through a $500,000 gift from a local bank.

The Missouri Games, on the other hand, wants to encourage a sense of investment, or buy-in, from athletes by charging reasonable entry fees, which are similar to the cost of competing in tournaments and leagues throughout the state.

"We try to hit the median, not the highest and not the lowest (in the sport)," Ash said. "But (we) also insure it's affordable for families and kids."

In turn for their investment in participation, all Show-Me State Games athletes are welcome and encouraged to compete throughout all phases of events, both qualifying and finals competitions.

Missouri's approach is a departure from other state games that are more focused on the competitive nature of the sports.

Ash describes the Empire State Games' 2009 financial problems as a cautionary tale of over-stressing the competitive aspect of amateur athletic games.

"They had a $2.7 million dollar budget and people went free to their games. They only qualify about 5,000 or 6,000 for the finals, whereas we qualify everybody for the finals," Ash said. "They eliminated a lot of people. Our idea was to add people."

The Games' philosophy of inclusiveness extends to its home communities, Columbia and mid-Missouri, too. For both the public entities and private donors who contribute to the Games, putting on the annual Games is like throwing a big summer party for the rest of the state.

While the Games receive donations and support from corporations and organizations with a statewide mission or market, the bulk of dollars, donated goods and services and volunteer sweat equity invested in producing the Games is local.

In addition to MU, local governmental bodies that invest dollars and in-kind support include the City of Columbia, Boone County Commission, Columbia Convention & Visitors Bureau and Columbia Public Schools.

Private local investment comes from businesses such as the Columbia Daily Tribune and Mediacom as well as from major mid-Missouri employers like Shelter Insurance.

The return on investment for the community is  worth it, according to Lorah Steiner, executive director of the Columbia Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"The Show-Me State Games has a very strong infrastructure here," Steiner said. "That would be very hard to duplicate somewhere else."

Steiner explained the success of the Games in terms of the community's early awareness of the value of the Games as an anchor to grow Columbia's convention and festival market. Columbia's geographic location and numerous facilities and amenities related to higher education make it a go-to overnight, weekend destination.

The reward to the local tax base and business' bottom lines is an influx of tourist dollars during a time of year that has traditionally been slow.

Since 2005, the Games estimate that athletes and their spectators have spent approximately $5 million per year while participating in the games. The overall economic impact is even greater as those dollars circulate throughout the local economy.

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