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Lexington sports leaders tout bottom line in promoting youth sports

New UK baseball coach Nick Mingione was introduced to the media on June 14 in Lexington.
New UK baseball coach Nick Mingione was introduced to the media on June 14 in Lexington. mcornelison@herald-leader.com

Brian Miller, the president and CEO of The Bluegrass Sports Commission, did not mince words Tuesday. The sports we love, he said, are about more than the thrill of victory and the heartbreak of defeat.

“A lot of people think sports are fun and games,” Miller said. “But it’s also big business.”

The business of sports was Topic A at a panel discussion at Whitaker Bank Ballpark. The point stressed again and again by panelists was how Lexington was not maximizing the financial potential available in youth sports.

“It’s a multibillion-dollar business . . . ,” said Alan Stein, the founder of the Lexington Legends, “and we’re not getting our share of it. And we’re getting our butts kicked, frankly.”

Youth sports generates about $8 billion annually, Stein said.

To help Lexington get a greater share of this financial pie, The Bluegrass Sports Commission is supporting the idea of a new sports complex. That idea was discussed at a gathering at the Stables Party Area along the right-field line.

“Lexington does not have the facilities to host major youth sports tournaments,” Miller said. “We’re losing events to other cities that, as a proud Lexingtonian, are not as great as where we call home.”

Youth sports and the money it generates are resistant to economic upturns and downturns.

“It’s a recession-proof business,” Miller said. “Because as families give up some of their travel dollars, they’re not going to stop investing in their kids.”

That investment can affect the bottom line for hotels, restaurants and other businesses, Miller said. The Bluegrass State Games, which the commission has managed for 32 years, fills about 3,000 hotel rooms annually, he said.

Nick Mingione, the new baseball coach at the University of Kentucky and another panelist, vouched for the impact of youth sports. He said he spent 39 nights in an Atlanta area hotel room last year while on recruiting trips to youth tournaments.

“Travel baseball has become huge,” he said. “I can tell you this: baseball parents are going to spend money. They’re going to be there for their kids.”

With no off switch on the recruiting calendar, college coaches will continue to attend youth events, Mingione said.

“I learned a long time ago (in the SEC) it’s really hard to out-coach people,” he said. “It’s not so much Xs and Os. But, more importantly, it’s about the Jimmys and Joes.”

Jeff Piecoro, a UK graduate and in his 16th season as a host on Fox Sports Ohio’s telecasts of Cincinnati Reds games, said major league baseball generates $200 to $300 million annually for the Queen City.

But Piecoro acknowledged a downside to the sports-as-business idea. When asked about the Reds trading star outfielder Jay Bruce to the New York Mets, he sighed. Then he called the run-up to major league baseball’s Aug. 1 trade deadline “the worst part of baseball.”

The rebuilding Reds traded away an All-Star player and fan favorite for prospects they can only hope will mature into solid major-leaguers.

“We’re not going to win with this guy,” Piecoro said of the Reds’ thinking about trading Bruce, “and probably not going to win for two or three years down the road. So let’s try to stockpile what we can. Teams are just becoming farm teams for the big boys.”

A bottom-line mentality can change the nature of sports, Piecoro said.

“Unfortunately, it’s squeezing out the normal people,” he said. “It becomes more of a corporate game. You want suites and you want those high-dollar seats filled.”

No one suggested Lexington’s interest in the business of sports was on the scale of Cincinnati and the Reds. But the bottom line was clearly on people’s minds.

Stein spoke of Lexington’s brand. “The brand is a very strong sports brand,” he said. Horse racing. UK athletics. Lexington Legends baseball.

To maximize the financial benefit of sports, Stein said, “anything we can do is important to sustaining that brand.”

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