The only executive director NASC has ever had, Schumacher has been at the driver’s seat for the past two and a half decades, leading the organization to unprecedented growth. Just days before the organization announced his successor, we sat down with Don to learn how this Cincinnati kid got started and what he plans on doing after the association transitions leadership at their symposium this March in Sacramento.
How did NASC get started?
Back in 1989 there was a conference held down in Orlando, Florida that was jointly sponsored by the United States Olympic Committee, the Florida Sunshine State Games and the Florida Sports Foundation. They called it “the business of amateur sports.” People like Billy Payne were there telling us the details of their (Atlanta’s) bid for the Olympic Games, USA Gymnastics was there talking about their next series of national and international televised events, ESPN was there talking about how they do their championship events, and it went on and on and on.
I was there representing Cincinnati. We were trying to decide what kind of organization we should put together to pursue sports events. 30 or so cities were in the sports business in the late ̓80s, and several of those cities came to that conference in Orlando. We talked to the event owners about future business opportunities, but inevitably most of the conversation was between cities. We didn’t know each other, so there was a lot to talk about. That meeting was held again the next year in West Palm Beach and finally the next year after that in Miami, so in ’89, ’90 and ’91 there were three versions of that conference held in Florida sponsored the same way.
By 1990, we were already talking about what if we got together as a group. We needed to know what the other cities were doing and we needed to know what the event owners were saying to other cities. People were all very anxious to acquire big events, and before cities started to talk there was at least the temptation for an event rights holder to maybe say one thing to Cincinnati and maybe say another thing to Atlanta. We thought that if we started talking and if all the major rights holders realized the cities were now communicating with each other and exchanging ideas, maybe we could standardize bidding processes and maybe even, we naively thought at the time, get rid of bid fees.
That didn’t work out as well as you thought, right?
One out of two ain’t bad! We’ve gotten to the point where the RFP is really pretty doggone uniform now across the board. I mean, everybody kind of brought in that – but bid fees? Not so much.
In 1991 an organizational meeting was held at the very first Olympic Congress in the USA in Colorado Springs. We agreed in October ’91 to meet in St. Louis in April of ’92 and adopt bylaws, elect officers and the board, decide on dues and launch the association.
Did you show an immediate interest in running the organization?
One of the results of the St. Louis meeting was that we elected our officers and board, and I was elected treasurer. In 1994 we realized that the thing was getting already too big, and we needed somebody to manage it on a part-time basis. A request for proposal was prepared by one of our members and circulated to interested parties. I responded to the RFP but did not get the contract. It was awarded to a company in Chicago that was a recognized association management firm. They were running something like 30 different national associations at that time. That honeymoon lasted two months. Mike Millay was the chair at the time and he called me, saying “Don, you guys finished second. Are you willing to take the task on?” I said “Absolutely!” And that’s where it started.
I can tell you with sincerity that as Lori Gamble and I started the job of managing the NASC in the summer of ’94, we definitely did not have any idea what we were getting into. We didn’t know and no one else involved with the NASC had any idea we would have 800 members on a budget of close to two-and-a-half million dollars and of all the things that have happened since.
At what point did you really realize you’re on to something?
1998. I was the first executive director of the Greater Cincinnati Sports and Events Commission. We wanted bigger arena and stadium events. So I became the representative for Cincinnati, but the board of directors decided that we were not going to have a permanent full-time staff. So a management contract was reached between the sports commission and my company. Starting in 1989, we were the Greater Cincinnati Sports and Events Commission; we added the NASC in 1994 and we ran both. By 1998 I said “No mas, this has got to stop.” As much fun as it was in Cincinnati and as successful as we were, we needed to focus on the NASC. It was a great decision because around about that time we really started to grow. We had our first part-time and then full-time employee at around 2000 and then by 2002 we needed another full-time employee so it kept growing from there.
How has NASC changed over the years? Not just the functions you’re doing but the reason the organization is relevant, what it brings to the table.
I think the biggest single change is when the event rights holders came under the tent. In San Antonio in 1997, in recognition of the fact that rights holders were the ultimate target, we created our first event marketplace, and so the industry for the first time that year had the opportunity to have host cities meet with prospective rights holders that might have events for them in a formal marketplace. Now we’ve got a couple hundred members that come to our marketplace every year, and there is a real sense of industry best practices.
What do you think separates a destination from being successful in sports tourism versus one that’s not?
The difference is servicing the business. It’s one thing to be out there extolling the virtues of your destination to absolutely any rights holder without a whole lot of regards for whether it’s a good fit or not – and searching for the good fit, negotiating the right kind of deal and then making sure that from the moment you make the deal, until the end of the event, you service that business, and that people are assigned to take care of it at your end of the bargain from start to finish.
You’ve seen the massive explosion of amateur and professional sporting events, you’ve had the quintessential 50-yard seat. Where do you see the industry heading?
I’ve thought about it a lot. I recently had a long conversation with Tom Cove, the CEO of the Sports Fitness Industry Association (SFIA). They are the experts in participation rates across all team sports and individual sports, and they are also the creators of the PHIT America program that is going through Congress. Tom’s coming to our NASC Symposium in Sacramento and he’ll speak on Wednesday morning at breakfast. He’s going to talk about “Troubling Times Ahead.” The metrics are that with every passing year fewer young people are playing team sports than the year before.
Every year, fewer kids are playing team sports – and the inference could be applied to individual sports pursuits as well. Some of the enemies are PDAs, computer games and the incredible world of electronics that transport you to some place that isn’t real and prevent you from staving off adult onset diabetes in a youngster 11 or 12 years old that is sedentary and unhealthy. He’s going to talk about these participation rates and what the PHIT Act promises to do, which is enable Americans to create a before-tax savings program into which money can be placed that can be used to pay for uniforms, shoes, any form of equipment, team registration fees, annual league registration fees, travel to tournaments, tournament fees – paid for as if they were medical or dental expenses.
Interesting, so it’s an HSA for sports?
Yeah, an HSA for sports equipment, participation in sports events, teams, tournaments and the like. Coupled with that is a very aggressive program beginning at the elementary school level where physical education is re-introduced in the schools because an appalling percentage of elementary schools in the United States today have no form of physical education whatsoever. The administrators there have just gotten all fired up about test scores and forgotten about physical fitness, music, art, the humanities and so forth.
We’re determined to help our members understand that this business is not assured in the future. If young people are not going to participate in sports, the industry can’t continue to grow.
Let’s talk about the transition of leadership. Obviously, whoever comes into NASC is going to have ideas of their own and take input from members and the board, but how do you see NASC’s role evolving going forward?
Well, I have to speak now in hopeful terms because as it’s always the case in situations like this, I have been utterly divorced from the search process. Our board has a vision and the mission of the organization firmly in their minds, and it’s the staff’s job to create the tactical plan – the strategic plan if you will – to meet those goals.
What’s the physical time period for this transition to a new executive director?
I don’t know what the board has negotiated with the person in terms of when they start coming to Cincinnati, but my last day is Friday, April 29. Saturday’s the 30th and that’s when I go off the payroll. What we have been focused on from the beginning – and what I presume is still the case – is that I’ll spend March and April training that person. At the symposium at the end of March we’ll do a formal handover. I think it’s been set up as an orderly transition.
What’s next for Don Schumacher?
I’ve created DSA Sports LLC. I will be a very active consultant in the sports tourism industry, helping communities get a bigger share of the market, helping them analyze their sports facilities and decide which sports and which age groups to focus on and why, and also helping communities decide whether new facilities should be considered. I’m going to remain an adjunct professor of Ohio University, and I’ll be doing some teaching. Additionally, I am going to become quite a blogger. I plan on sharing many of the hundreds and hundreds, if not thousands, of things I’ve learned in the last 35 years in my career with people that care to look at them.
I will tell you that I’ve thought about this for a long time. This April 30 was a date hand-picked by me. When we announced it to the board in July of 2016, I started by saying two things. The first was, “What I am about to tell you is its all good. There isn’t anything about this that isn’t good. It’s good for me, good for the association, good for my successor, and good for staff. It’s time.” And the second thing I said, when questioned as to the timing, was, “Let’s put it this way: I’ve gotten to the point where I don’t even know what I’m not doing.
It’s time – and in the meantime I’ve got an obligation to take the remainder of my career to use the information I have to the benefit of others, so I’m gonna do it.