Hoping to run the table

December 28, 2009
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(Editor’s note: This is the first installment of a series of stories looking at the work of the West Michigan Sports Commission.)

It’s been safe to say the words “ping pong” within a three-block radius of DeVos Place for a few weeks now.

That’s because the West Michigan Sports Commission landed the 2010 U.S. Table Tennis Open earlier this month. The Open is the longest-running event of its type, and it will play at the convention center June 30 to July 3. It also will be the highlight event of the city’s 4th of July celebration.

Although the event itself is a victory for the commission and its backers — such as the Amway Grand Plaza Hotel, which will serve as the tournament’s headquarters — its true value may lie in its name recognition and national following that could result in more sports bookings.

“What it has is the opportunity — and we’ve already been doing this — to break in with the United States Olympic Committee’s national sports governing bodies as a destination that will show we can be successful in partnering with them to expose their sport, but also hold successful events,” said Mike Guswiler, WMSC executive director.

Guswiler said the push toward hosting Olympic sporting events here began when Egypt Valley Country Club secured the 2010 U.S. Junior Amateur Championship, as golf is now being added as an Olympic sport, and the sports commission booked USA Judo events for 2010 and 2011. He said adding the U.S. Table Tennis Open to that list begins to lay a foundation for more.

“People in that specific network talk to each other. They talk about different locations that have been successful, that worked well as partners with their team in putting on an event. We’ve got bids out with USA Tae Kwon Do and U.S. Fencing, and there are so many more governing bodies that we can tap into. This is an important event to secure in many ways, and that’s just one of them,” said Guswiler.

Guswiler pointed out that these individual sports are always running tournaments that they want to rotate throughout the country in order to expose and grow their sport and find their next Olympian. That was the case for USA Table Tennis. The association held the Open in Las Vegas for the past few years but decided it was time to find a new locale.

“They get great rates and it’s an international destination, but they’re not going to grow their sport there. One of the appealing reasons that they selected Grand Rapids is they want to find a community that will embrace them, where their sport will be on stage and people will be aware that they’re in town,” he said.

Ninety tables will be set up in DeVos Place for the competition. Seating for 1,500 will be available for the championship match. The Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Convention and Arena Authority, SMG, the Amway Grand Hotel Corp., USA Table Tennis Hall-of-Fame player Dell Sweeris and the city of Grand Rapids were all credited with helping the sports commission land the event.

“The submitted bid was impressive in many ways, including the fact that the Amway Hotel Corp. stepped up as a significant event sponsor, demonstrating strong community support. We are confident that Grand Rapids will build upon a legacy for table tennis in this area as a result of hosting the U.S. Open,” said Mike Cavanaugh, USA Table Tennis CEO.

Just maybe that kind of talk from a chief executive of an Olympic-event governing body will be overheard by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, which rejected the city’s bid this year for a piece of an upcoming men’s basketball tournament.

“It builds a résumé of success,” said Guswiler of securing the Open.

“When we’re reaching out and trying to bring in NCAA basketball — and we’ll bid on that NCAA men’s basketball again as we learned a lot from our previous bid — any experience that we have of running successful sporting tournaments is helpful.”

Next week: building it so they will come.

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