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Inside Track: A passion for sports
For 10 years, West Michigan Sports Commission president has helped region become a go-to destination for youth, amateur sports.
For Mike Guswiler, the 2018 Winter Olympics brought back memories.
“It was so much fun to watch,” Guswiler said. “I loved the alpine skiing and slalom skiing. Slalom is probably my favorite, but the newer races they have in the Olympics, like ski cross, where five or six different people all go down the hill at the same time, is reminiscent of a sport that I also participated in and is really reviving as an Olympic sport, BMX.”
The president of the West Michigan Sports Commission said it reminded him of the contributions the WMSC made in helping to build a better BMX course at the Art Van Sports Complex.
The Grosse Pointe Park native is quite familiar with the Olympics. He spent the past 10 years creating Olympics-style events in West Michigan by luring a variety of national sporting competitions to the area.
In 2017, the commission reached the height of its success since it first began in 2007. WMSC won bids to host 76 youth and amateur sporting events, including BMX, soccer, baseball and volleyball, which brought $61.1 million into the West Michigan economy.
While that is a stark difference from 2007, when WMSC had about 20 sports competitions on its events calendar, Guswiler said it is not so much the number of events that matter to him but the quality of events that are coming to West Michigan.
The WMSC won the bid to host USA Table Tennis U.S. Open — the largest table tennis tournament in North America — three times. About 700 players representing more than 20 countries participated in each event, which averaged about 1,500 visitors.
Guswiler and the WMSC started the “Everyone Wins” campaign that reached a $7-million goal from public and private donations to build the Art Van Sports Complex in Rockford. The complex opened in 2014 and houses eight baseball and softball fields.
In 2014, WMSC and the Grand Rapids Rowing Association were selected to host the USRowing Masters National Championship on the Grand River. Over 2,000 rowers participated in 200 events. The event also provided a unique opportunity for USRowing to celebrate one of its oldest boat clubs, the Detroit Boat Club, which has been part of the sport for 125 years.
Under Guswiler’s leadership, the WMSC not only hosted national events but also created its own signature event, Meijer State Games of Michigan, in 2010. The event is held twice per year to accommodate winter and summer sports.
Guswiler’s tenure as president at WMSC did not come by happenstance. His passion for sports always has been in his DNA. Guswiler is the sixth of seven children, and he spent much of his formative years playing sports with his brothers. Whether it was baseball, soccer, hockey, football or skiing, he did it all.
When Guswiler entered college, he, like many college students, was undecided on what he wanted to do until he visited one of Michigan’s resorts. Guswiler spent one of his summer breaks on Mackinac Island. It was his experience on the island and social personality, coupled with other things that helped solidify his decision to pursue hospitality management at Central Michigan University.
He spent the first three years after graduation working in the hotel industry, taking jobs in North Carolina, South Carolina, back to Michigan and then landed in Chicago, where he helped open the Sheraton Chicago Hotel & Towers in the early 1990s.
“I was part of the opening team,” Guswiler said. “I was the front desk manager. We tried to get the hotel ready, hired staff and helped to open a new property, a major property. There were a lot of major stars down there.
“At the time, we had Bill Clinton and George (H.W.) Bush in-house, and I believe they did a debate in that area. Demi Lovato was somebody who I had met, and she was doing some filming in the Chicago area, and I met Dolly Parton. So, there were a lot of stars.”
Guswiler stayed in Chicago for about three years before moving to Grand Rapids in 1993, where he continued to work in the hospitality industry. He spent time working at the Cascade Hills Country Club, Dominican Center and Amway Grand Plaza as a convention service manager.
In 2000, Guswiler took on a role at the Grand Rapids/Kent County Convention & Visitors Bureau (now known as Experience Grand Rapids) in sales. His job was to attract more conventions to the Grand Rapids area.
“It was kind of a different role,” Guswiler said. “I was a middleman to negotiate deals and work with the hotels and convention centers and the client to make it all happen. It was a good stepping stone for me. I (managed) the state’s accounts and Midwest accounts with my knowledge of Chicago and working in the Chicago market. Eventually, in my seven-year career at the CVB, I took on sports accounts, and really, 50 percent of my business was trying to bring sporting events into our area.”
While at the CVB, he was able to bring bowling, youth basketball events and, in partnership with Van Andel Arena and SMG, the NCAA Division I hockey regionals and USA synchronized skating to Grand Rapids.
As a result, Guswiler was heavily involved in the sporting industry in and around Michigan. So, it wasn’t a coincidence Guswiler heard rumors of the creation of the West Michigan Sports Commission, which was an idea formulated by West Michigan businessman Peter Secchia.
The premise of the organization was to build sports tourism by offering a lot of venues for sports competitions so that visitor spending could boost the overall economy.
During that time, Guswiler also was thinking about the next chapter of his career, as the idea of a sports commission turned into a reality in 2007. Guswiler applied for the executive director position and was hired after a national search.
“I think my knowledge I already had in the sports market helped raise my résumé to the surface, and I ended up being one of two final candidates presenting to the new board that was formed,” he said.
According to WMSC, since the organization was created in 2007 and led by Guswiler, there have been over 646 youth and amateur sports booked and hosted in West Michigan, over 1-million athletes and visitors have participated and attended the events, over $297 million in direct visitor spending has been generated, more than 50 local clubs have partnered with WMSC to attract and host events, over 50 sports venues have hosted WMSC events and 75 interns have worked at WMSC.
The quality of events WMSC was able to bring to West Michigan over the past 10 years has impacted sports in West Michigan and the economy as a whole. Despite a need to continue to improve and look to the future, Guswiler said it is important to remember the journey.
“We’ve had incredible success,” Guswiler said. “The one thing that I always say is, ‘We are so focused on what is next, what do we go after, how do we grow?’ that often we are not looking back and saying, ‘Boy, look at what we have done,’ and I think it all plays into where we go from here.”