Featured in the July/ August 2018 Issue of Compete Magazine
The North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance (NAGAAA) has been hosting the Gay Softball World Series (GSWS) for over four decades. From delegate meetings to the parties and charity events to the actual five-day tournament, NAGAAA could not produce this ten-day event without the dedication of a local host committee and the assistance of countless volunteers.
No matter which of NAGAAA’s 45-member associations/host cities decide to bid on this mammoth event annually, only one host city wins the bid and accepts the two-year challenge that lies ahead.
Several cities have played host for more than one GSWS: San Francisco leads with four times; next are Milwaukee and Dallas with three times each; then 11 other cities which have hosted twice, including Toronto which hosted in both 1981 and 2000.
Two years of planning, fundraising, recruiting and coordination starts the day the GSWS bid is awarded to a city. But most people forget the year leading up to the bid, a year of research, networking, contract negotiations and site selection — hotels, event venues and sports complexes. Once all that is complete, the actual two-year countdown to hosting the GSWS begins.
So why does a city decide to take on the challenge? With over 200 teams converging on Tampa this year, bringing with them an estimated 5,000 visitors and an expected $12 million in economic impact, the pressure must be intense. We sat down with several past NAGAAA GSWS Host Committee Chairs to learn more about why they hosted the GSWS.
Rich Segal, 2016 Austin Host Committee Chair said, “Austin, Texas hosted its first major gay sporting event in August 2016. There was great anticipation in having players, coaches and fans from across the country coming to the capital city to play a sport we all love. We were prepared for two years of work and sweat – and “discussions” – as we built towards the big week.
“We knew heat would be the biggest challenge. The average high temperature in Austin the third week in August is 97 degrees but it wasn’t uncommon for temperatures that week to reach 100° with the heat index near 105° during the 2-6 p.m. time frame. So best practices dictated air-conditioned tents at all three softball complexes. Unfortunately, that plan wasn’t needed because it rained … every day! Nothing could be done about that.” Yet Softball Austin has grown each of the last two years, due in part to putting on a tournament in spite of the obstacle Mother Nature created.
“I wouldn’t trade the experience of doing a GSWS for anything I’ve ever done in softball, Segal concluded. “In spite of the rain, there were five division champions crowned in an abbreviated tournament. My biggest takeaway is watching players from other cities showing up at the complexes to help get rid of water from the fields as part of the drying process. That just furthered my love for NAGAAA as the family we are.”
Mona Garcia, 2009 Milwaukee Host Committee Chair said, “Even though I’d been involved attending NAGAAA meetings for a couple years, being co-director of the 2009 GSWS was my first exposure to working directly with the NAGAAA executive board. That was an incredible opportunity to learn what it takes to host an event the magnitude of the GSWS. I was suddenly in a position to influence the involvement of so many league members who until that point had little exposure to NAGAAA. Meeting with city leadership, potential sponsors and the local Visitors Bureau was not only exhilarating but also occasionally frustrating when some things we outlined for them appeared exaggerated to some of them. They learned quickly that this event would be huge on many levels.”
GSWS committee meetings brought a new cohesiveness to Milwaukee’s SSBL (Summer Softball League); members were very proud of their involvement showing off the city and making city leadership proud of the successful event. The 128 teams Milwaukee hosted had an economic impact of over $4 million, a result that to date is still talked about. “This is true not only in Milwaukee but also at each GSWS since then; there are players who still ask if I’m the Mona who worked on the GSWS,” she recalled. “Their recollection of the fun they had in Milwaukee makes me so very happy. I couldn’t be prouder of that legacy.”
Hosting a GSWS is not without challenges, the biggest one in Milwaukee was being the trail blazer for the street parties and moving the charity event outside the host hotel. “Oh, how I remember the discussions about that during the host city committee/board calls,” said Garcia. “Our mission was to raise the bar in the right way, all with positive experience for the players.” It resulted not only in local pride but also how many more players now recognize the importance of NAGAAA in regard to national and international exposure and awareness of the LGBTQ community.
“Personally, I was postured to prove that I’m not a straight ally that just wants to hang around but someone who wants to help the LGBTQ community keep moving forward,” she stated proudly. “Hosting a GSWS has so many rewards, including showing off the city we love and being part of a positive impact for it and making so many wonderful friendships along the way.”
Roy Melani, 2017 Portland Host Committee Chair said that having now hosted twice in 15 years, this was the most gratifying volunteer work he has ever done. Portland was put on the map as a city that is both progressive and lots of fun. Portland hosted its GSWS in 2002, the first following the 9/11 terrorist attack.
“Our tribute to the fallen softball player in the twin towers was one of my personal highlights,” Melani expressed. “The New York contingent was given black balloons to release as a soloist sang “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and then a rainbow release of balloons happened – it was very emotional and powerful.” Fifteen years later Melani had another highlight at Portland’s 2017 GSWS opening ceremonies. “With 4,000 people and our video tribute to those softball community members we lost this past year with “Seasons of Love” by the Glee cast playing in the background, our city will never be the same.
There are always challenges; in Portland it was getting people to follow through on their commitment to volunteer. With 300+ volunteer slots for each GSWS, volunteers play an enormous role in ensuring a successful event. “What makes the GSWS tick,” said Melani “IS the volunteers. My experience in a few words is LIFE CHANGING! It has been a desire of mine to give back to our LGBTQ sports community and what better way than the GSWS. Striving to show the world that gays can play sports and do it well while also enabling those who never thought sports were an option to experience a great event!”
The Portland Rose City Softball league has grown from 10 open teams to 18 since 2002 and there is a renewed excitement for the GSWS. “Through gay softball we are truly providing a safe space for gay men and women to compete,” Melani concluded. “Only one team wins each division but we all win with the experience of a lifetime. That has been my experience from the last 22 GSWS events that I’ve attended.”
Ryan Holdhusen, 2014 Dallas Host Committee Chair said, “I had played in PSSA (Dallas league) since 2006 and really was involved only as a player and coach. I loved my league and traveled to a number of tournaments where I started meeting more and more people. Because of my background in event planning and my desire to get more involved with NAGAAA, it was my honor and a thrill of a lifetime to be the vice president of the 2014 GSWS in Dallas.”
Holdhusen oversaw all official events and added a few new events just for the 2014 GSWS. Dallas faced a number of challenges, like staffing a week-long event and moving literally tons of water around to various fields. But the committee was able to connect and partner with LGBTQ organizations in the corporate world and loyal local league members and fans to make sure everyone was treated with Dallas’ best hospitality.
With the weather cooperating, the GSWS was even able to tie into Dallas’ annual Pride celebration. There were big parties on each end of the GSWS and people came in early to celebrate and stayed until the final street party closed out the 2014 GSWS. “Personally,” said Holdhusen, “it was the start of a lot more involvement in NAGAAA which has been extremely rewarding and fun. I now have friends in every NAGAAA league and my chosen family continues to grow. It’s a brotherhood/sisterhood that is unlike any other. The GSWS is ground zero for all the good that NAGAAA stands for.
“Our community came out in droves to volunteer, cheer, party and found many other ways to get involved in the event,” he continued. “Our membership has continually grown from year-to-year and our local businesses and community can’t quit asking when we will do it all over again. I see another GSWS in the cards for Dallas in the next five years … or less!”
Dallas Aldridge, 2010 and 2015 Columbus Host Committee Chair (also bidding for 2020) said, “Money and people are always the biggest challenges. Raising funds to ensure the events you plan are successful can be extremely stressful and time consuming. You can’t start planning for the vision you have until you have the funding to pull it off. People are the next biggest challenges,” he continued. “You are asking a committee of people to volunteer their time for over two years. The time commitment can be overwhelming to some but in the end, it has provided some of my best and most supportive friends. When you live an experience like this event, it becomes a part of who you are.”
Visibility in the community has been Columbus’ biggest change. The Greater Columbus Sports Commission has embraced the efforts of the Columbus Lesbian & Gay Softball Association (CLGSA) and uses the CLGSA events in promotions throughout the year. The Sports Commission continues to say that Columbus hosting the GSWS resulted in several other events looking harder at Columbus and deciding to host their events here, including the NCAA Women’s Final Four. After hosting the GSWS twice in five years, the city is continuing to expand its support for future hosting opportunities and the community is excited and wants to see it come back often.
“You begin this process with a vision and need to turn that vision into reality,” Aldridge recalls. “The feeling when you are on the stage at the opening ceremonies and you see the crowds of people excited for the week is overwhelming. As you watch the event unfold, you see the smiles, laughter, tears, heartbreak and love all around. Even with all the emotions, the sportsmanship is stronger in this event than any other you will find. The games end and the teams shake hands and usually a few hugs; it’s about respect and support for everyone. Three years later I still have people thanking me for their experience volunteering at the event and want to be involved again. Being able to see an impact on others is the greatest gift I could ever be given from this event.”
Pride in showcasing the city in which they live is a huge reason our member associations make the commitment to host a Gay Softball World Series. It’s pride for their cities; pride for their leagues and communities; pride for gay softball! If you want the GSWS to come to your community, reach out to your local NAGAAA member association (http://www.nagaaasoftball.org/member-cities/).
For a complete listing of all GSWS destinations, see the chart below.
Kansas City, MO
San Diego, CA
Ft. Lauderdale, FL
San Diego, CA
San Francisco, CA
Los Angeles, CA
Los Angeles, CA
San Francisco, CA
New York, NY
San Francisco, CA
Kansas City, MO
San Francisco, CA
New York/New Haven
By Catherine (CJ) Kelly, SDL