Compete Network Feature Stories

LGBTQ Sports Leagues “aChangin” With Changing Times

The famous Bob Dylan song, “The Times They Are a-Changin’” may have been written back in 1964 but it certainly expresses the operational challenges faced by current leaders of LGBTQ recreational sports leagues. In today’s rapidly changing world they’re not only required to know the essentials of operating a 501(c)(3) non-for-profit organization, they must also be aware of competition both for new players and financial support by the newest sports making their way onto the scene (quidditch for example).

Sports leaders must also face rapidly changing generational trends that impact their recruiting efforts for new players; they’ve got to deal with the increasing importance of social media, live streaming and changes in family structures. Their signature events always give back to the LGBTQ community, helping to increase positive visibility in a continuing effort break down the stereotypes that breed homophobia, biphobia, transphobia, racism and sexism. And perhaps the biggest need for all organizations? To have effective leaders who stay in touch with their members and listen to what they have to say!

Compete decided to interview three LGBTQ sports league leaders whose organizations are having their signature tournaments this fall, questioning them about the direction they’re taking to keep their league moving forward and its members and fans engaged. You will hear from ASANA (Amateur Sports Alliance of North America) Commissioner Angela Smith, SDL, IGRA (International Gay Rodeo Association) President Candy Pratt and NGFFL (National Gay Flag Football League) Commissioner Thurman Williams; all of them inducted into their organizations’ Halls of Fame for their ongoing service to their sport.

All three organizations have demonstrated their ongoing commitment to sports diversity by becoming charter members of the Sports Diversity Leadership Council. While they’re LGBTQ organizations, they’re all ally-friendly and have similar missions. But each organization has a different target audience that influences its future.

 

ASANA – FOUNDED IN 2007

The focus for ASANA Commissioner Angela Smith, SDL is to continue her organization’s founding purpose of heading in a new direction. Once part of the women’s division of gay softball giant NAGAAA, the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance, in 2007 some of the women who wanted to have an opportunity for innovation left NAGAAA and founded ASANA.

This year marks their 11th ASANA World Series being held September 17-22 in New Orleans and the second year of women’s flag football play. As an SDLC member, ASANA became a finalist and first place co-winner in the recent SDLC Goldfish Bowl at the Connect Marketplace in Salt Lake City. All four finalists’ presentations not only highlighted their organization and its events, presenters also gained valuable information from judges on preparing the best sponsor/partnership presentations.

ASANA has always included a focus on fellowship and family. Smith explained that whether it’s done at a bar, restaurant or field, the opportunity to hang out and visit over a cold brew is an important element of ASANA events. And with the advent of same-sex marriage, a growing number of families with children have become the new normal for the league. It’s also prompted a lower-key approach to holding a tournament; there is less time and money spent on the pageantry considered a must have in most other leagues.

Looking at millennials and others used to technology to access live streaming events, a major goal for this year is already in place – a partnership with professional streaming service, Cloud Sports Network (CSN). Smith says that “Being able to broadcast our games live across different social media channels simultaneously will make this and future ASANA Softball World Series even more accessible for softball fans and the friends and families of the players.”

This has also offered the league a unique marketing opportunity. Women’s sports have never had the same cache as men’s sports; particularly when it comes to recreational sports. But advertisers who once looked only at major targets are now interested in micro-targeting. And this new partnership provides an opportunity for people wanting to reach women athletes in a broadcast medium.

“We’ve already started the dialogue with potential advertisers and the response has been extremely positive,” said Smith. “They are interested because we are offering the kind of return on investment usually associated only with micro targeting but on a macro scale.”

 

IGRA – FOUNDED IN 1985

The idea of positive community – of loving rodeo, the LGBTQ Western lifestyle and supporting amateur sportsmanship through participation, competition and recognition while breaking gender stereotypes is the cornerstone of IGRA’s mission. And President Candy Pratt is more than capable of meeting the challenge of bringing the Old West into the New West. Rodeo isn’t a hobby for her; it’s her way of life and her leadership philosophy mirrors that of her organization: “Be yourself, have fun and speak up. The competition is important but it is only part of the overall experience.”

With 202 wins, Pratt is IGRA’s all-time leading All-Around Champion and was inducted into its Hall of Fame in 2009. She’s also spent years in various leadership positions within the organization, traveling around the country to support newly-formed local IGRA associations. So one of her goals as president is to provide more structure and support for the now 19 Gay Rodeo Associations and their numerous individual chapters across the U.S.

IGRA’s signature event, the World Gay Rodeo Finals (WGRF) is being held October 25-28 in Mesquite, Texas. Another of Pratt’s goals is to improve rodeo production and partnering with sponsors. There are a lot of moving parts to putting on a rodeo. In addition to the regular welcome, opening and closing ceremonies, a dance and other events you might see at any other organization’s tournament, the WGRF includes 14 different events, all involving large-to-medium sized farm animals and horses that all need to be housed and fed.

Animal safety and welfare is always a prime concern and so is contestant safety. For those who have never ridden a horse and would like to try their hand at bull riding or bareback bronc riding or any of the other events, IGRA offers rodeo school. Held by different IGRA chapters, classes tend to focus on entry level events, like Calf Roping on Foot, Chute Dogging, Steer Decorating and Steer Riding. Instructors present overall health and safety training for all participants and then students can choose a class or classes based on their personal interests.

One of Pratt’s goals is to expand opportunities for rodeo school teaching and mentoring of new members, getting them involved in IGRA. Growing the membership/contestant base and infusing more fun into all aspects of IGRA will play a role in the strategic planning process where Pratt will be involving the membership in setting “a vision that ensures a vibrant, relevant organization that meets the needs of IGRA members and community both now and in the future.”

 

NGFFL – FOUNDED IN 2002

Holding its 17th annual Gay Bowl in Denver from September 13-16, this year over 1,000 participants representing 57 teams and 22 cities from the U.S. and Canada will be ready to play ball. The NGFFL is headed by Commissioner Thurman Williams whose long-term vision for its growth rests on four strategic pillars: enhancing the Gay Bowl experience; driving the growth of memberships and leagues; developing national partnerships; and giving back more that the organization takes in.

Williams is focusing on five key areas within these pillars to accomplish the league’s strategic goals: to acknowledge, recognize and celebrate the league’s cities, people and communities and to expand the possibilities for Gay Bowl through bold entrepreneurial actions that make hosting a Gay Bowl an opportunity for all markets; this can make a desired positive social impact through the league giving back more than it takes in.

Additionally Williams wants to drive member-city effectiveness through technology and partnerships and enhancing city-member engagement with the NGFFL through improved communication and standardized routines. An NGFFL Learning Sessions and Podcast has been proposed as well as increased social media involvement.

Perhaps the most visible accomplishment of the NGFFL’s goals toward partnership and social impact was last year’s financial sponsorship of Gay Bowl XVII held in Boston by the New England Patriots. That has carried over to this year’s Gay Bowl in Denver. The Denver Broncos have stepped up not only to financially sponsor the Gay Bowl but also to sponsor the introduction to the NGFFL’s special game with the Denver region Special Olympics top Unified team, the Spectrum Skyhawks and a combination of players from NGFFL cities and leagues that Williams says are legends of the game.

“To have the Broncos on board helps to build credibility as we work on creating impact and change within the community around gay athletes in sports,” said Williams. “We continue to expand our league and our footprint across the country it helps us to create the credibility we need to make that happen as well.”

The league has also recently partnered with Athlete Ally. Williams says that “Gay Bowl XVIII is our opportunity to give back, and we’re thrilled to do so with Athlete Ally. Funds raised from NGFFL merchandise, Broncos memorabilia and donations throughout the weekend will be donated on behalf of the NGFFL.”

Thanks to Angela Smith of ASANA, Candy Pratt of IGRA and Thurman Williams of NGFFL for sharing their visions for the future of their leagues. The wonderful thing about sports diversity is that it supports equality, inclusion, diversity and acceptance; it enables people to join the teams and leagues that have meaning for them. Congratulations to ASANA, IGRA and NGFFL for their important leadership work in paying attention to their members as they work to grow gay sports. The best part for me? It’s their leadership in maintaining an open, welcoming attitude where a one-size-fits-all requirement for an athlete, even a non-athlete to join. Why? Because they’ve created a family!

By Connie Wardman

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