Press-Telegram (Long Beach)

O.C. will be ready when the pandemic has ended

- Jim Alexander Columnist

This might have been an example of either amazing hustle or amazing optimism.

With pandemic-related shutdowns affecting sports events both large and small for most of the last

12 months, the Orange County

Sports Commission still booked 16 events large and small for 2021, events that were projected to draw 155,000 attendees and pump $53 million into the county’s economy. Eleven of those events were booked after last March, or while society was still in various stages of lockdown. The commission also reached agreements on 11 additional events for future years.

Maybe it was confidence. Or maybe it was foresight. Either way, it wouldn’t be a bad idea to knock on wood just to be sure. The new state guidelines announced Friday that would open up theme parks and major league baseball games to limited capacity on April 1, coronaviru­s case rates permitting, suggest that there is indeed light at the end of this long, dark tunnel.

Many of those events are youth and amateur competitio­ns, the sort of under-the-radar tournament­s that might not draw headlines but very definitely draw lots of competitor­s and their parents and relatives. And if they’re coming from out of town they book hotel rooms and visit theme parks while they’re in town and said theme parks are open.

As long as those events are on the schedule, there’s hope.

“I know this amateur sports market has historical­ly been referred to as recession-proof,” said Jay Burress, president of the OCSC, in a phone conversati­on Thursday. “Even if the economy is down a little bit, you still take your kids to that basketball or

volleyball (tournament), swim meet, whatever.

“I guess this proved it’s not pandemic-proof, but it is pandemic resilient.”

Under normal circumstan­ces, Orange County’s communitie­s would host approximat­ely 60 to 70 events a year, not counting the home schedules of the Angels and Ducks. That schedule would include AVP volleyball and the U.S. Open of Surfing in Huntington Beach, summer softball, volleyball and basketball tournament­s in various locations, band and cheer and eSports competitio­ns, maybe even the TEAMS conference and expo for sports industry representa­tives and event managers (which visited Anaheim in 2019 and will return in ’24).

There would be the Collegiate Challenge gymnastics event at the Anaheim Convention Center; you might recall it as the one where UCLA’s Katelyn Ohashi had her floor exercise go viral in 2019. Or the Profession­al Bull Riders event at Honda Center, the Wooden Legacy college basketball event Thanksgivi­ng weekend at the Convention Center, or even curling. Don’t laugh, but USA Curling has two events scheduled for the Ducks’ Great Park training facility in Irvine.

The NCAA women’s beach volleyball championsh­ips are scheduled for Huntington Beach in 2025 and ’26. Weightlift­ing, women’s hockey, badminton and water polo all have had or will have events in Orange County. And the 2028 Olympic volleyball competitio­n is scheduled for Honda Center.

Orange County was a magnet for these events even before six separate sports and destinatio­n organizati­ons pooled resources to form OCSC late in 2019. Burress, who was VisitAnahe­im’s president and CEO since 2013 and had previously served for five years in a similar role with the Arlington, Texas, visitors and convention bureau, became the new organizati­on’s president, and Ducks executive vice president and COO Tim Ryan was named chairman.

It was, Ryan said, an idea whose time had come.

“To me, Orange County has so much to offer,” he said. “Not just the major venues like the Honda Center and Angel Stadium, and the Fairground­s and the Convention Center . ... When you talk to Jay and you see that during a pandemic — and I can’t stress that enough — we booked 16 sporting events for 2021 that could have an economic impact of over $50 million, that speaks volumes about what Orange County is and what it can support in terms of major events.

“If we can do that kind of business during a pandemic, I think the writing is on the wall as to the amount of business we can do once we’re past COVID.”

The benefits to Orange County’s economy seem obvious. The under-the-radar events bring volume in terms of visitors. High-profile events — a World Series or all-star game, a Stanley Cup Final, an NCAA hockey Frozen Four (Anaheim hosted it in 1999), a figure skating championsh­ip or Olympic volleyball — bring attention. That TV time comes with shots of Disneyland or Knott’s Berry Farm or scenic shots of Newport or Huntington Beach, and those can be visitors’ magnets, too.

In normal times, anyway. It’s a competitiv­e business. The Los Angeles Sports Council is a formidable foe, but also works together with Orange County and shares informatio­n. San Diego is a destinatio­n for similar events as well. Riverside’s sports commission has lured national and internatio­nal aquatics events as well as the annual CIF Southern Section championsh­ips, and it submitted a bid for the 2016 Olympic diving trials that went to Indianapol­is.

Burress said event cancellati­ons in Orange County all told, not just sports, over the last year surpassed 300, “worth over $2 billion in economic impact.”

The pandemic also was devastatin­g to American Sports Centers, the warehouse-sized basketball/volleyball complex in Anaheim that relinquish­ed its lease in August, though USA Volleyball’s men’s and women’s national teams will still use the facility as a training center through the Tokyo Olympics.

Right now the OCSC itself is feeling some of the pinch. At the time of its launch, there were five people on staff. And now?

“We have one,” Burress said. “We will be building that back up when the time is right. With it being such a resilient market, we’ll be coming back soon.”

When that happens, it will mean that amazing optimism was indeed warranted.

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