How smaller sports create memorable moments
By R.E. Graswich
Being a sports fan in Sacramento isn’t completely awful.
True, the Kings have exploited the community’s one-horse status for decades. The basketball team sells far more tickets, suites and sponsorships than failure warrants.
A season or two of home games with 10,000 empty seats would embarrass the Kings, if that’s possible, and provide visual and financial motivation to fix the mess.
But there’s a benefit to being a big-league backwater. Sacramento gets to pursue events other cities won’t bother with, fun stuff that doesn’t qualify as major league but is worth checking out.
This spring and summer delivered two examples, the World’s Strongest Man competition in May and the Junior Olympic track and field championships in July. Recent years have seen the U.S. Senior Open golf championship, bicycle races, rugby tournaments and bass fishing contests. Something for everybody.
These aren’t events that attract global audiences and require the Goodyear Blimp to hover overhead. But they beat sitting around pulling weeds.
The games may be second-rate and hopelessly irrelevant, but they fill hotel rooms and steer crowds into restaurants.
The goal of every professional sport is to generate cash. With luck and decent management, even the most obscure competition spins off dollars to the host city.
The World’s Strongest Man competition proves the point.
It’s counterintuitive to believe sports fans will want VIP tickets to watch big guys lift heavy objects. But the World’s Strongest Man shows the way, building a successful franchise atop ridiculous displays of strength.
The strong man competition bridges the gap between the primal urge to gawk at muscular prowess and the boredom that comes from sitting in a bar with nothing good on TV.
Creatively, the World’s Strongest Man evokes Gaelic hunter-warrior lore. One event involves lifting five logs, each heavier than the last, 375 pounds to 474 pounds. Apparently, lifting logs was a prized skill in ancient Ireland and maybe Scotland and even Iceland.
I first encountered the World’s Strongest Man on TV at my local bar. I was hooked from the start. Could Magnus Samuelsson lift five “atlas stones,” which range in weight from 220 pounds to 353 pounds? Better still, could he deposit those big rocks onto chest-high pedestals? Yes and yes!
The World’s Strongest Man was created for TV and thus requires a dramatic backdrop. Last year’s event took place in Old Sacramento. There was an effort to work historic locomotives into the show.
This year’s festivities were held at Sacramento’s most iconic location, the middle of Capitol Mall. I prayed for a politically themed challenge. Muscle men, including world champ Tom Stoltman, pulling an armored truck filled with lobbyists and state senators? Alas, the big guys pulled an empty bus.
Lovable concoctions such as World’s Strongest Man arrive courtesy of the Sacramento Sports Commission, a wing of the taxpayer-supported convention marketing outfit, Visit Sacramento. The city budgets $2.3 million for Visit Sacramento. City Hall hopes the investment pays off in hotel nights, restaurant receipts and publicity.
But attracting even minor league events can be risky. A scandal nearly killed the Sports Commission in 2012. The group borrowed $400,000 from the city (and $150,000 from the county) to promote an event but couldn’t pay back the money. An audit showed years of deficit spending, messy bookkeeping and diverted funds, pyramid style.
Rather than padlock the commission, the City Council wrapped it into Visit Sacramento and hired new management.
In the past decade, the Sports Commission lowered its expectations and chased events appropriate for smaller budgets.
By far the biggest catch is the NCAA men’s regional basketball championship first and second rounds, which return to Sacramento next March. The college games will presumably attract upward of 25,000 visitors to Downtown.
The NCAA tournament has a history of visiting Sacramento for first and second round games, most recently in 2017. The games return because the town puts on a good, profitable show.
Naturally, Sacramento lacks an indoor stadium big enough for the Final Four, so preliminary rounds must suffice. For local sports fans, even a heavy log is better than nothing.
R.E. Graswich can be reached at email@example.com. Follow us on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram: @insidesacramento.