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Spiking the Big Box

The Greater Richmond Convention Center finds a niche in amateur sports.



In Exhibit Hall B, hip-hop music blares as grown men beat each other's brains out in an amateur boxing ring. About 20 feet away, in Exhibit Halls C and D, swarms of teenage girls in tiny spandex shorts bounce up and down, assaulting multiple volleyballs on 14 separate courts.

It's Saturday night at the Greater Richmond Convention Center. The city's gargantuan 700,000-square-foot meeting hall has morphed into a gymnasium, a giant locker room bustling with people — suburban families, black urbanites, baby boomers and gobs of teenagers. Some are here for the boxing; some to see their daughters and nieces play volleyball. Others have turned out for an austere dance recital with brooding judges and scores of budding ballerinas twirling in satin skirts.

"This is great. There's a lot more room and the kids seem to like it here," says Wrenn Turner, who traveled from Elizabeth City, N.C., to see her 16-year-old daughter, Lauren, crash the nets at the Richmond Volleyball Club's regional girls' tournament.

The center's weekend makeover is part of a growing trend: With an oversupply of convention halls chasing a dwindling market of actual conventions, cities such as Richmond are finding a niche in attracting amateur sports. It's a $4-billion-a-year industry with more than 15,000 events nationwide, according to Sports Events Magazine. The rapid growth in organized sports, especially at the high school level, has left leagues such as the Richmond Volleyball Club in search of limited gym space.

Enter the Greater Richmond Convention Center.

Two years ago, the Richmond Sports Backers approached officials at the convention center about using the facility for a variety of regional sporting events, from volleyball tournaments to field hockey to indoor soccer. They'd pitch in to buy the equipment and flooring — about $500,000 worth — in return for a discount on rent.

"There is such a demand on gyms nowadays," says Jon Lugbill, executive director of the Sports Backers, which has helped organize 10 separate events at the convention center since January 2004. "We first went to the convention center when it was still under construction with the hope of hosting sporting events there."

The idea made sense. Many of the regional tournaments take place on weekends, typically the slow part of the week for convention halls, and often during holiday weekends when the halls are even tougher to market. For example, during the upcoming Memorial Day weekend, May 28-30, the Richmond Volleyball Club will host the Boys' East Coast Championship in the center's exhibit halls. The event will require 24 courts and draw more than 2,000 people, says Skip Weston, director of youth programs for the club.

On a recent Saturday night, the girls' volleyball event drew 800 people from across the state and beyond, with teams and spectators from Richmond, Roanoke, Chesapeake, even North Carolina.

"Convention centers are the only way to go," says Weston, extolling the virtue of hosting the entire tournament "under one roof" instead of spreading out among several different gymnasiums, the only other alternative.

Across the hall at the 2005 Virginia Golden Gloves Boxing Tournament, the bass is thumping and fists are flying in the convention center for the first time. LaMar E. Dixon, the event's promoter, says he got tired of traveling to Washington, D.C. — the host of past Golden Gloves tournaments — and decided to give Richmond a shot.

Using the convention center is expensive, Dixon says, estimating his total cost at about $3,500, including rent and equipment. He's willing to pay the price, however, to impress the crowd with the facility's white-collar environs. The hall isn't your typical sweat-soaked gym. At 8:30 p.m. on April 16, about an hour into the tournament, about 1,000 spectators fill the seats.

"It's going to take a year to cultivate a boxing event in Richmond," Dixon says, guessing that half of those in attendance are from Richmond. He doesn't expect to make a killing on this tournament. He's building a bridge to something bigger.

Michael A. Meyers, general manager of the convention center, agrees that amateur sporting events aren't big moneymakers. Including concession sales, the center probably breaks even financially on most of the events, he says. But making money isn't the objective, Meyers says.

"Nobody expected, right out of the gate, that this would be a huge success," he says. "We're trying to give them the opportunity to grow into something big."

There are critics, of course. Some say turning convention halls into volleyball and basketball venues produces very little economic spinoff. Heywood T. Sanders, an expert in convention economics who chairs the public administration department at the University of Texas at San Antonio, says there is no evidence that amateur sports generate much economic overflow at all - especially hotel room nights.

"The critical question is, Are you bringing in and housing the kinds of events that, in turn, bring in folks from some distance who stay overnight in some local, hopefully downtown, hotels?" Sanders ponders. "Since that was the goal, what you are doing is not what you intended and clearly doesn't further the goal of downtown revitalization."

The boxing tournament generated 400 room nights over two days, but Meyers says his administration isn't actively tracking the number of room nights generated by the sports tournaments. Ditto for the Richmond Sports Backers.

Those interviewed by Style at the boxing and volleyball tournaments April 16 said they had little time for sit-down dinners and were staying in a variety of different hotels, some downtown and some outside the city. At the volleyball tournament, some were staying at hotels near Richmond International Airport. At the boxing tournament, many wouldn't decide whether to stay overnight until after the first round of the tournament — winners would box another day while losers would go home.

The economic impact of such grass-roots amateur sports is difficult to measure, at best. Don Schumacher, executive director of the National Association of Sports Commissions in Cincinnati, says the business is bigger than it's ever been, especially in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. More and more, families are opting to travel by car to see sons, daughters, nieces and nephews play on traveling sports teams.

Attending a conference in Portland, Ore., last weekend, Schumacher says the main topic of discussion was the explosion in "community-driven" sports. Some 500 people from 400 cities were there to unlock the secrets to attracting more of such events — those a bit larger than the ones Richmond has hosted — to their own backyards.

"I can tell you it's a mature industry now," he says.

In Richmond, the maturity is a few years off. Just two years in the making, the Richmond center is new to the amateur sports game. On April 16, just outside the doors of the convention hall, the Richmond Coliseum is hosting an arena football game, and a local vendor has set up shop on the sidewalk. He has on display a variety of light-up toys and sparkly necklaces and the prerequisite candy apples.

Jonathan Washington follows the calendar and knows exactly when all three events — boxing, volleyball and football — are scheduled to begin and end. He expects to cash in at about 9:30 p.m., when the football game is expected to end.

"That's what we call the blowout," says Washington, who serves his only customer, a woman working for the convention center, two candy apples. "Until then, you just have to kind of wait." S

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