PORTLAND — The Maine Red Claws, Portland Pirates and Portland Sea Dogs combine to make their home base one of the best minor league sports cities in the nation. Now, said a panel of experts in sports business, it’s time for the state to take a major league attitude.

Members of Portland’s professional sports and business communities called for the creation of a Maine Sports Commission that would help attract more national events to the region.

“We have a world-class backdrop right here as the state of Maine,” said Barbara Whitten, president and CEO of the Convention and Visitors Bureau of Greater Portland. “We have the interest on the part of the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development. We have a triple crown here in baseball, basketball and hockey.

“We have businesses that understand the value of being affiliated with sports marketing and world-class athletes. I believe that the time has come for us to take the next step and develop a public-private partnership and form a sports commission.”

Whitten was part of a panel that spoke Thursday morning at a USM-sponsored executive forum entitled “The Business of Sports.” The panel included Robert Harmon, president and CEO of Norway Savings Bank; Jon Jennings, president and general manager of the Red Claws; Brian Petrovek, managing owner and CEO of the Pirates; and Jo Williams, associate director of sports management at USM’s School of Business.

While each addressed topics specific to their area of expertise, the idea of creating a sports commission was on everyone’s mind.

EXAMPLES TO FOLLOW

Brian Corcoran, president of the Shamrock Sports Group marketing firm and keynote speaker, said it was essential to have a commission if Maine wants to build its sports business base.

Sports franchises and national events have big financial impacts on local communities in terms of jobs, tax revenues and tourism.

The Red Claws have been a huge hit in their first year, leading the NBA Development League in season tickets, sponsorships and merchandise sales, according to Jennings.

The synchronized figure skating national championships held last March at the Cumberland County Civic Center brought in over $2 million of business, according to Whitten. The U.S. Youth Soccer Region 1 tournament generated more than $11 million each of the two years it was held here.

But, Whitten added, the Convention and Visitors Bureau was stretched thin while it helped coordinate those events. A Sports Commission would take over that role, solicit sponsorships and garner resources to highlight Maine’s attractiveness.

“A sports commission can lend professionalism when you’re trying to attract those events,” said Whitten.

As examples, Corcoran mentioned the Spokane Regional Sports Commission in Washington and the Massachusetts Sports Partnership. Both have brought major events to their area. Spokane hosted the NCAA men’s basketball regionals this year and the women’s basketball regionals three years ago, and Massachusetts has hosted several national collegiate championships, including the NCAA women’s basketball Final Four in 2006. The Spokane commission, formed in 1988, has brought in over $150 million.

CAREFUL PLANNING

While Portland may not have the facilities for such mega-events, a sports commission could help attract other events, such as beach volleyball or cheering championships. “There’s a lot of diversity here that makes Portland a destination city,” said USM’s Williams.

Corcoran said a sports commission needs “the right game plan” to be effective.

That would include finding the right person to lead it. Corcoran said it would have to be someone familiar with the state’s resources and sports heritage, as well as someone with vision and passion.

Maine’s quality of life is something to draw on when trying to attract and keep pro teams.

Petrovek said that was one of the key reasons he decided to keep the Pirates in Portland, after considering an attractive offer to move the franchise to Albany, N.Y. In a conversation with Darcy Regier, the general manager of the Pirates’ NHL affiliate in Buffalo, Regier told him that the decision was entirely with the Pirates, but that Petrovek should remember that Sabres prospects were very happy in Portland.

“It’s about us seeing players go to the National Hockey League,” said Petrovek. “There’s a lot to be said that a happy player is a player who develops best. So, where that player puts his head on the pillow at night and where he wakes up in the morning goes a long way toward that player developing as a successful major league athlete.”

The Pirates also have developed strong relationships in the community over 10 years that Petrovek didn’t want to break. And, finally, his family asked him why he would want to move from here.

“So this is the place for us to be,” he said. “And this is the place for us to be for a long time.”

 

Staff Writer Mike Lowe can be contacted at 791-6422 or at:

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