Last September, when the chance popped up to host the 2017 Athletic Coast Conference Baseball Championships, Louisville acted quickly to snag the tournament — which runs Tuesday through Sunday this week at Slugger Field.
Normally, of course, such events are planned years in advance, with plenty of presentations and wooing and cooing. Then contracts must be negotiated between all parties, which may take years.
Not this time. The ACC decided to cancel all its league events in North Carolina after the state legislature passed a law barring transgender people from bathrooms that do not align with the gender on their birth certificates — a law viewed as discriminatory by many, including the ACC and the NCAA. (The same legislature also passed a law that a federal appeals court has since struck down as obviously aimed at voter suppression of minorities; the Supreme Court has since declined to hear the case.)
The chance to claim a tournament was there — but speed was of the essence.
“We saw that the ACC was pulling out of all events in North Carolina, and we knew that the baseball tournament was at the Triple A ballpark in Durham,” says Gary Ulmer, president of the Louisville Bats. “Our International League schedule had already been set for the season, but, just by luck, we were scheduled out of town that week — so Slugger Field would be available.”
Ulmer checked over the ACC’s RFP list of requirements and reached out to familiar partners to try to land the event.
“Gary divided the list so the items at the top of the page were things the Bats could do — all the baseball things,” recalls Karl Schmitt, president of the Louisville Sports Commission. “He wanted help with the other items — hotels and hospitality, a fan fest and some courtesy cars — the kind of things the Sports Commission and the Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau do all the time. We talked with the CVB, and everybody was in. We can get this thing done.”
The University of Louisville was in, too. Louisville is a member of the ACC and always interested in hosting league and NCAA events. Plus the school fields a hot baseball team that has ended up the No. 1 seed in the ACC Baseball Championship. UofL is ranked No. 2 nationally, with a 46-9 record. The Cardinals first game is Thursday against Notre Dame at 7 p.m.
“The University made an introduction to the ACC folks, and really, we were able within a matter of days to have a handshake agreement with the ACC,” says Ulmer.
The Bats president thinks the ACC particularly liked the venue: Louisville Slugger Field opened in 2000, and remains one of the top-rated parks in minor league baseball.
Ulmer knew the ACC, which traditionally keeps its championships close to the league’s North Carolina and Eastern Seaboard heartland, had made significant investment in improvements to the Durham Bulls Athletic Park to accommodate large numbers of media and multiple teams. “It was apparent that if the ACC was going to leave a quality city and quality Triple A ballpark, they wanted to find some place that would be equal to, or even better, than Durham,” says Ulmer.
The league had done exactly that when it plucked its famous basketball tournament from North Carolina and located it this past March in the dazzling new Barclays Center in Brooklyn.
“I think we quickly became the ACC’s first choice (for the baseball tourney),” says Ulmer. “They heard from a lot of people. I don’t know if they heard from any other Triple-A ballparks. I got on the phone with a lady named Kris Pierce, a senior associate commissioner of the ACC. She came to town within a couple of days and we had a handshake deal in about an hour. They’ve been great to work with.”
‘The marriage of sports and entertainment’
Other pieces fell into place quickly.
The Louisville Slugger Museum will host tournament-related events. A visit to the bat museum is a natural fit for baseball fans coming to the city. A chance to learn more about the national pastime and see a master wood turner shape “the bat with the hits in it.” With the help of the conference, the museum has created an ACC baseball history exhibit. Then on Friday, Saturday and Sunday, the Slugger Museum will station its traveling exhibit at Fan Fest in the Hall of Fame commons area at the ballpark.
These days, a visitor can’t walk down a street in Louisville without being invited to a bourbon tasting. Evan Williams and Jim Beam have created unique exhibit locations downtown, with visitors welcomed at distilleries and watering holes along the Urban Bourbon Trail.
Cleo Battle, vice president of the Louisville Convention and Visitors Bureau, says bats and bourbon are exactly the kinds of things that help Louisville in the chase for conventions, events and tourists. And bourbon will play a role in the ACC visitors’ experience.
“I know folks here might get a little tired of hearing about bourbon, but when you get outside of Louisville, it’s certainly something people think about,” says Battle. “The bourbon story is authentic here, and that’s what visitors look for. When we travel we want an authentic experience. What’s unique? What can I do in your city that I can’t do somewhere else. The one thing we know, whether it’s bourbon, or the Muhammad Ali experience, or Churchill Downs, or the Louisville Slugger Museum — you can’t get those things in other places. It’s completely authentic to Louisville.”
In the past decade, LCVB’s tourist count has risen from 12 million visitors a year to 16 million. The bureau’s current fiscal year ends in July, so the most recent convention and event count is from 2015-16, when there were 617 conventions and events staged in Louisville. Including just plain tourists, the town’s total take comes in at $3.3 billion.
So the city is doing pretty well bringing visitors to town.
If the city is doing well bringing visitors to town, one reason is that it’s being “sold” by full-time sales staffs, who seem to work well together.
The Louisville Sports Commission’s Karl Schmitt, whose résumé includes communications work with the University of Miami, University of Louisville, Churchill Downs and the Ryder Cup, believes Louisville benefits from a long track record of producing major sports events well.
“I like saying this, and no one has ever really challenged me on it,” says Schmitt. “We have more experience than any city in America at the marriage of sports and entertainment. That’s because of the Kentucky Derby. When you look at the magnitude of the Derby, the way our police, our emergency services, our safety people handle that and the hospitality side, it’s very impressive. And it also comes down to the average Louisville citizen. People in this town who are highly inconvenienced by the Derby, for the most part, will recognize you as a visitor from out of town and say, ‘Hey, we’re glad you’re here. Hope you have a great time.’ As opposed to, ‘Man, you’re killing me over here because I can’t drive around with all these closed streets.’”
“You know, we embrace it, it’s in our fabric to be hospitable for big events,” Schmitt adds. “There’s no question about it, because I was there when it happened: The Kentucky Derby brought us the Breeders’ Cup. The Breeders’ Cup brought us the PGA Championship and the Ryder Cup. It’s incredibly important when other rights holders see the Mens’ NCAA Basketball Regional, no problem. Women’s Division I Volleyball, no problem. Ironman, we close the streets and swim Ironmen through the river, no problem.”
A pretty nice promo, Karl.
“Well, I don’t mean this to be a commercial for the CVB, but we just rolled out our National Tourism Ambassadors program,” says Battle, describing a voluntary program that trains Louisvillians to know more about their town. “A taxicab driver, a bellman, a server at a restaurant — so that when a visitor has a question, you have the information, or know how to find the information for them. Our goal is to train hundreds of new ambassadors every year.
“With all the development we have going on in Louisville, and very specifically in our sector — the attractions, the convention center being built, the new hotels — we want to create as many ambassadors as possible as we begin a new chapter when these facilities open up.”
ACC has top-notch teams — including UofL
But back to baseball.
No one is offering any guesses about how many visitors will be attracted to the city for the ACC Baseball Championships. Schmitt says the families of the college players are the most likely to travel to the tourney, and the University of Louisville certainly has many of its own fans.
Louisville Bats season ticket holders were able to purchase their regular seats at Slugger Field in advance of the tournament. For the public, a seat for all games of the tourney is $125 in the lower deck, $140 at club level. For single sessions, seats are $12 and $15. Other packages are available, including all weekend games $50 to $60 per seat. Day sessions include games at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., evening session games are at 7 p.m. The league championship is at noon on Sunday and will be telecast (ESPN2).
Attendance aside, all agree on the desirability of hosting an event like the ACC Baseball Championship. It’s high visibility. College sports are popular with a high-dollar demographic and are well-covered by national media.
Plus, the ACC teams are top-notch. Five are ranked in the top-25 and are likely invitees to the NCAA Tournament and College World Series. And the rosters of many of the clubs are dotted with likely professional baseball draft choices.
UofL’s Brendan McKay was named the ACC player of the year. He hit .331, with 14 home runs and 47 RBI. He also pitched his way to an 8-3 record, with a 2.22 ERA and 116 strikeouts. Louisville shortstop Devin Hairston was named the ACC Defensive Player of the Year, with .990 fielding percentage.
Although Ulmer says the tourney likely will return to Durham, he likes this chance for the city nabbing other such events in the future.
“We’re hoping to showcase our community, especially with the Atlantic Coast Conference, that Louisville is a great place for events,” says Ulmer. “If the stadium is filled and there’s a game on national television, that’s certainly a great positive for the community.
Check out the ACC Baseball Championship bracket below: