Derby Field

After 150 Kentucky Derbys, Louisville Knows Sports

Sports provide normalcy in an abnormal time

I remember asking my mom how she and my four oldest siblings coped during World War II with rationing, uncertainty in the war effort and my father away serving in the Navy. She said, “We learned to make do.”

Louisville’s hospitality and travel and tourism industries have been forced to “make do” during the pandemic while operating in fits and starts for much of 2020 due to COVID-19. And while many sports activities also have been affected, our segment of the industry has been fortunate to fill a critical void and provide a sense of normalcy in an abnormal time.

Sporting events are happening – locally and nationally – at the youth level and in high schools, colleges and the pros. Athletes, coaches, trainers, officials, administrators and spectators are making extensive adjustments to what was once routine and regular, in order to adhere to government and industry mandates and recommendations.

The Louisville Sports Commission is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization that promotes active lifestyles and enhances economic vitality by attracting, creating and hosting quality sporting events in the community. This month marks the conclusion of our 20th anniversary year, and while the way we are conducting business today is not what our founders had envisioned, Louisville does have a few wins to celebrate.

To “make do,” our team worked in partnership with Louisville Tourism and numerous local and national sports organizations to develop plans for how our community could continue to host sporting events in a safe and responsible manner. We found receptive partners at state government who were willing to have productive dialogue. While the answers were not always to our liking, the sports community and health experts ultimately came to compromises with event protocols for numerous sports activities that would keep people safe while not impacting the legitimacy of the competition.

Competitive sporting events take place only when athletes can train and practice on a regular basis. To help speed up the reopening of training facilities, LSC facilitated information-sharing and discourse between and among numerous stakeholders. These efforts helped reopen pools, basketball, baseball and volleyball training centers and other locations for competitive teams and eventually hastened the use of facilities for recreational and active lifestyle purposes for the general public.

Since mid-September, we have collaborated with event organizers to successfully host four regional- and national-draw events: the TCS Hockey Derby City Cup; USA BMX Derby City Nationals; Falls City Fest-I-Ville soccer tournament; and Live in Lou Cross Country Classic, the only regional collegiate and high school cross country meet held in the U.S. and the only meet to allow fans to attend.

Each of these events looked and felt a little different than they normally would, but the spirit and determination of the athletes did not waver, and the celebration of sports participation and achievement was perhaps even greater than any other time.

These events attracted nearly 8,000 athletes and spectators from more than 40 states, booked 5,200 hotel room nights and generated $3.6 million in much-needed visitor spending in Louisville during the summer and fall.

Louisville has additional sporting victories to celebrate:

● Louisville City FC played its entire season from June to October without a single positive test among players or team management with nearly 5,000 fans per match in a carefully managed and socially distanced new stadium.

● The University of Louisville hosted nearly a full season of home football games and welcomed nine NCAA men’s basketball teams to the KFC Yum! Center and The Galt House for a bubble-like experience at the inaugural Wade Houston Tipoff Classic, and is planning on a full season of home games for women’s and men’s basketball.

● Bellarmine University recently opened its women’s and men’s basketball seasons in iconic Freedom Hall.

● Churchill Downs hosted Spring, September and Fall Meets, providing opportunities to work and play for individuals whose livelihood depend on Kentucky’s signature Thoroughbred industry. And the 146th Kentucky Derby, while run in September instead of May, continued our beloved tradition as the oldest, continuously held sporting event in America.

And there are numerous additional sporting events scheduled for the first half of 2021.

Sports provide a positive jolt to our physical and mental health, offer entertainment value and balance in the midst of so much uncertainty, and are an important boost to the economy. At this point in our history, sports are not a luxury, they are a lifeline. It’s imperative that we work together in 2021 to help curb the spread of the virus to be able to safely host sports.

So, each of us needs to “make do” by buying local to help area businesses and by following the recommended protocols to fight COVID-19. And if you’re an athlete, spectator, coach or parent of a young player, remember that these new procedures are just temporary inconveniences that are worth your time and attention so that the games can go on.

Let’s keep playing, Louisville.

— Karl F. Schmitt Jr. is president and CEO of the Louisville Sports Commission