GLBT Sports Economic Impact

February 1, 2012, Department, by Greg Place, Shawn Schmidt

A recent Chicago Metropolitan Sport Association survey offers new research insights into GLBT athletic participants and events.In the present economic times, parks and recreation departments are searching for sources of revenue. Interestingly, some communities have turned down revenue sources from a particular portion of society, a portion of society considered “recession-resistant” and willing to spend its money even in tough times. This portion of society is the gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgendered (GLBT) community, which continues to travel nationally and internationally to play in various sports tournaments, providing income to host communities. An example of this sort of community resistance occurred with the Gay Games hosted in Chicago in 2006.

The coordinators of the Gay Games were looking for a site to host their rowing competition. After the Games expressed its interest to the park board of a Chicago suburb, several concerns were raised by park board and community members. These concerns included having the “flamboyancy” often displayed in gay pride parades coming to their community, not wanting to be drawn into a cultural debate, allowing the Gay Games to use their community as a “vehicle to demonstrate their cause” or to push a social agenda, and allowing possible HIV-positive athletes into their community.

Gay residents of this community expressed concerns that if the park board would not allow a gay sporting event in their community, how long would it be before gay residents themselves were no longer welcome in the community? In stark contrast, a number of gay and straight community members (including many young people) viewed the event as a way to enhance their quality of life. The park board initially rejected the proposal as some disputed whether the sexual orientation of the Games drove the negative response. A week later the decision was reversed with a 3-2 vote of approval, recognizing the proposal was well-organized and met the criteria.  

The issue seems to hinge on the true motivation of GLBT individuals to participate in sport leagues and tournaments. The concerns of the residents are unsupported, and some would say insensitive, if the GLBT participants are driven by the same reasons (sporting experience, social interaction, etc.) as non-GLBT individuals. However, if participation is driven by a chance to push a social agenda or find a mutually attracted partner, residents’ concerns may have relative merit. Surveying GLBT individuals on their motivation for participating and the satisfaction they receive from playing in sports leagues and tournaments can yield answers to the controversy. 

The Chicago Metropolitan Sport Association (CMSA) is the largest GLBT sport association in the country, with more than 3,500 members and featuring sport leagues in badminton, bowling, dodgeball, flag football, kickball, soccer, softball, tennis, and volleyball. Many of the sport leagues will also host tournaments bringing in travelers from across the country to compete against other GLBT teams. In addition to Chicago, tournaments occur all over North America, providing various communities with income from such sources as field/court rentals, car rentals, and hotel accommodations. For example, the North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance (softball) lists more than 30 communities that host GLBT softball tournaments from Tampa to San Diego to Vancouver. Similar sites list communities that host tournaments for flag football, bowling, tennis, and other sports.

So why do GLBT individuals play in these leagues and tournaments? To provide some insight into the reasons, a survey of CMSA members was conducted and questions were asked of participants of a softball tournament hosted in Chicago. Many of those surveyed had previous experiences in sports, their last sporting experience prior to CMSA being in college intramurals (33 percent), high school sports (28 percent), or grade school (13 percent). Since the majority of the participants were in their thirties (42 percent), one may also ask why they had not participated in sport leagues since early in life, including why they may not have participated in opportunities provided by municipal parks and recreation. As we look at what motivates members of the Chicago GLBT community and what satisfaction they receive, we can perhaps come to some assumptions. The reason may not revolve around “not feeling welcomed” as much as “wanting to be a part” of a community which we know is common to many of our community members.

The motivating factors that drive CMSA members to participate in this sport league can be grouped into four categories: to develop intellectually (learning/exploring), build relationships (social), develop skills (competency/mastery), and/or to relieve stress (stimulus avoidance). The category that represents the most motivation to join was the area of skill development. Approximately 89 percent of the respondents agreed or strongly agreed with the factors dealing with competency/mastery. In this category, the three highest factors of motivation were “to be active” (98 percent), “to keep in shape physically (91 percent), and “to use my physical abilities” (91 percent). Second to skill development was the motivations for social connections (75 percent of respondents). In this category, the three highest factors of motivation were “to build friendships with others” (98 percent), “to interact with others” (98 percent), and “to meet new and different people” (96 percent).

Furthermore, 77 percent indicated they were motivated by a desire to become more involved in the GLBT community. In addition to being motivated by a means to develop their skills and to connect socially, approximately 39 percent were motivated out of a desire to learn and explore (try new things). For example, 59 percent were motivated by the desire “to discover new things,” 50 percent by the desire “to expand my knowledge” and 47 percent by the desire “to learn about myself.” The last motivational category represented action created from a need for stimulus avoidance or stress relief (28 percent of participants). For example, 72 percent were motivated by the desire “to relieve stress and tension,” 52 percent by the desire “to relax mentally,” and 34 percent by the desire “to relax physically.” Residents concerned about “lewd” behavior from the GLBT athletes can take note of the fact that only 10 percent indicated being motivated by the desire to find someone “to date.” This by far represents one of the lowest reasons members are driven to participate.

Local parks and recreation event programmers can also assume the motivation and satisfaction responses of those surveyed are consistent with most of those participating in our communities. Satisfactions indicated by these GLBT members included finding the activities interesting (99 percent), social interaction (98 percent), making friends (98 percent), enjoyment (98 percent), sense of accomplishment (96 percent), and building relationships (96 percent), just to name a few. If you consider that approximately 41 percent of these 3,500 members travel to other communities to play in GLBT sports tournaments, one can see there is a large market nationwide of GLBT individuals traveling for sports. So what can communities, especially those budgets in the red, do to tap into the influx of spending from GLBT athletic events?

First and foremost, an emphasis on fair treatment and sensitivity should be present in all discussions about hosting GLBT athletic events. The clichéd “Golden Rule” may be a valuable guide for those feeling immediate misgivings, and the aforementioned survey results acts as the factual backing for that mindset. Regardless, diving into the social controversy is a course of action few local communities are interested in. Instead, the merits of the event should be judged just like any other, and in today’s strapped economy, that discussion will hinge on the economic impact of the event.

If the facilities are available and the event proposal is sound, park and recreation program officials can do their community a great economic service by hosting GLBT events. In fact, competition for tournament and event agreements should lead administrators to proactively reach out to organizations like the CMSA or NAGAA and bid on events. Considering the negative response the Gay Games, CMSA, and GLBT athletics have received in other communities, a welcoming bid would be mutually beneficial to both parties and may indirectly help bridge the social injustice. Either way, the economic impact and participants’ satisfaction form a win-win situation for park and recreation program officials.

Greg Place, Ph.D., is Assistant Professor of Recreation and Leisure Studies, Shepherd University. Shawn Schmidt, CPRP, is Managing Director, Red Tape Agents, LLC.