Merri Sherman understands that many Columbus residents likely have not heard of the Columbus Sports Council. Or if they have, they may not have much of a clue about what the nonprofit organization does. After all, by design, the council is more of a behind-the-scenes entity.
“Columbus citizens may not realize that the Sports Council is behind so many of the events that are coming here until they have to wait a little bit longer in the restaurants on those Friday and Saturday nights. ‘What are all of these soccer or tennis people (doing here)?’ And a lot of times they may not realize why the event’s here and how it gets here,” said Sherman, executive director of the organization that was launched in 1995 to prepare for the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympics.
Columbus was one of the satellite venues for the ’96 Games, hosting women’s fast-pitch softball at Historic Golden Park, with Team USA ultimately taking the gold medal with a 3-1 defeat of China in the championship game. South Commons, not far from Golden Park, was a practice facility that today serves as a competition hub for local, regional, club and collegiate softball players.
Sherman, who started at the council in 2004 as an event coordinator, is on a short list of executive directors that has included retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Carmen Cavezza, the late Janice Davis and the late college basketball coach Herbert Greene. Cavezza started the council, then went on to serve Columbus as the city manager and in so many other ways.
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Those are big shoes to fill for Sherman, 36, who comes from an Air Force family that moved to Columbus when she was a kid, arriving just over a decade before the Olympics, which she attended here and in Atlanta. She also was a devoted employee of Country’s Barbecue and its corporate office for eight years before graduating from Columbus State University and leaping aboard the council to learn the ropes under Davis.
Sherman hasn’t looked back much, becoming director about six months after Greene’s passing two years ago. Today, the council is very busy recruiting sports events to the city, be it softball, baseball, soccer, swimming, tennis, cheerleading or perhaps even competitive Frisbee events. In November, there will be a national boxing championship at the Columbus Convention and Trade Center.
It all adds up economically. The Columbus Sports Council is advised by its board of directors and has an annual budget of about $780,000, part of that from hotel-motel taxes, part of it from portions of ticket and parking fees at events. The payoff is drawing more than 52,000 participants to the city each year, generating an economic impact of nearly $18 million in the 2017 fiscal year ended June 30.
The Ledger-Enquirer visited with Sherman recently at her Golden Park office to talk about her job of leading the council with assistance from longtime staffer David Boyd and generous help from a devoted legion of volunteers. This interview is edited for length and clarity.
Q. What your thoughts on being with an organization with that Olympic heritage?
A. Columbus is very fortunate in that we hosted the Olympics and we were in sports tourism before sports tourism was popular. A lot of cities are just now catching on that sports is big business and it is an economic driver for cities. So we’re very fortunate that we have a list of events and clients who have been coming here for many years and experiencing our facilities long before some cities even realized sports was a big thing.
Q. It’s gotten more competitive and people elsewhere are seeing dollar signs?
A. That’s right. There are a lot of facilities that we compete with. The most recent that was announced was in DeKalb County (Ga.). They’re building a multipurpose facility up there. There’s some in the state and there are many examples across the country of brand new facilities that we compete with.
Q. The DeKalb County facilities will be geared toward softball?
A. It will be more soccer and lacrosse. There is a facility called Lakepoint up above Atlanta and they have diamonds, as well as multipurpose field spaces.
Q. How do you remain competitive against that rising competition?
A. There are a number of event organizers and different events. We’re very fortunate that we still have a lot of events going back to 20 years ago with the Georgia State High School Baseball Championships, the National Fastpitch Coaches Association. ASA Softball was just rebranded to USA Softball in preparation for softball being back in the Olympics. So we’re very fortunate to still have a lot of those same events and clients coming to Columbus. And it’s about relationships and how well Columbus receives those folks.
Q. How do you keep those relationships glued together and keep people wanting to do business with you?
A. I think it goes back to treating people the way you want to be treated. When we have those clients and visitors come in, it’s a family reunion every year. Our staff embraces them, and our volunteers. When you see those people once a year, Columbus (as a community) welcomes them in. We also attend several conferences a year where we meet with them and talk about what’s new, and just stay in communication with those groups.
Q. That helps you stand out in the big world of sports recruiting?
A. We are fortunate that we have a sports council for Columbus. A lot of cities are not as fortunate to have a specialized group to focus on sports. It may be their visitors bureau or it may be their chamber of commerce doing dual roles and trying to recruit sporting events. Whereas our Sports Council is designed to be a one-stop shop for the groups. If they need volunteers, if they need help managing the event, we can do everything from start to finish or specific to the client need.
Q. Is part of your mission to keep that Olympic flame burning a little bit? Is that part of the pitch you make?
A. You can see in some of the promotions that we do, we talk about South Commons, we talk about the Olympics. I think that just gives the organizers a sense of if Columbus can pull off the Olympics, then they can trust us with their event. As you can imagine, being an event organizer over hundreds of athletes, you want to make sure you know who you’re doing business with, and that the city can accommodate everything they say they can do.
Q. Did you attend the 1996 Summer Olympics here in Columbus?
A. I did. I went up to Atlanta as well and saw a lot of different sporting events up there, too. It was good times.
Q. When you got your degree from CSU, where did you think you would go for employment?
A. I figured I would probably be at TSYS or Aflac or one of those (Columbus) companies. That’s what came to mind as options as a student in marketing. The Sports Council really wasn’t on my radar. It actually came through Country’s Barbecue. I was working with them through high school and college and Jim Morpeth came to me one afternoon and said, ‘Hey, do you know anybody who would be good at marketing for us?’ Not thinking, I said I’ll think about that and let you know. I wasn’t thinking that he was asking me to do it.
So I ran their Midnight Express and did the sponsorships and event logistics and different things through Country’s. That introduced me to Janice Davis and the Sports Council, through the activities Country’s was doing at the time … And it was actually a professor of mine who was on the board of the Sports Council at the time who suggested that I apply for an event coordinator position. I was like, sure, why not.
But when I got the job, I was like, oh, my goodness, now I have to let Country’s go. And Country’s was my heart. They had been extremely good to me. They promoted me through the ranks through different management positions and gave me a ton of experience with everything you could think of with running a business. Things like customer service and just so many different aspects that really fall in line with what we do here at the Sports Council. Dealing with people is what it comes down to. So it was hard for me to say goodbye to them.
Q. When you got here, how did you focus on what you had to do?
A. My first week with the Sports Council, we hosted the Georgia High School State Softball Championships. Into Monday evening, I was putting my first program together. That was my first task. I can remember all of the rosters were coming to us via fax in those days, hand written. So we were retyping those rosters and making sure all of the pages were laid out. I was up until the wee hours of the morning and got it all done and came in the next morning so Janice could proof it to make sure we hadn’t made any mistakes. It went to the printer that afternoon and was in the hands of the fans Thursday morning. So it was a very quick turnaround to produce the program. Then there was setting up our hospitality area with our volunteers. We did that on Wednesday. The event started Thursday.
Q. What is the job like in a nutshell?
A. We have to be the ambassador for the city. We are the front line when teams show up and when the client gets here. So you have to have a good understanding of Columbus and where to send them to go eat if it’s 11 o’clock at night and their game just finished. We work closely with our visitors bureau for all of the accommodations for the groups. When there are hotels involved, they help us get the information on the rates and what hotels can do for the groups. And then there’s parks and recreation and the facilities being ready for these groups that come in. So we work very closely with them as well.
Q. So it’s plenty of juggling and coordination?
A. With multiple events at one time.
Q. That’s a lot of moving parts?
A. And being able to talk about the things going on in the community. If there’s an Uptown concert, our groups are going to want to go where the locals go. So it’s promoting what’s going on in the community to our groups that are coming in. It goes much further than just the sporting event coming here to create economic impact. It can be a recruitment tool for Columbus State University. It can be a recruitment tool for local industry.
We hosted and helped with the robotics competition the first year. To be able to bring those kids here to experience Columbus and see the workforce that’s here, who knows? Later down the road that may be a future employer for them. So it goes much deeper just the sports. It goes to promoting Columbus. When we hosted the (Frisbee) sports stacking competition, we had parents here for that event, but then they would call us or email us months later and ask us to tell them about that museum we were telling them about, and that they want to come for spring break. So the goal is to try to showcase Columbus and the things that are going on here to get folks to come back.
Q. You are a lean staff, so the volunteers are crucial. How many do you need?
A. It varies per event depending on what the need is for the organizer. It could be as many as 30 for an event and it can be as few as 10. For an event like Georgia High School State Softball, we’re looking for ticket takers, ticket sellers, program sellers, people to help us with the VIP gate, people to help us with the team entrance gate. Credentials have to be checked for those areas. So there are a lot of different roles that our volunteers help us with, and they are the superstars of Columbus. A lot of our volunteers have been with the sports council since the Olympics.
Q. That’s remarkable.
A. Exactly. If you remember the pin swapping during the Olympics, that was the big thing. So annually we do a pin with the year on it for our volunteers and they wear them. It’s like bragging rights to see who’s been around the longest for some of them. They are the go-to for our front line because a lot of times they’re getting questions: Where’s the closest grocery store. Where’s the closest place to get bottled water, to get ice, and different things that they may need. They help direct people.
Q. How challenging is your job getting everything together? Does it become difficult at times?
A. At times, but I think it’s the passion of our organization to make sure things go well. I keep a pad of paper and a pen next to my bed at night, because that’s when my brain turns on sometimes and goes, oh, you didn’t think about this. I’ve got one in my car, too, because we’re handling so many different things and you don’t want anything to fall through the cracks. So I think communication with our staff and the groups that we work with is the key to our success, and just staying on top of the different things.
Q. Does it become a little dizzying at times?
A. It does. Come the end of February through May, there’s a big event just about every weekend. It’s exhausting because it’s a lot of long hours, back-to-back weekends that we’re working, and that on top of all the details. (For example) It could be a banquet for the NAIA Swimming Championships. The seating arrangements are almost like a wedding trying to seat the teams together. And just making sure the numbers are all correct and everything’s entered correctly in the system for all of their different events that they’re swimming. It’s handling all of the tickets for the parents and getting them in (the events) in a timely and efficient manner. Making sure we have the security and athletic trainers in place. Program books. So it’s all of those things to think about when we’re planning. Meanwhile, you’ve got conferences to attend and deadlines for promotions we’re doing to try to spread the information about what we have to offer here in Columbus. It becomes a lot at times.
Q. Finally, what’s the most rewarding thing about your job?
A. The actual event, because we have kids that come to our events and you see their faces when they walk into South Commons for the first time, or they walk into the Aquatic Center for the first time, and their eyes light up and they’re excited to be there. It’s the championship. It’s that whole experience. So to be able to see that and all of the work you put in leading up that event, and you see the appreciation in the kids, I think that’s the most enjoyable thing about the job.
Hometown: Born at Maxwell Air Force Base in Montgomery, Ala.; her family moved to Columbus in 1985
Current residence: Lives in Harris County
Education: 1999 graduate of Shaw High School; earned a bachelor’s degree in marketing from Columbus State University in 2004
Previous jobs: Worked with Country’s Barbecue for eight years (through high school and college), starting as a cashier and server, followed by catering manager and working concessions at CSU before moving to the Country’s corporate office and handling marketing, its website and quality control
Family: Husband, Russell, and two children, son, Dustin, 10, and daughter, Dylan, 8
Leisure time: Spends time with her kids’ activities, which includes football, baseball and basketball for her son, and softball, tennis, horseback riding, cheerleading, dance, gymnastics and jiu jitsu for her daughter; she also volunteers at Cascade Church, her family’s place of worship