In the last year, the Greater Columbus Sports & Events Council was honored as national Commission of the Year for its economic impact and home of Team USA Softball’s Complex of the Year. Two weeks ago, Executive Director Merri Sherman was awarded National Contributor for her leadership in the Sports Council’s annual hosting of the Georgia high-school softball championships.
Three qualities that make for great leadership? Hard work, passion for what you do, and “not asking someone to do what you’re not willing to do yourself, whether it’s picking up trash or scrubbing toilets.”
Is Columbus, Georgia a sports town? And if so, why?
“Absolutely. Columbus is a participating town. We see the kids and parents at all the Little Leagues, all the activities at all the different venues in Columbus. I think we are definitely a sports city.”
When you go out to recruit events and organizations to come here, how do you sell Columbus?
“We have great facilities.
We are fortunate to have South Commons Softball Complex with 8 fields and the 2,500-seat stadium.
We have the 11 fields at Woodruff Farm Soccer Complex, which has been great. It’s a one-stop shop for soccer; it’s not a bunch of individual soccer fields all across town. So it’s easier to host tournaments. It helps with recruitment for colleges, as a coach can park once and watch games all day at one facility instead of driving back and forth all day to different facilities. .
We’re fortunate to have the Civic Center, where we can host a multitude of sporting events. And the Trade Center — in the last several years, we’ve seen that space transition for sports with the American Grappling Federation. With boxing, with gymnastics, with dance.
Columbus State University has been a great partner in allowing us to use some of their facilities. That’s been great to help recruit future students to the university through some of the events we’ve been able to host on campus.”
How did hosting the softball competition during the ‘96 Olympics change sports events here?
“That is really where our organization got its start and its foundation.
Columbus, at that time, is when sports tourism was fairly new in the market. We’re very fortunate to have hosted the Olympics and been on that world stage at a very early age in sports tourism. Some cities are just now getting it and starting to build facilities that ultimately we compete with. Because we got our start back then on that high-level stage, we’ve been able to host and maintain clients since then.
We still have the Georgia High School Association state softball championships. We just hosted a couple of weeks ago 64 teams here for 3 days — $1.4 million economic impact to our city. That has been here since the complex was built.
Also, the National Fast-Pitch Coaches Association. We’ve hosted their events since before the Olympics.
We hosted the International Cup with Olympic teams in 2019. Japan, China — all those teams came back. Team USA won gold again here in Columbus. It was on ESPN. We hosted the NAIA softball world series back in May — ESPN coverage. The USA Softball Junior Olympic Cup this past summer — MLB Network was here covering games.
We do get a good bit of coverage for all these events that are coming in.”
What is the history of this organization?
“Columbus ‘96 is how the organization originally started .All that was in preparation for hosting the Olympics. After the Olympics, we changed the name to the Greater Columbus Sports & Events Council. We are a 501c3 nonprofit.”
Columbus voted yes for a SPLOST in the early ‘90s that helped bring the Olympics here.
“That’s right. That’s how we were able to bring softball here. And because of the recent Yes vote on a SPLOST, we will have improvements to some of our parks.”
Wasn’t there some resistance to funding for upgrades of the softball complex a few years back?
“Everyone we talked to was in favor of the upgrades. The city was a big partner as well as the private community in the effort to help revitalize the facility.
It was a great great complex — it had 8 fields, we had a lot of events — but we needed to modernize.
We needed fiber. WiFi wasn’t even a thing when the compex was originally built. That is a necessity now. When you talk about bringing in ESPN, they have to have fiber to be able to televise games. We started seeing that need for our state events as well.
And the need for upgraded amenities: restrooms, concession equipment, LED field lighting. We did field-lighting tests with Musco, who was the original installer, and the field lights were failing because of the number of foot candles required for safe play.
The scoreboards were so old we couldn’t get the light bulbs anymore to put in the scoreboard. There were no spare parts available anymore. That’s when we converted to LED scoreboards which, again, is a necessity for the level of play that we bring in.”
What’s the economic impact in Columbus of softball at South Commons?
“Traditionally, the South Commons Softball Complex alone contributes $8 million a year to our local economy through visitor spending.
It’s a really good opportunity when people are coming in from all over who may have no clue we have whitewater. Or we have the zip-line. The National Infantry Museum. Or, right at the complex’s back door, the National Civil War Naval Museum. The State Theater of Georgia, the Springer Opera House. People drive around town and they see that Shrek is playing. – the State Theater of Georgia. They see Shrek is playing. Lot of people are traveling closer to home.
There’s all these different opportunities to explore and learn and then come back and experience Columbus again.”
What has been the impact of COVID on your organization?
“COVID has hit us really hard.
We had a 50% budget reduction. Staff reduction. Some of our indoor events had to cancel early on. And some of our outdoor events. One of the big events that we lost was the Stand Beside Her Tour, bringing Team USA Softball back to our community. That event was supposed to happen in April 2020.
Some events went to other cities in the state that had fewer restrictions. That was hard.”
What is your long-term vision for your tenure with the Sports Council?
“I’ve been with the organization since 2004. We’ve done a lot of things to partner with the city. And one thing I’ve really looked at is how to be a benefit to the city through city initiatives like Columbus 2025. How do we put Columbus on the map? We’re doing that through these events. We’re recruiting talent here. Marketing through sports is essentially what we’re doing to bring people to the community.
One thing I would love to see eventually is with these train tracks behind us that are still in existence. Why not use them to have a trolley? Why not have a trolley coming right into your sports complex — South Commons, the Civic Center, Golden Park — and taking people right into Uptown?”
BONUS CONTENT: Hit play to hear full-length audio of Editor Frank Etheridge’s interview with Merri Sherman. 11.9.2021
Hometown: “My dad was in the Air Force and we moved here when I was 3. So it’s been home.”
Education: Shaw High School; Columbus State University, Bachelor’s degree in Marketing.
Best concert ever attended: Matchbox 20
Favorite local restaurant: “Country’s Barbecue. They are great stewards of this community. They do so much silently most probably have no clue about. They’re just good-hearted people and I love their food.”
Favorite all-time athlete: David Justice
Favorite sports team: Atlanta Braves
3 qualities that make a great leader: “1) Not ever saying that’s not your role or that’s not your job. Not asking someone to do something you’re not willing to do yourself, whether it’s picking up trash or scrubbing toilets. You step up to the plate and do those things yourself if need be. 2) Overall passion for what you’re doing. 3) Hard work.”
Reason for getting up and going every morning: “My children: son Dustin (14) and daughter Dylan (13).”