Getting State Games back in shape
If you've ever participated in, or heard of, the State Games of Oregon, you might have the same question.
"A lot of people go, 'Oh, are they still around?'" Dan Duffy says.
Says Kerry Duffy: "Yes, we're still around. But without a six-figure marketing budget, how do we get the word out?"
The Portland Tribune is a good starting point.
The State Games of Oregon, which began in 1986 and enjoyed its heyday in the 1990s, is alive and kicking. Its vital signs are a little shaky, though, and the Duffys are hoping to pump some life back into an event to which they have tendered heart and soul.
Dan Duffy, 57, is executive director of the Oregon Amateur Sports Foundation, which runs the State Games of Oregon. He took over in 2001 for Kerry, his sister, when she moved up to take over as president and became CEO when Ron Allen retired.
Kerry, 48, served as a volunteer for the State Games of Oregon as a high-schooler in its first year of existence. The mother of Kerry and Dan, Boots Duffy, was on the original Oregon Governor's Council on Health, Sports and Fitness, which created the OASF, which spawned the State Games.
"I was 'volun-told' to help out," Kerry jokes.
Oregon is one of 31 full-time members of the National Congress of State Games. There are four other "developing" states. Washington had a State Games for a few years, but it didn't last.
New York was the first state to hold a State Games in 1976.
In the early '80s, former Oregon Gov. Victor Atiyeh founded the governor's council.
"He was the visionary who understood the value of keeping kids involved in sports and off the streets," Kerry says. "It gives them self-esteem and teaches them sportsmanship and teamwork."
Atiyeh's successor, Neil Goldschmidt, decided not to continue the council.
"So the volunteers who served on the council decided to form a nonprofit organization, the Oregon Amateur Sports Foundation. That's how (the State Games) came about," Kerry says.
The idea isn't about competition as much as participation.
"The way we look at it," Dan says, "if you have a body, you're an athlete. We try to provide a friendly, competitive environment so everyone can enjoy the sport.
"We've had a 2-year-old female skater and a 101-year-old female swimmer. We had an 84-year-old woman in an assisted living facility who walked every morning. She did the 200-meter dash with her walker. She got the biggest applause when she crossed the finish line."
Most of the competition is broken into age groups, with men's, women's and youth divisions. Over 32 years, nearly 200,000 people have participated. The athletes come primarily from the Portland area but also from throughout Oregon and Southwest Washington. Oregon also staged a Winter Games from 1989-93 and 1997-2004.
In its inaugural year, 1986, the State Games featured 12 sports and 4,000 male and female athletes, mostly children. Soon thereafter, adults began to join the party.
"It started out as kids, and then the parents started thinking, 'We can do this, too,'" Kerry says. "We've had three generations compete in our track and field meets. We love that. The State Games are not just for kids. They're not just for Masters. It's about all age groups competing alongside one another."
Through the years, the State Games of Oregon has had some familiar names participate, including Sen. Ron Wyden. As a youth, future NBA star Damon Stoudamire played basketball.
"(Trail Blazers) Pat Connaughton and Shabazz Napier both competed in the State Games of Massachusetts when they were kids," Dan says.
The State Games of Oregon has used a variety of venues through the years, including Delta Park, Tualatin Hills Park & Recreation, the Multnomah Athletic Club and Mt. Hood Community College.
"Most of the events are held in the tricounty metropolitan area, but we've held some down south, too," Dan says. "We've had table tennis in Springfield and judo in Grants Pass.
"Every participant gets a T-shirt. Win, lose or draw, you'll walk away from the State Games with something. We have people out there who have T-shirts from every year since we started."
The peak came in the mid-'90s, when the games had more than 15,000 participants in 36 sports.
During that era, there was plenty of corporate sponsorship. That was integral, along with a lengthy list of volunteers who facilitated operation of each of the sports.
When the recession hit in the late 2000s, the State Games suffered.
"We lost Nike, Fred Meyer and Gatorade as major sponsors," Dan says.
And gradually, participation rates dropped. In 2016, about 8,500 athletes competed. In 2017, the figure fell to about 5,000 in only 10 sports.
"We lost bowling," Kerry says. "For a number of years, we had more people competing in bowling than other states had competitors in all sports. One of the challenges we're running into is, now there's a soccer or basketball tournament nearly every weekend. It's harder to get people's attention."
The State Games has had a more difficult time attracting volunteer commissioners for each of the sports, too.
"We're only as good as the volunteers running the events for us," Kerry says. "We rely heavily on them. If there's no one to carry the torch for a particular sport, we're in trouble. We dropped tennis because we didn't have anybody to run it."
After the recession hit and sponsors began to withdraw, "we were struggling just to keep the doors open," Kerry says. The only salaried employees with the State Games are the Duffys, "and there were months when we weren't paid. We were just holding on."
The State Games now survive off a weekly Bingo game in Northeast Portland.
"We run 15 hours a week and are on pace to make $150,000 this year," Kerry says. "That will allow us to get by."
But the 2018 State Games will go on. The main portion will be held on July 14 and 15. The Duffys are planning to expand to 15 sports. A core group of 45 to 50 sports commissioners are helping run the event, with nearly 500 other volunteers assisting with the staging.
The Duffys have enlisted the help of Tom Fullmer as a marketing consultant to help promote the event and attract sponsorship. "With just a two-person office," Kerry says, "we need help getting the word out."
"The population is more diverse now," Fullmer says. "We have an influx of primarily young people, and they don't know anything about the State Games.
"One of the things we're looking for is more volunteer sports commissioners to coordinate the games. The venues have been pretty steady, but there are expenses. If we can get a venue to become a partner pro bono to offset expenses, that would help dramatically. And there's no reason why we can't expand more outside the metro area."
Entry fees are generally $20 to $30 per individual, and more for teams.
"We're looking for sponsors or donors who can provide for individuals who may not be able to pay even a $20 fee," Fullmer says. "We're also looking for opportunities for a business to, say, write a check for $5,000. That would allow hundreds of individuals, especially those in underserved communities, to gain free registration to their favorite sport. We want the State Games to be all about the everyday person."
The State Games website has been revitalized (stategamesor.org). The Duffys will be drawing on a stronger social media presence in the future. They've also had discussions with NBC Sports Northwest about providing cable TV coverage of the events.
"We're trying to re-ignite our brand," Kerry says. "We'd like to bring sports back. We want to bring back opening ceremonies, which we haven't had for seven or eight years. And we'd love to do closing ceremonies, too.
"We're in conversation in partnering with Oregon Olympians and having an event — perhaps at closing ceremonies — where they could sign autographs and meet with State Games participants."