Sports association opening office, training facility

Local sports tourism will get a boost after the world’s largest multi-sport association for amateur sports opens its state headquarters south of Clifty Creek Park this summer.

The United States Specialty Sports Association will be operating its Indiana office from a 6,500-square-foot suite near South Marr Road and South Gladstone Avenue.

Effective June 1, four full-time employees will be working in the offices at 1542 Southpark Court, sharing the building with Matlock Plumbing.

The Columbus Board of Zoning Appeals this week approved a request to allow the offices in an industrial-zoned area, but with a condition that no outdoor sports activities be held in that area.

The organization’s arrival in Columbus also will bring something new for softball and baseball players — an indoor training facility for cold-weather months.

Permanent establishment of the state USSSA office was largely the work of local resident Tim Foster, who has been with the organization for 23 years and serves as a five-state regional director.

Communities such as Evansville and Westfield were also trying to land the state headquarters, Foster said.

Big tournaments coming

Foster’s organization already brings 17 amateur sports events to Columbus each year.The next one will be a men’s major conference tournament, which Foster describes as “the pro league of slow-pitch softball,” scheduled for May 13 and 14.

As a whole, these events have produced millions of dollars in direct visitor spending, said Eric Marvin, director of sports tourism for the Columbus Area Visitors Center.

And the impact is growing.

A state fast-pitch softball tournament that brought about 220 teams to Columbus last summer has had 270 teams signed up to play in the same event in June.

“It’s blowing my mind how much it’s grown,” Foster said.

Due to limited playing facilities, the USSSA plans to expand the tournament to two weekends beginning in 2018, he said.

In late July, at least 172 girls teams will arrive in Columbus to play in the Great Lakes National Tournament, which takes place over four nights and five days, Foster said.

When the event was conducted last July, it was the only weekend of 2016 when all local hotels were at 100 percent occupancy, Marvin said.

In written statements to the BZA, Marvin and Lophries said Foster’s desire to stay in his hometown is based on community loyalty, as well as the strong relationships he’s established with operators of private and public recreational facilities.

But Foster said there’s more to it than that.

He recalls a national survey released 17 years ago stating that 97 percent of girls involved in high school sports are less likely to demonstrate risky behavior, Foster said.

“Being a new dad at the time to a (baby) girl, I said right then and there that I’m coming back to Columbus to make a difference,” Foster said.

Indoor facility

When it opens in September, the indoor training facility at the site will include two or three indoor batting cages, Foster said.Currently, many athletes are forced to pay high rates and travel to Bloomington or Indianapolis for private or small-group lessons at indoor facilities during cold-weather months, national USSSA vice president Jami Lophries said.

While similar facilities in larger communities usually charge athletes about $35 an hour per lane, Foster said he plans to charge $27 to $30 an hour.

Since college teams are playing at the same time that local high school athletes are competing, having an indoor facility open during the winter will allow college coaches to see local athletes work out, which opens new avenues for scholarships, Lophries said.

Besides batting cages, the training facility also will be set up as an physical workout and educational facility, playing host to coaching clinics taught by professionals such as college coaches, he said.

When construction is finished, the training facility will be open weekdays from 3 to 10 p.m. and from 9 a.m to 8 p.m. weekends, primarily from November through February, Foster said.

About USSSA

Founded in 1968, USSSA originally stood for United States Slow-pitch Softball Association.

However, the Florida-based nonprofit organization rebranded itself to United States Specialty Sports Association after expanding into other sports in 1998.

The sports governing body oversees 13 sports across the U.S., Puerto Rico, various military bases around the world, and Canada. It has a membership of more than 3.7 million.

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Mark Webber is a reporter for The Republic. He can be reached at mwebber@therepublic.com or 812-379-5636.