“Sports Commission a Bold Vision ‘About Mind, Body'”
by Chris Elsberry
May 31, 2014
BRIDGEPORT — It was a bold vision.
Cast the lure of enticement into the deep, deep waters of the collegiate and professional sports world and see who bites.
Born in 2001, the Coastal Fairfield County Convention and Visitors Bureau wanted to increase the economic impact of sporting events in the region by coordinating event bids, hosting and marketing those events and working to raise the stature of the area by highlighting the potential of the market.
To do that, it created the Coastal Fairfield County Sports Commission, which, in its infancy, worked with Sacred Heart University to host and promote a Northeast Conference women’s basketball tournament and a NEC women’s lacrosse tournament; worked with Fairfield University to host and promote a Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference softball tournament; and succeeded in bringing the United States Intercollegiate Lacrosse Association all-star game to SHU’s Campus Field.
The dreams were vast. The possibilities were endless.
And then, everything changed.
Today, the Fairfield County Sports Commission is in its second decade of existence, but the original dream of helping to land and market all types of sports events has long since died. Just three years after its birth, the Coastal Fairfield County Convention and Visitors Bureau closed, a victim of the state’s shutdown of funding.
But instead of vanishing along with CFCCVB, the Coastal Fairfield County Sports Commission morphed into the Fairfield County Sports Commission and created a new mission plan that today has it locked into 15 towns throughout the county, thanks to an annual “Sports Person of the Year” Award as well as a “Sports Night” dinner that not only celebrates those honorees but also honors professional, amateur and community service sports figures from Fairfield County in a Hall of Fame.
In addition, the Commission works closely with the Cardinal Shehan Center in Bridgeport, the George Washington Carver
Center in Norwalk and the Stamford Youth Foundation to educate youth about physical fitness and nutrition as a means to achieving healthier lifestyles along with creating and developing programs to promote physical fitness and cultivate character, citizenship and personal development.
“Our mission is to promote a healthy lifestyle and to promote personal development through sports,” said commission chairman Harry Peden. “People sometimes think it’s just about sports but it’s about mind, body, the whole thing.
“I feel strongly that we’re living in a world now where technology … the whole pendulum has swung over that way. Technology’s great but back when we were kids, we used to run around our neighborhood all day. It was a safe place and that’s what we did. These kids today, they’re on their cell phones or they’re playing their video games, and we have to try and get things back to equal access for all through living healthy lifestyles.”
To that end, in 2010, the commission created the Chelsea Cohen Fitness Academy housed at the Carver Center. The academy honors the memory of the former Norwalk High girls’ soccer star who passed away from cancer in 2006 at age 17 and became the commission’s first “Courage Award” winner. The goal was to make the academy a central point for a county-wide effort to promote awareness and educational focus for the underserved youth in the area to have a more active and healthy lifestyle, along with offering youth the ability to work and learn from trainers and coaches and participate in various wellness programs.
“Wellness and nutrition, these are important skills that kids need to learn because they need to make healthy choices,” said Novelette Peterkin, executive director of the Carver Center. “To hear kids say, `Is this healthy?’ It brings a smile to my face because that means that they’re paying attention to what we’re telling them and they’re executing. It’s beautiful to hear because if they’re not taught, they’re not going to do it. The work that is doing is really important because you’re giving kids knowledge that they’ll use for years to come and you’re changing their habits from bad to good.”
A new vision
When the state suddenly stopped funding the Convention and Visitors Bureau and, subsequently, the Costal Fairfield County Sports Commission, the members of the board quickly came to a crossroads.
“There were like five or six of us who were kind of like the last people standing as the boat was sinking,” said Bob Mazzone, who was a member of the sports commission board from 2005-10 and is now the CEO for the Connecticut Challenge bike race. “And we looked at each other and we said that we had two choice — we could walk away or, because we had all kind of hankered for something more meaningful out of this sports commission than just filling hotel rooms, why don’t we reorganize the sports commission as its own entity as a 501c(3) basis?”
So that’s what they did. Mazzone, Tom Chiappetta, Brian O’Gara, Paul Butcher, Jackie Tepper and Scott Seymour started the process of changing the face of the sports commission.
“We all had an interest in doing things through athletics,” Mazzone said. “It wasn’t always about just kids but that’s what it came down to. That was the genesis as it stands today; it was born out of five or six people’s heads and it was done for all the right reasons.”
“Once we decided to do (the non-profit route), things started to happen and fall into place,” said Chiappetta, now the sports commission’s executive director. “Jackie Tepper (who’s a lawyer) really helped me to put together the massive amounts of paperwork that needed to be done in order to file to become a 501c(3) to the IRS. She played an important role in shaping the by-laws of the organization, which we really haven’t changed since the beginning. When we finally heard back from the government and got the approval, it was almost a two-year period.”
After getting government approval, the commission had to start thinking of ways to make money to fund its ideas and goals. That answer was figured out one night at Chiappetta’s dining room table.
“We created the concept of what we wanted the Sports Night dinner to be with input from some other people,” Chiappetta
said. “When we mapped that out, (the Hall of Fame) was a fairly simple process, but the Sports Night was going to be the key. We had to figure out how we were going to raise some money and that was the logical initial money maker for us.”
Finding the funds
Chiappetta is the commission’s only paid employee, making a modest salary. All the other money generated by the commission goes toward its health and wellness programs at the various centers, such as Bridgeport’s Shehan Center and Norwalk’s Carver Center.
“We’ve had a strong relationship with the commission because they support programs here,” Peterkin said. “Most recently they supported a fitness program where we brought in a nutritionist to talk to the school students. Every year (Tom) runs a jamboree kind of event for campers and it’s usually located in one of the cities where they have strong relations, so it’s been held in Norwalk and Bridgeport and Stamford. It’s an opportunity for the campers to have a wonderful day doing activities and having access to some local sports figures from the region.”
And that close relationship with regional athletes comes mainly from the success of the “Sports Night” dinner, which will host its 10th annual event this October at the Greenwich Hyatt. Last year, more than 400 people came to the event to see the 15 “Sports Persons” of the Year be honored, as well as James Blake and Mark Hirschbeck enter the Jackie Robinson Professional Wing, Earl Lavery and Donald Cook go into the J. Walter Kennedy Community Service Wing, and Dennis Paglialunga and Allyson Rioux join the James O’Rourke Amateur Wing.
In all, 57 individuals have been inducted into the commission’s Hall of Fame since 2005, including Julius Boros, Wes Matthews, Joan Joyce, Walter Luckett, Chris Drury, Dave Bike, Bruce Webster, Charlie Bentley, Tom Penders and Vito Montelli. And based on the success of that, the commission created a UConn Hall of Fame Wing in 2007 to honor the individuals — 24 so far — from the region who went on to have outstanding athletic careers at the University of Connecticut.
And many of those athletes have answered the call to help the commission, especially current SHU athletic director Bobby Valentine and former U.S. women’s soccer star Kristine Lilly.
Depending on attendance, the Sports Night can make anywhere from $15,000 to $40,000 for the commission. There is also a commission-run golf tournament and a celebrity breakfast that has featured former UConn football coaches Randy Edsall and Paul Pasqualoni and former New York Mets second baseman Tim Teufel.
“We do a number of fundraising events now,” Chiappetta said. “We’d love to make more money from (Sports Night), but we certainly couldn’t continue to do what we’ve been doing (donation-wise) just from Sports Night.
“I’m comfortable saying that our organization runs as good an event at any level and the feedback we get from our sponsors ¦ the people we honor, that’s what really keeps us going. We have given out a lot of money. In our eyes, it’s over $50,000 to the direct beneficiaries like the Carver Center, the Shehan Center and the Stamford Youth Foundation, plus the first year we gave out $1,000 to 15 different youth organizations in 15 different towns.”
Additional financial support comes from donations from such companies as People’s Bank, ESPN, the Forever Young (former Greenwich resident and San Francisco 49ers quarterback Steve Young) Foundation, along with Stamford Hospital. The commission also applies for state and national grants.
What they don’t have is a “major” corporate sponsor.
“When we first started, we had Emcor from Norwalk. The first two years, they were kind of our main sponsor,” Chiappetta said. “They had given us the seed money to get this going in lieu of the CVB losing all their (state) money and we’ve never been able to kind of replace them. We get a little bit from a lot of people and a lot of people have been with us for a long time and you lose some along the way because they have other causes, but we’ve been fortunate that we get a lot of $2,500s, $1,000s, $5,000s (donations).”
As an example of how the commission has grown at times, forms filed with the Internal Revenue Service indicated that it received $86,639 in contributions, grants and other revenue in 2009. In 2010, that figure jumped to $111,440.
Another huge benefactor, albeit not financially, is the UConn-Stamford branch. Not only is the sports commission’s Hall of Fame housed there, the university also provides an office free of change for Chiappetta and on several occasions has allowed the use of a conference room for various commission meetings.
“If it wasn’t for UConn-Stamford, I don’t know where we would be,” Chiappetta said. “If we had to pay for that ¦ that would be a big number.”
Fruits of labors
In 2006, when the NCAA Women’s East Regional came to Bridgeport, the commission worked with the city and Fairfield University to create a day-long “Sports Fest” in a two-block area from the People’s bank building to the concourse at Webster Bank Arena. Over 4,000 people came to the open practices that day as well as taking part in such events as a rock-climbing wall, interactive games and autograph sessions.
Since, there have been five other such events outside the Arena, designed to help promote the downtown area and provide a fun-filled atmosphere.
“With everything that we try to do, we try to do it in a class way and I think we’ve done that,” Chiappetta said. “We’re one of
the leaders in the county in bringing like minds together. And I use Sports Fest as an example. It’s very difficult to get a lot of people on the same page in most towns, but in Bridgeport? Very, very difficult. And to see six or seven different groups involved in that Sports Fest ¦ we played the glue in that.”
Glue that was sorely needed, according to Fairfield University athletic director Gene Doris.
“One of the things that we wanted to do to differentiate ourselves was to create an atmosphere of it being a mini-Final Foul,
so to speak,” Doris said. “And (the commission) did a great job of bringing people to downtown Bridgeport and to let people see Bridgeport as a place to go and have fun for a day, rather than just go to the game and go home.”
Slowly but surely, the commission has found its niche and continues to grow and prosper, perhaps somewhat to the surprise of its executive director.
“Amazingly, we’re still here,” Chiappetta said. “Which I think says a great deal about our organization and the people that are involved and the community really supporting us.”