Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Going, going, gone After 11-year run, NAIA softball championship leaves Decatur

It lasted longer than The Doors, LeBron James’ career as a Cleveland Cavalier and “The Cosby Show.”

But after 11 straight years, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics Softball Championships is leaving Decatur for the Gulf Coast.

Earlier this month, officials announced that Gulf Shores, in association with the Alabama Gulf Coast Sports Commission and the University of Mobile, would host the 2011 and 2012 softball championships.

For Gulf Shores, the tournament means an economic boost to an area facing hardship in overcoming the oil spill and attracting tourists.

“Hosting an event such as this will allow Gulf Shores to demonstrate our city’s spirit and showcase our beautiful beach community to the rest of the nation,” said Grant Brown, Gulf Shores Director of Recreation and Cultural Affairs.

For Decatur, the tournament’s departure is a loss of more than $1 million.

According to Decatur-Morgan County Convention and Visitors Bureau President Tami Reist, the 2009 NAIA Softball Championships generated an economic impact of $1.1 million and filled 1,965 hotel rooms.

What lured the championship away from Decatur? It could be the beaches, a new softball complex or the desire to give a new city a try.

“With the number of quality bids that came in this year, we felt confident that a change in venue and atmosphere would enhance the student-athlete’s experience,” NAIA Manager of Championship Sports Dennis Green said.

The NAIA left Decatur before but returned after two years. After Decatur hosted the 1996 and 1997 tournaments, the softball championship traveled to Tulsa, Okla., and Palm Beach County, Fla., before returning to the city for 11 straight years.

“We’ll try to get them back. I don’t believe they will ever go anywhere where the public service will be as good as we have here,” Parks and Recreation Director Jeff Dunlap said.

Of the 30 previous national championships, the Wilson Morgan Softball Complex hosted the event 13 times.

“We certainly are not turning our backs on Decatur, and we know they still have interest in hosting this great event in the years to come,” Green said.

Although Decatur lost the long-standing tournament, other city facilities are attracting new tournaments.

Last year, the NAIA named the Jack Allen Soccer Complex as the host for the 2009, 2010 and 2011 women’s soccer national championships. And last month, the Alabama High School Athletic Association designated the Jimmy Johns Tennis Center as a tennis championship site for the next three years.

Dunlap said running state-of-the-art facilities and providing top-notch public service were the keys to attracting and retaining tournaments.

At the Wilson Morgan complex, with no more room to expand, officials have focused on the quality of the fields.

“We’re pretty much land-locked and have done everything we can with the area so we are at the point of maintaining the fields to make sure they are good enough. And they have been good enough to host the NAIA tournament for 11 years,” Dunlap said.

For the 2011 and 2012 NAIA softball tournament, the 25-year-old Wilson Morgan complex competed against the one-year-old Gulf Shores complex.

Since opening last year, the Gulf Shores softball complex, which features five diamonds, hosted the AHSAA softball regional and the United States Specialty Sports Association World Series.

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