Pan-Am Masters Games Give Cleveland Chance to Shine

By Marc Bona,

A celebration with thousands of athletes is coming up this month across a range of sports and places, with a global flair that puts its home venues on the map.

And we’re not talking about the Summer Olympics in Paris.

It’s the Pan-American Masters Games, an international multi-sport event that rotates throughout the world for athletes ages 30 and older. They are scheduled to take place at venues throughout Northeast Ohio July 12, to July 21.

Organizers have been working for seven years to bring the games to Cleveland. And as challenging as it can be to stage any large-scale sports event, the coronavirus pandemic threw logistical stop-and-start concerns into the process.

But the folks at the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission are confident the city will shine – not only in its role as host but also in the marketing spotlight that will be cast when the athletes arrive to compete in more than two dozen sports.

At the core of the organizational effort to draw the games is Rachel Stentz-Baugher, senior vice president, community and corporate engagement for the sports commission, and executive director of the Pan-American Masters Games.

The games are expected to attract 4,000 athletes from 70-plus countries and 48 states. That global convergence “does give us a good opportunity to share our message that Cleveland is a really fun place to be,” she said. “We have a lot of world-class amenities with a smaller city feel.”

She said David Gilbert, executive director of the sports commission, was the genesis in landing the games. Gilbert has been at the forefront of every major rotating sports event that has come to Cleveland in recent years. Through contacts that connected Gilbert and the Pan American Masters Games’ governing body, the seeds were planted back in 2017.

A bid-site visit followed, anticipation built, and the games were awarded – to Rio de Janeiro for 2020.

“But as we all know, it was a blessing in disguise,” Stentz-Baugher said, “because that event never happened.”

The pandemic halted the event. In 2022, Cleveland officials received word about hosting in 2024.

“It just took a long time to coordinate, mainly because the pandemic put a wrench into everything. The world stopped, as we all recall,” she said.

Here’s how it works: Typically, Stentz-Baugher said, the International Masters Games Association hosts an event annually, a rotation around the globe. One year, it’s Pan-American – so the games are held in North, South or Central America, although athletes from all over can compete. Then the following year it moves to Asia. Then on to Europe, and finally it’s the world games.

“So they rotate three regional games with the world games,” she said. “That whole schedule got messed up with the pandemic.”

But now the pandemic dust has settled. The limelight is clear. And Cleveland is waiting for its closeup.

“We love doing the thing that’s hard. We love to do things here that other cities don’t want to do or don’t have the infrastructure to do. … We’ve really made a name for ourselves with the multi-sport events,” Stentz-Baugher said.

The Pan-American Masters Games has never been held in the United States. In 2016, the host-city Vancouver hosted about 6,000 athletes.

But Cleveland’s resume has been filled with major events, from the Republican National Convention in 2016 to subsequent large-scale events – Major League Baseball and NBA All-Star Games, the NFL Draft and others. But it doesn’t stop there.

Other global events held in Cleveland include the International Children’s Games (2004), Senior Games (2013), Gay Games (2014) and Transplant Games (2016).

 “There’s a history there to this multi-sport concept,” she said. “These events are super difficult to host. It’s a lot of different sites, you need a lot of staff, a lot of coordination between operations and medical and hospitality and all the things that it takes to run an event like this. This event, though, is different because it’s international competition. It’s a really big deal for us, especially post-pandemic.”

Just as important as the medals won by athletes is the widespread visibility that the city gains.

“It puts Cleveland on the international map. We want to be known as a city that is open for international travel and international business and international leisure,” Stentz-Baugher said.

About 60 to 65 percent of the events will be in Cleveland, but all will take place within a 30-minute drive from downtown. The hub will be Huntington Convention Center of Cleveland, where half a dozen sports are scheduled to take place.

One of the venues participating is League Park and its accompanying Baseball Heritage Museum at Lexington Avenue and E. 66th Street. The park will be used for baseball, but the location also is considered an off-day activity site being promoted for visitors.

Museum director Ricardo Rodriguez said his staff is “just thrilled to be part” of the games.

“Obviously we’re excited to have the baseball component of the Pan-American Games at League Park and really excited to host. Even if a quarter or half of those athletes come into the museum, the opportunity to have a couple thousand international physical impressions is very important to us,” he said.

About 11 games are slated to be played at the historic park, which was home to Major- and Minor-League teams in Cleveland for more than 50 years. Cleveland’s 1920 team, which won the World Series, played there. The ballpark also was graced by Babe Ruth slamming several historic home runs.

“Getting some international action on Cleveland’s historic League Park is one of the biggest benefits that anyone can get,” said Rodriguez, who added the staff is “all hands on deck” because of the thousands of incoming athletes, friends and family.

“Getting access to international players to the park, letting them be part of the major bit of history sitting in the middle of Cleveland – that is part of our mission at the Baseball Heritage Museum, increased accessibility not only at League Park but the history that it involves. And having this influx of people come in with the Pan-American Games gives us a great opportunity to do that.”

It’s also a potential economic boon for the region.

Initially, the Pan-Am Masters Games were projected to boost the economy to the tune of about $18 million. Stentz-Baugher said that figure has been adjusted to about $15 million, since early visitor projections were downsized. Attendees initially were put between 6,000 to 9,000 athletes, but it looks to be closer to 4,000 now, she said.

The state of world economies and travel costs to the United States also affect the games. And competition bites into the entertainment-tourism-travel pie: The National Senior Games were held last summer in Pittsburgh. The Huntsman World Senior Games is held annually in Utah, Stentz-Baugher said.

“There’s a lot of competition in the U.S. for older athletes,” she said.

Competition on fields and courts isn’t the only one. Restaurants, attractions, rental cars and hotels all will stand to gain. Stentz-Baugher said her office has heard many incoming athletes are looking at the Airbnb route.

Area restaurants and attractions are participating in PAN-AM Perks. Athletes showing credentials can receive discounts.

“We’re hoping that (Summer Games) piques folks’ interest,” Stentz-Baugher said, while noting the Pan-Am Masters Games “are not necessarily for the most elite athletes.” Anyone over 30 can compete, you don’t have to qualify, and there’s no minimum performance standard.

“International competition? Yes,” she said. “Elite competition? Not necessarily.”

“We’re so excited for the 4,000 athletes who are coming. We are elated that they are from so many places around the world. And we are ready to roll out the red carpet and give them an excellent experience in Cleveland.”

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