Certain activities are closely associated with Asheville: sampling local craft brews, tubing down the French Broad River, eating one’s own weight in barbecue. If Demp Bradford, president of the Asheville Buncombe Regional Sports Commission, has his way, professional sports will become quintessentially Asheville, too.
Bradford, a native of the North Carolina Piedmont, became interested in sports management through an internship at the N.C. High School Athletic Association during his senior year at UNC Chapel Hill. After 25 years working in various sports management roles, he joined the Asheville Buncombe Regional Sports Commission five years ago. The commission works closely with the Explore Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau, which manages the county’s occupancy tax on behalf of the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority.
Bradford spoke with Xpress about the relationship between sporting events and tourism in Asheville, the city’s newish LGBTQ sports league and who he’ll be rooting for during the Summer Olympics.
This interview has been condensed for length and lightly edited for clarity.
What does the Asheville Buncombe Regional Sports Commission do, exactly?
The sports commission was created in 2011 to service the Southern Conference basketball tournament. The tournament was here for an extended period of time; it left, and the leaders of Asheville wanted it back. The sports commission was created to head up the local organizing committee, sell sponsorships, sell tickets, work with the arena, do the signage. From there, other events began to be recruited, and the staff expanded.
What originally brought you to Asheville?
I was in Greensboro for 16 years in three capacities, one of them the vice president of the Greensboro Sports Commission. When the opportunity came at the Asheville Buncombe Regional Sports Commission, I thought Asheville had a lot of potential.
What do you mean by that — “Asheville had a lot of potential?”
It’s a place people want to come to. With any sports, you have to have somewhere people want to go. I remember trying to sell in Greensboro sometimes and saying, “OK, we don’t have a beach. We don’t have a mountain. What are we going to sell?” A lot of times, it was the facilities. In Asheville, we’re selling a great opportunity to come to a beautiful community.
We are in a great location with Interstate 40 and Interstate 26 kind of intersecting here, within five hours of a lot of places. So we’re easily drivable. Our airport has grown incredibly, and it’s very easy for people to get in and out. Our Harrah’s Cherokee Center – Asheville is a good venue. We also have a good venue at UNC Asheville. We have soccer fields, baseball fields. Do we have everything we need? No. If I could have an aquatic center tomorrow, a natatorium — that’s the biggest thing Asheville needs. But that hasn’t happened.
What impact do sporting events have on the local economy?
Let’s look at a small event — we just had a lacrosse tournament. Families are going to come into town, stay in the hotels, eat, need gas; they’re probably going to go to a grocery store, and they’re hopefully going to the Asheville Outlets. So they’re spending. The lacrosse tournament had an event value calculation, over two weeks, of over $3 million dollars for our local economy. Tourism creates a constant cash flow into our economy.
We also look for exposure events. We were able to host the Maui Invitational [basketball tournament] here as a relocation. We’ve had two Fed Cups [tennis tournaments] here. We had Serena and Venus Williams here during the 2018 Fed Cup. We’ve got a lot of notoriety in the past couple of years with what we’re hosting. And the Southern Conference is on ESPN, so people see it. It’s one of the first tickets punched for the NCAA tournament.
Which sport brings in the most visitors?
Soccer, and maybe baseball and softball, are our biggest draws. The other thing we are known for is basketball. When you look at what sports does, it fills some critical times where we don’t have guests in town. The Southern Conference is the first weekend in March. A restaurant may not be open or have limited hours during that time. But when you have a basketball event in town, then all of a sudden your hotels are able to have higher occupancy and restaurants are fuller and open longer.
We have a very successful gymnastics tournament called The Gala. It is a great event for the first full weekend of January because things have slowed down after New Year’s. We don’t get a lot of snow here in Asheville, and that allows us to recruit events for winter. Bringing events to town, especially in January, February and March, really helps our community in a time when it’s a little bit slower.
How many local sporting events do you attend every week? And do you play any sports yourself?
It fluctuates. On average, I’m probably at two sporting events a week. But when we have events, the schedule is kind of crazy.
In fall 2019, we helped establish a chapter of the Stonewall Sports League here in town. It’s a national organization that focuses on providing safe spaces for the LGBTQ community and their allies — so you don’t have to be a member of the LGBTQ community — to go out and play sports. It’s fun to get out, meet different people and sometimes get the frustrations out by kicking a kickball. It’s the game I played in elementary school every day for physical education.
What Summer Olympic sport are you most excited to watch?
Swimming will be my main focus during the Olympics. And this is the Summer Olympics, so there won’t be any figure skating, but I was involved with bringing the U.S. Figure Skating Championships to Greensboro. It’s become one of those sports that I really like to watch. So Nathan Chen, who is an Olympian now, was 10 years old skating in a cowboy outfit in 2010 in Spokane, Wash. — he’s the first time I ever saw someone participate in figure skating. When the Winter Olympics come up, that’ll be the one. It’s interesting to watch people grow up and become Olympians. You never know who’s going to be getting that gold medal later in life!