Montgomery Business Journal

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MBJ Johnny Williams
November/December 2016
Photography by Robert Fouts

Johnny Williams is the new executive director of the Central Alabama Sports Commission and is the executive director of the Raycom Media Camellia Bowl. He was recently interviewed by the Montgomery Business Journal’s David Zaslawsky.

Montgomery Business Journal: What is your role as the executive director of the Central Alabama Sports Commission? Williams: I am representing a foundation called the Central Alabama Sports Commission that was formed here seven or eight years ago. It was established to bring together the entities in the River Region – the five cities including Montgomery, which is the major player of the venues – to be very proactive in recruiting sporting events to this area. They (sports commission) were actually the ones that recruited the Camellia Bowl.

Talk about that connection. Dr. Ken Blankenship was the first contact we had that there was interest here in Montgomery as a possible venue for a national event. We actually had the Raycom college football All-Star Classic in 2012. Our goal is to actively add to what the CVB (Convention & Visitor Bureau) and Parks and Recreation have been doing. They recruit every day and put on events and try to bring things to Montgomery. As I look at my job and the scope of what we’re trying to do, it's to enhance (our events) by hopefully looking for more Camellia Bowl-kind of projects. We want some larger events, and that’s what I’m focused on currently. We are fairly happy with all the events we have now. What we found with the Camellia Bowl is that there can be a very significant economic impact with events that come here.

What type of larger events are you looking to attract? Collegiate championships? Championships at the NCAA level and the NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) level. National championships of various sports or amateur sports, whether it’s boxing, major collegiate basketball to football games. At some point we would like to start a preseason (college football) game – kind of a kickoff classic – maybe on Labor Day weekend like a lot of the bowls are doing now.

Are you talking about teams from the Mid-American Conference or Sun Belt Conference? Any teams that we can find.

A major kickoff classic?  Exactly. That is something we’re definitely exploring. I’ve been in communication with the NCAA and they have 36 different championships they put on in three different levels – Division I, Division II, Division III. There are a lot of opportunities there and people are very familiar that we hosted the Division II baseball national championships for over 20 years here in Montgomery at Paterson Field. There are some national events that we are going to aggressively go after in the future. We are looking at our facilities. We have large enough venues in a lot of areas and we are restricted in some areas.

Does Paterson Field need some work? There are multiple phases and phase one has already been completed.

What happens in the second phase? It is mainly to do with the press box.

What about the first phase? New seating. They took off the overhang, new facial, new painting.

What is the stadium capacity? Over 7,000. It is more than suitable whether it’s Sun Belt, Conference USA, baseball tournaments.

Considering your relationship with ESPN and the success of the Camellia Bowl, does that help you compete for a preseason college football game because you are a known commodity? ESPN was very supportive when they were approached by the mayor about possibly reaching out to me. ESPN viewed it as a home run on their behalf because we already had the structure in place with the Camellia Bowl. We’re putting on an event that has over 20,000 people. We have a system in place to put on a major event so we could easily take the footprint of that (Camellia Bowl) for other large events. We already have a structure in place for volunteers; our signage people; concession people; parking people. If you look around the country, the sports commission and I knew three other cities close to us – the sports commission and the bowl game are one in the same: The Gator Bowl, the Music City Bowl in Nashville and the Orange Bowl.

You’re saying the two – sports commission and bowl game – complement each other.  They do. The sports commission office is here (in this building) next to mine. They have been here for over two years in this office.

I read where you are bringing your staff at Creative Marketing Management to the sports commission. How many employees is that and what impact will they have on the commission? We doubled the staff, so there will be a total of five (full-time) and then we have a lot of part-time people. We can add another 10 to 12 people for events. The great thing that we have here is, Parks and Recreation has been so good at what they have done. They are partners with the bowl. When the ESPN people come to town they rave about the support the city provides for our bowl game. It is very uncommon. They (ESPN officials) are still amazed at how the city, the Chamber and the county all work together. They told me many times that it is very unusual and we should be very proud.

During your announcement as Central Alabama Sports Commission executive director you were quoted as saying: “Our geographic location lends itself to really be a player in the college footprint.” Please elaborate. You have not only the Sun Belt that we’re all familiar with because of the Camellia Bowl, but you have the SWAC (Southwestern Athletic Conference), of which Alabama State is a member, and I’ve visited with the athletic director about them possibly bringing events. You have Conference USA, which stretches from the Carolinas to Texas. I have already visited with them and they are very interested in looking at Montgomery as a place for championships. And then you have the SEC (Southeastern Conference). Birmingham, Alabama, is their home. Their office is the geographic center and we’re 80 miles away. I can visualize in years to come that we would be very interested in golf, cross country, soccer, tennis.

How do you sell Montgomery to collegiate conferences? The thing that I’ve been using is the success of the Camellia Bowl. The success of the Blue-Gray tennis that we’ve had for all these years. It’s legendary – especially in the collegiate ranks. The Robert Trent Jones Golf Trail. The LPGA tournament has been here. Then there are the facilities here with the hotels and the accessibility of things being so close together, especially downtown, where you have the entertainment (district) and convention center. There are so many positives. ESPN has so many bowl games and works with so many people and when they make the comment, ‘This is the best place we do business because everybody is together.’ I think our people and the support of our events is not hard to get in and meet with people who take a hard look at Montgomery. I’ve found that the two months or so I’ve been on the job.

If everything broke your way, would the earliest collegiate championship event be during the 2017-2018 athletic year? Probably 2017-2018. They’re (championship events) scheduled two to three years out. The NCAA pulled all of its championships out of North Carolina and we’re trying to see if any of them fit. That’s just a rarity that we have, but we are aggressively looking at some opportunities.

You have an extensive background in college athletics as a coach and athletic director. What is the impact on recruiting collegiate athletic events? When I was athletic director we would do 150 to 170 athletic events annually and some of them with the magnitude of 100,000 people and some just 100 people.

You are well respected and have the connections in addition to selling Montgomery to collegiate conferences. Plus your success with the Camellia Bowl. After the first game of the Camellia Bowl some comments came back to me: ‘This may have been one of the best first events we ever had,’ some of the people at ESPN said. It wasn’t my first event.

Central Alabama Sports Commission Chairman Karl Stegall talked about your enthusiasm as an asset. How does your enthusiasm translate into more athletic events in Montgomery? We’re all dealing every day with issues. The way you handle those will make a difference in how the situation ends up.

Not all 60-year-olds have your level of enthusiasm. I’ve only been 60 for a few days.

Your enthusiasm truly is contagious and I’m sure that it helps close deals. It makes people feel comfortable. You build a relationship with them. It needs to be fun because life is so short. I try to have fun in everything I do. When I go visiting people I don’t want it structured. I try to just be myself. When I graduated from high school I was voted the wittiest person.

What high school? Holt High School in Tuscaloosa. In my senior class, I was voted wittiest in a class of 275 kids. It all carried into my life and into my work and it’s paid off. It’s helped me in everything I do, whether it’s (as a) football coach and going out and recruiting players or interfacing with parents or trying to raise money at Troy.

Instead of recruiting players you are now recruiting conference officials. Yes. You try to connect with people.

How would you characterize your conversations with the conference officials? Is there genuine interest in bringing collegiate athletic events to Montgomery? Yes, they are serious. We’ve already had a couple of conferences reach out to us and send us what they are going to have up for bid in the next few years.

It sounds like Montgomery is becoming a player for more college events. We are. We’ve already reached out to those leagues. They’ve watched this Camellia Bowl grow and be so supported by the local community. If you’re the commissioner of a league that’s looking for somewhere to put one of your major sports like a football championship or baseball championship – you want it to be supported in a neutral site. The major events usually go to neutral sites and that’s the kind of events we want to attract. It’s going to take the involvement of local corporate partners and our local fans that enjoy certain sports.

Montgomery Mayor Todd Strange has said that the sports commission is “not where we want it to be.” Was he referring to increasing the number of collegiate events? We have nine of the 13 championships for high schools. We have high schools and youth leagues. We have tremendous softball events, baseball, soccer. We’re a regional player in venues for the amateur player. But collegiately we really haven’t been (a regional player). The Camellia Bowl was our first big effort in that area, but there are a lot of other opportunities.

What does a successful year look like – a couple of collegiate championship events in 2017-2018? Absolutely. As we look at events, we’re working closely with ESPN Events. They are partnering with us. They’re helping us understand some things that are out there that they might be interested to televise it or own it. We’re an ESPN office. It’s a very unique situation which we have that’s good for us. 

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