As the 2020 Summer Olympics’ fate in Tokyo remains an uncertainty amid fears of the coronavirus, a local multisports gathering just wrapped up its 15th edition.
The annual Missouri Winter Games, held over a three-week span in Springfield from late February to mid-March, drew hundreds of athletes of all ages and skill levels to compete in sporting competitions. This year’s lineup was volleyball, gymnastics, racquetball, swimming, trap shooting and pickleball.
It’s the brainchild of founder Jeff Collins, who formed 501(c)(3) nonprofit Missouri Winter Games Inc. to run the event, which began in 2006. The sporting festival was born out of his lifelong love of sports, including years of competing in football, basketball, wrestling and karate.
“I was wanting to do something where we could use sports to try and teach character,” he says, adding honor, integrity, respect and perseverance are stressed. “I’m a huge believer that if taught right, sports is one of the greatest teachers in life.”
The event averages 2,000 athletes each year, reaching a peak of 3,000 in 2012, he says. Average attendance runs between 5,000-5,500. Gold medal-winning U.S. Olympians – gymnasts Nastia Liukin, Shawn Johnson and Jordyn Wieber, wrestler Rulon Gardner and soccer player Mia Hamm – are among the notables to make appearances.
More than half a dozen venues host the sports, including swimming at Drury University’s Breech Pool, gymnastics at the Springfield Expo Center and racquetball at Missouri State University’s Plaster Sports Complex.
The event originally was going to be named the Show-Me State Winter Games, after Collins approached officials with the Columbia-based Olympic-style sports festival in 2005. The Show-Me State Games officials were initially on board, he says, but the deal fell apart. He cites the reason as bad blood between the University of Missouri-Columbia, which hosts the Show-Me State Games, and Missouri State University. MSU was in the midst of its name change from Southwest Missouri State University – a move he says ruffled feathers at MU.
“It was a blessing in disguise. I went ahead and stepped out on my own and made it the Missouri Winter Games, which gave me free will to do what I wanted,” he says, adding that freedom allowed him to reach out to former Olympians.
Collins connected early on with Lori Endicott-Vandersnick, a two-time Summer Olympics participant in the 1990s. She helped lead the U.S. to a bronze medal in volleyball in 1992 and now works for the Springfield Greene-County Park Board as the Community Sports Development Program director and head volleyball coach.
“I’ve known Jeff since 2005, and he’s always had his heart in the right place for providing opportunities for kids,” Endicott-Vandersnick says, adding she served on the nonprofit’s board of directors for its first three years. “From the inception, I thought it was a great idea.”
Collins leaned on Endicott-Vandersnick’s volleyball knowledge, enlisting her in an advisory role to help set up tournaments. She says the event draws athletes from outside Springfield, which boosts economic development as they play, eat and stay in town.
“It’s great for growing our sports,” she says. “It’s important to continue to bring events like that into Springfield.”
Tracy Kimberlin, president and CEO of the Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau, agrees.
The CVB and Springfield Sports Commission have sponsored the event in past years, dating back to 2006. Declining to disclose the sponsorship investment, Kimberlin says the family-oriented event has an eye on the overall development of athletes as opposed to just athletic ability. Participants come from throughout Missouri, Arkansas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Texas.
“It happens at a very slow time of the year for hotels,” Kimberlin says of the late February and early March events. “Any business that time of year for hotels is very beneficial.”
Hotel room bookings are in the hundreds every year, Collins says, noting 2009 was around 800.
University Plaza Hotel & Convention Center is the primary host hotel, and it’s been a sponsor since the start. With sponsorships typically in the $2,500-$5,000 range, other sponsors have included CoxHealth and Great Southern Bancorp Inc. (Nasdaq: GSBC).
As Missouri Winter Games’ sole full-time employee, Collins acknowledges he needs to invest more energy into the nonprofit to grow the event.
The events regularly bring in annual revenue around $100,000. The nonprofit’s most recent annual IRS Form 990 in 2018 shows revenue of $103,918.
Roughly 85% of revenue comes from registrations, with participant fees ranging from $40 for swimming and around $100 for gymnastics. Boosting the registrants is a challenge, he says, with so many other events competing for people’s time.
Collins has a lofty goal of 5,000 athletes by the event’s 20th anniversary in 2025, and he also plans to expand sponsorships, including a first-time major title sponsor.
“It’s basically maxing these sports out, is what it would mean,” he says of more than doubling the athlete count. “Everything has to come together as far as venues and availability. It’s going to take a lot of hard work to get to that. But I’m pretty good at reaching goals.”
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