This article originally ran in the January 2017 issue of AVN. Click here to see the digital edition.
When is bad customer service a good thing? When it results in one of the most successful LGBT events the community has ever seen. It all began more than a decade ago when Eric Ryan—born and raised in Southern California and now a firefighter for 26 years—had a less-than-ideal encounter at a softball tournament.
“They had a lot of challenges that translated into bad customer service. I left that event thinking, ‘Wow, I could do better than this.’ The following week, I was traveling to Las Vegas to play in a poker tournament. Driving into town at night, I saw the glow of stadium lights coming from a sports complex in Las Vegas near the freeway. A lightbulb went off, and I jumped off the freeway, drove over to the fields and started looking around.”
Instead of playing in the poker tournament, he spent the next three days scouting out softball fields, making contacts with all the different city parks and recreation departments involved—as well as the Las Vegas tourist office. “After coming home and putting the pieces of information together, I thought, ‘This could work.’”
“This” turned into the Sin City Shootout, a yearly sports festival that began in January of 2007 and has become the largest annual LGBT sporting event in the world.
“I took the idea to my local LGBT softball association I was a part of and said, ‘Hey, let’s do this as a fundraiser for our league.’ And they said no way, it’s in another city—let alone another state—and it would take too much to do.”
The thing about Ryan that you need to understand? He never takes “no” as an answer to a problem in front of him.
“I kept moving forward and said I would do it myself. After about four months, I had the ball rolling and things in place to make it happen: fields, equipment, host hotel and promoting it to LGBT softball leagues was all in place. My local league then asked if they can still be a part of the event,” says the tournament director. “So now I run the event each year as a fundraiser for the Los Angeles LGBT softball association.”
The 10-year anniversary event will take place January 12-15, and counts GAYVN, the Los Angeles Dodgers and Toyota Financial Services among its sponsors. The event initially started as just an LGBT softball tournament.
“The first year, there was about 35 teams and almost double annually after that,” Ryan says. “Due to field availability, we had to cap the number of softball teams at 234, which makes it the largest LGBT softball event in the world. About year three of the softball tournament, I had friends who played in other LGBT sporting associations—wrestling, bodybuilding and tennis—tell me, ‘Wow, we wish our sport had the camaraderie that softball does.’”
That spurred another lightbulb in Ryan’s head.
“Why don’t we do a tournament of their sports alongside softball? That got the ball rolling, where each year we grew organically with the demand for other sports wanting to be a part of the event. With all of our combined buying power and number of attendees, we were able to get better hotel rates, better deals on venues and overall make it a better event.”
The 2017 event will showcase 25 different sports with an estimated 8,500 participants—from basketball, soccer, swimming and volleyball to arm wrestling, darts, diving and power lifting. Ryan says that the athletes, fans, family and friends come from across North America. The Shootout has more than 43 major metropolitan cities represented, along with many smaller-market cities. Canada is also represented, with hundreds of athletes from Vancouver, Montreal, Toronto and Calgary.
“We truly have very little sponsorship. My desire is to make it the best event I can for the athlete, with what they want for a fun weekend forefront in my mind. We are lucky that the city itself offers hundreds of fun and exciting things to do within steps of any venue we host events at. This, along with our buying power, affords us the ability to offer official parties and events that are no cost to the athletes, and luckily we don’t have to depend on big sponsorships to do this,” Ryan says. “Of course I would love to have large sponsors and their support not only for the monetary benefit to the event, but our attendees are also a huge market that spends money and has the disposable income to turn into a customer for those sponsors.”
Ryan says that the city itself is what has helped make the event a success: “The glitz and glamour, an abundance of hotel rooms, lots of venues to host our nightly parties in and the space to have all of our sports within just 15 to 20 minutes from each other.”
Ryan has a core group of about six to eight people that meet year-round to plan the overall event. Each sport also has a coordinator in charge of all the aspects their sport encompasses—not to mention all the help each sport then has under its individual umbrella (“as we spread out and add more sports, the volunteer base grows”).
“One of the ways I put this together is I mentally walk through the event in my head starting from home. ‘Where do I stay? Event host hotel, check! How do I get there and get around? Group rates for cars/travel, check! When packing my suitcase, what do I need for each night? Nightly parties, check! How do I get there? Event shuttles, check! I just run down each day and what our athletes will be doing or want to do. That includes building relationships with the shows in Las Vegas and offering great prices to our attendees.”
Events this year include the Official Saturday Night Party at Piranha Nightclub, and the Official Closing Party on Sunday at Rain Nightclub.
“Every year from year one, I have a moment where all the stress and planning of an event of this scale is an emotional release. Once the Friday night opening registration party starts, I kind of find an area where I can stand back and see the entire venue and have a little emotional release of tears—that ‘Phew! It’s started and we are off to the races!’ feeling,” Ryan says. “I really take it to heart that these thousands upon thousands of athletes have paid lots of money to travel here to take place and participate in something that I—little ol’ me, Eric Ryan—said was going to happen. So if any part of their weekend isn’t a good experience for them, it really hits me hard.”
Like it did the very first year, when Ryan forgot a key ingredient.
“I had never planned a softball tournament, so year one I had everything I needed—fields, umpires, balls and a hotel for everyone to stay in. Well, oops … I didn’t think about water, food or Gatorade at the fields. I didn’t have any type of concessions! This was a big learning experience, and actually each year I think we have everything covered and there is always something that comes up that we didn’t think about or changed from previous years.”
With the bases now covered, Ryan looks to hit another grand slam.