By Michael Tomberlin
“It wasn’t an easy decision but it was the best decision, really for our athletes, for our fans and, frankly, for our community,” World Games Birmingham CEO Nick Sellers told Alabama NewsCenter. “It was the right decision to make.”
It’s part of a cascading effect created by the COVID-19 global pandemic that forced a one-year delay of the Olympics.
The International Olympic Committee’s decision last week to move the Tokyo Olympic Games to July 2021 put the Olympics in direct competition with the World Games 2021 in Birmingham. That competition was not only for some of the same athletes and visitors, but also for important national and international television coverage.
“It was clear if we wanted to continue to have national and international television coverage, that we were going to have to move our games,” Sellers said. “One option was to move them up a little bit and one option was to move them into an open slot in 2022.”
A shorter window to be prepared for the games wasn’t appealing, Sellers said. The Birmingham World Games was in a period of securing national and international sponsors for the games next year when the coronavirus pandemic hit.
“With everything going on right now with this global pandemic, we’re at least 60 to 90 days out from having any meaningful conversations with potential sponsors,” he said. “And there is going to be an economic overhang – hopefully not for long – but there will be some overhang as we come out of this pandemic.”
So rather than rush into an earlier time slot in 2021, the move to 2022 made the most sense, Sellers said.
“We just felt like the smart thing to do, the appropriate thing to do to really make this a special time to reconnect for our community, for our country and for our world, was to move this into July of 2022,” he said.
Doing so allows the World Games to maintain NBC Sports, the Olympic Channel and International Sports Broadcasting Group to continue as television partners for the World Games.
The International World Games Association and Birmingham Organizing Committee agreed to postpone the 11th edition of the World Games. The Games had originally been planned to take place July 15-25 next year. It marks the first time the games are being held in the U.S. since the inaugural World Games in Los Angeles in 1981.
“A great deal of detailed work is now required to implement this decision, and further progress reports will be issued in due course,” said IWGA President José Perurena. “But I am impressed by the flexibility and efficiency of the Birmingham Organizing Committee: they have been able, in just two days after the IOC’s announcement, to get all the main organizational items in place.”
Sellers said the city of Birmingham, the state of Alabama and all area venues have agreed to the new dates.
“I can’t say enough good things about our partners in the community,” Sellers said. “All of our venue partners leaned into this moment with us and helped us find a date that worked.”
The delay means venues like the new $174 million Protective Stadium and a $123 million renovation of Birmingham-Jefferson Convention Complex Legacy Arena will now be available to host events.
“That’s certainly a positive,” Sellers said. “We would love to find a way to showcase those as part of our overall venue schedule.”
But that doesn’t mean Legion Field is being squeezed out as a venue.
“I made a firm commitment to the mayor and to the city that Legion Field will remain a key venue partner for us in 2022,” Sellers said. “So, while we will look for an opportunity to do something to showcase Protective Life Stadium and the new arena, and we hope to be able to do that, we will not leave our partners at Legion Field.”
IWGA CEO Joachim Gossow praised the Birmingham team for being able to make the move so quickly.
“I am very proud of the capable organizing team in Birmingham,” he said. “All organizational main pillars such as venues and accommodation are in place for 2022, and we are able to have exactly the same sports program as we had planned for 2021. We look forward to working together with the chairman Jonathan Porter, his CEO Nick Sellers and their team to organize the best possible Games for our athletes.”
Birmingham Mayor Randall Woodfin said the delay doesn’t diminish what the city has planned for its moment in the international sports spotlight.
“The date of the event has changed, but Birmingham’s commitment to a world-class event has not wavered,” Woodfin said. “I want to thank the IWGA and the World Games 2021 Birmingham for their work in making a timely decision. As the city of Birmingham addresses the current pandemic, be assured that we remain focused on the city’s future and making this the best edition of the World Games ever.”
The Jefferson County Commission issued a statement in support of the move.
“The whole world is hurting now and we must all pause and refocus our efforts in order to rid the world of COVID-19. We stand with each of you and very much look forward to the World Games in 2022,” the commissioners’ statement said.
Porter, chairman of the Birmingham Organizing Committee board of directors, said enthusiasm for the event will remain high in the Magic City.
“We are supremely confident in this shift and believe that the circumstances will further increase the significance of the World Games across our state, region, and country,” he said. “We are just as excited now as we were when we were scheduled for 2021, and we hope the Birmingham community and the world will share that enthusiasm with us. The World Games Birmingham is going to be a once-in-a-lifetime event. A new date on the calendar isn’t going to change that.”
Corporations already on board in support of the World Games in Birmingham include Alabama Power, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Alabama, Protective Life, Regions Bank Shipt, Medical Properties Trust and ICON Health.
While the officials had felt confident about the status of the Games less than 500 days from the original date, now having almost an extra year is not a bad thing for planning and organizing.
“More time is a good thing right now for so many reasons,” Sellers said. “All of these potential sponsors and existing sponsors and partners are focused right now on their businesses, their employees, their individual families, as they should be. As we all are.”
This current absence from sports and personal contact will only add to the excitement of gathering together again, Sellers believes.
“We will prevail through it and when we do we’re going to all look to reconnect again,” he said. “Everybody is kind of penned up right now. You don’t realize the connection you have to each other and to community until it’s taken away from you. There is going to be an even greater desire to all be together.
“This is unfortunately a very tough moment in our global history, but it will be a moment that we won’t ever forget,” Sellers added. “It will make us, I think, appreciate each other and the connection that we all have to each other and to humanity even more.”
Sellers noted that the World Games will be the first major global sport event on U.S. soil coming out of the pandemic.
“I think, on balance, it will ultimately be an even bigger deal for our community.”