When it comes to the looming takeover of the Asheville Buncombe Regional Sports Commission, don’t mistake the quiet over the summer for a lack of action.
As I wrote back in April, the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority has its sights set on absorbing the Sports Commission, even though the nonprofit commission would much prefer to remain independent. Initially, it looked like the TDA and its president and CEO, Victoria “Vic” Isley, were going to ram this through in April, but the idea created a bit of an uproar, although that subsided over the summer.
With the TDA’s nearly $40 million budget and outsized funding power in this area, it’s a David versus Goliath battle, and right now it doesn’t look so good for the rock slinger.
The TDA still appears intent on snatching up the commission, at least according to a recent email from the TDA’s top executive that I’ve obtained, which outlines the legalities of a takeover — and the reduced funding the commission would get if it were to remain independent.
Everybody is keeping pretty tight-lipped about this right now, as the Sports Commission is set to meet at noon today to vote whether it wants to become part of the TDA.
The chair of the commission’s board, Stephen Zubrod, sent me a written statement when I asked for comment. I know Zubrod from regular lap swimming at the Y, but that did me no good in shaking loose any inside info.
Zubrod’s statement first notes that he has “a great deal of respect for the TDA Board” and the great work it’s done in the community, particularly with Tourism Product Development Fund (TPDF) grants that have funded an array of local projects.
But he also noted that Asheville tourism has been down double digits in recent months, and as tourism is the TDA’s primary objective, he questions “why TDA leadership is so focused on taking over the Asheville Buncombe Regional Sports Commission.
“In the past year an inordinate amount of time and money has been spent on exerting legal control over a very successful 501(c)(3) independent non-profit, which has become the cornerstone of marquee sport events in Asheville,” Zubrod wrote, listing the Southern Conference basketball tournament, the Billie Jean King Cup (tennis), the Maui Invitational (college basketball), and the Asheville Championship Tournament (college basketball).
“Even TDA’s own consultant, the Huddle Up Group, has emphasized that (the commission) is ‘punching way above its weight class’ as a sports commission,” Zubrod wrote. “The question for our community is whether this takeover is the best use of occupancy tax dollars generated by local hoteliers?”
The TDA derives its funding from an occupancy tax on hotels, Airbnbs, and bed & breakfast inns.
You may think all of this is a tempest in a teacup, or “inside baseball,” but it’s important to the community because the sports commission has been so successful, mainly with a huge group of community volunteers and just two paid employees.
And you may not realize this: The Sports Commission and the events it brings in generate about a third of all overnight stays in Buncombe.
Clearly, it ain’t broke, but Isley insists on fixing it.
Isley and the TDA commissioned a study conducted by the Huddle Up Group, a Phoenix-based sports consulting firm, and that study recommended the Sports Commission “should become part of the auspices of Explore Asheville.” Some critics have suggested to me that Isley and the TDA simply got the report they wanted — and paid for.
Jon Schmieder, founder and CEO of the Huddle Up Group, absolutely denied that and told me in April that standalone sports commissions are becoming pretty rare, with most in large markets. He did acknowledge that North Carolina has several standalone commissions, including ones in Jacksonville/Onslow County and in Greensboro.
Isley sent me a few comments via email, and she referenced the Huddle Up study.
“There is a long history that got us here, and the tourism development authority remains focused on the long-term sustainability of sports tourism and the benefits it brings to our community at large,” Isley said. “Following the recommendation from Huddle Up Group earlier this year, the sports commission board created a task force to review the recommendations and alternative models throughout the summer.”
The founding members of the sports commission — the city of Asheville, Buncombe County, UNC Asheville, and the TDA — “have asked for feedback from the sports commission board prior to any final decisions,” Isley said.
“Two options include the recommended blended model (which is like Durham’s structure here in North Carolina) that keeps the 501(c)(3) sports commission intact with a separate board of directors,” Isley said. “Another is a modified version of the existing structure with a separate board.”
Isley also said, “No decisions have been made yet.”
When the story emerged back in the spring, the TDA was pushing for quick action, but everyone took a few deep breaths and stepped back a bit over the summer.
But now it looks like the takeover is coming. In a Sept. 3 email to the Sports Commission Task Force, Isley offered a synopsis of the “all attorneys meeting” held Aug. 15. These are some of the conclusions, she wrote:
“All parties agree that there are no legal hurdles to carrying out the recommendations for structure changes made by the Huddle Up Group (i.e., the Sports Commission employees become Explore Asheville employees and the Sports Commission Board bylaws are amended to provide for an expanded board beyond the four founding members that will continue to advise the 501(c)(3))…”
“All parties agree that the Founding Members (BCTDA, UNC Asheville, City of Asheville and Buncombe County) have the ability to amend the bylaws of the Sports Commission to achieve the Huddle Up Structure. All parties agree that the Huddle Up Structure is achievable through agreements between the entities.”
I’ll note that this vote will come down to those four organizations Isley mentioned and their representatives, Asheville City Council Member Sage Turner, Buncombe County Commissioner Amanda Edwards, UNC Asheville Athletic Director Janet Cone, and Isley. So far, Turner has been the only one to show any resistance to the plan.
In her email, Isley noted this “would not be a merger, but would be a change in the relationship between the parties.”
Explore Asheville, a subsidiary of the TDA, would remain a 501(c)(6), the BCTDA would remain a public authority, and the Sports Commission would remain a 501(c)(3).
A 501(c)(6) is a type of business or membership nonprofit.
About the money
The TDA provides the lion’s share of the Sports Commission’s funding — $230,000 annually. The city of Asheville and Buncombe County pay $45,000 each. Isley’s email suggests the TDA can’t continue that level of funding if the commission remains independent.
The TDA money comes from its marketing budget, and Isley said the legislation change last year that tweaked the TDA’s spending formula would make the arrangement “likely problematic.” Previously, the TDA, by state law, had to spend 75 percent of its revenue on marketing and 25% on the Tourism Product Development Fund, but the new legislation changed that to a two-thirds/one-third formula.
“As a result, if the Sports Commission remains an entirely independent organization, the BCTDA cannot continue to provide for the salaries, benefits, travel and other administrative costs of the Sports Commission employees at the same level it has in the past,” Isley wrote. “The BCTDA would likely only be able to fund the Sports Commission at a level equivalent to the total funding provided by the other Founding Members.”
In other words, the TDA would drop its funding from $230,000 a year to $90,000, which would translate to a $140,000 budget cut to the commission. That would be a pretty devastating blow.
To somewhat mangle a baseball simile, this sure looks like a squeeze play. In other words, a sort of “play nice and join us or we will put a stranglehold on your funding” ultimatum (my words, not Isley’s, by the way).
In her email that I obtained, Isley notes that funding the commission through the TPDF or the Legacy Investment From Tourism fund, “is not possible because administrative costs cannot be funded through those funds, only capital projects and related expenditures.”
I’m a little baffled by this. The TDA currently funds the commission through its marketing funds, and the commission is promoting Asheville for sporting events and driving hotel sales, which seems like a pretty solid use of marketing dollars.
A statewide perspective
Demp Bradford is chair of the North Carolina Sports Association, which has 36 members, including many of the state’s sports commissions and its convention & visitors bureaus (sometimes called TDAs). Bradford currently works as the vice president of the Greensboro Sports Foundation, and from 2016 to 2022 he was the executive director of the Asheville Sports Commission.
Bradford said he has researched the issue of sports commissions and CVB funding in North Carolina.
“I don’t know of a sports commission in the state of North Carolina that is an independent entity that does not receive funding from their CVB,” Bradford said. “In fact, I know they all do. Everyone receives some form of — and usually a large amount of funding — from their CVBs, without restrictions.”
Greensboro and Charlotte have sports foundations that are independent, and Durham, Jacksonville and Asheville have standalone commissions. Bradford is mystified as to why Isley seems intent on a takeover of Asheville’s well-functioning commission, which brings out hundreds of volunteers for its marquee events.
“It’s just going to be a very sad thing that she’s going to be able to manipulate it to end up ending the Sports Commission, and the Sports Commission has done so many good things,” Bradford said. “And unfortunately, the last year, they haven’t been able to concentrate on bringing sports events because they’ve had to concentrate on the Task Force and battling to keep themselves as an entity. So they haven’t had a chance to do their job.”
Marisa Reeder, associate director at the Jacksonville/Onslow Sports Commission, told me that organization applies for funding from the Jacksonville Tourism Development Authority and receives annual funding.
“It varies from year to year, but the majority of it is from their promotions (budget),” Reeder said.
In that email to the Asheville Sports Commission Task Force, Isley says, “Having the employees of the Sports Commission become employees of Explore Asheville makes it easier for the BCTDA to continue to fund their salaries, benefits, travel and other administrative expenses as administrative expenses of the BCTDA under the new legislation.”
This sentence is key: “Explore Asheville would have management oversight of Sports Commission employees, and Sports Commission employees would be eligible for all benefits as Explore Asheville employees.”
In short, Explore Asheville and the TDA expand their empire, absorbing an entity that has done great work since its formation in 2010.
I reached out to Chris Smith, the commission’s interim executive director, but didn’t hear back by deadline.
I can understand why folks are keeping largely tightlipped ahead of today’s meeting. Isley said in her email to the Asheville Sports Commission Task Force that while it’s not required, the commission’s founding members want the commission to recommend whether it wants to proceed with the Huddle Up recommendation to be absorbed by the TDA, or “remain independent with reduced funding provided by the BCTDA.”
If the commission’s board opts for independence, the task force “would revise vision and mission statements to have the Sports Commission focus on operating events while BCTDA would focus on attracting events under its legislative mandate.”
Zubrod did confirm that the commission’s board will vote on the proposal today.
The commission is backed in a corner, and it doesn’t have to be this way. I suspect a lively discussion will be had.
And I’ve said this before, but it’s worth repeating: This is simply a power grab, and that’s not a good look for the TDA.
Asheville Watchdog is a nonprofit news team producing stories that matter to Asheville and Buncombe County. John Boyle has been covering Asheville and surrounding communities since the 20th century. You can reach him at (828) 337-0941, or via email at email@example.com. To show your support for this vital public service go to avlwatchdog.org/donate.