Jock Talk: Outgames: A fine mess
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Government audits of the 2017 Miami World Outgames and its last minute cancelation in May are expected to be completed in about two weeks. What criminal and civil charges, if any, that will follow are unknown so far, but at a minimum we can anticipate a vivid portrait of horrible fiscal mismanagement; ubiquitous deceit; costly premature financial commitments; athletes who were charged twice for rooms they booked through the World Outgames; and oversight of organizers that provided mere lip service rather than effective safeguards.
All of it, sadly enough, eminently predictable – especially with warning signs that were cropping up from Day One.
Until the audit is released and any criminal case is built by investigators, government officials are remaining tight lipped as to what they have learned about the Outgames fiasco. I've spent the last few days reviewing publicly available meeting minutes and agendas from the past several years; catching up on what local news media have reported on the event and its collapse; and speaking off the record to a few individuals close to the local political scene. The picture that research conjures up suggests a fair amount of political favoritism; a lack of due diligence and accountability at local and international levels and among LGBT community leaders to fact-check misleading statements from the organizers; a failure to select qualified leadership; and the lack of accurate and complete competition details for potential sports registrants – all of which combined for the inevitable collapse of the Outgames.
In late 2008, Miami Beach was one of four cities bidding to host the 2014 Gay Games, going up against fellow bidders Washington, D.C.; Boston; and eventual winner Cleveland. Had Miami City won that bid, it would have been required to hold monthly board meetings of the host non-profit organization and report to a highly involved Federation of Gay Games liaison committee.
Instead, Miami Beach pulled its bid for Gay Games IX in March 2009. Four years later, the city was picked by the Gay and Lesbian International Sport Association to host the 2017 World Outgames. After it was picked by GLISA, the Miami-Miami Beach LGBT Sports and Cultural League formed to bid on the World Outgames, and received $75,000 from the Greater Miami Convention and Visitors Bureau to pay the first installment of GLISA's $175,000 licensing fee. Outgames organizers also received $200,000 in seed money from the city of Miami Beach, which apparently believed the host organization had tax-exempt status.
Basing their projections on figures they said were provided by GLISA, the agency from which they bought their brand license, Miami organizers said they expected to have 15,000 registrants in 2017. That is a number never achieved by any global LGBT sports event.
Local officials selected party and event manager Ivan Cano to lead the Miami World Outgames as chief executive officer. Cano is well known in the local LGBT community for organizing gay nights at bars and as executive director of the Miami Beach Gay Pride Parade. He also was active in the 2013 mayoral campaign that was won by current Mayor Philip Levine.
He had no experience in overseeing the creation and delivery of large-scale sports events.
Organizers began with ambitious hopes. They flew first class to various tourism and conference events on World Outgames expense accounts to promote awareness of their event. They asked city government for $500,000 to help out with operational and set-up costs. They launched two crowd-funding pages to try to raise another $300,000. They plunked down a $75,000 deposit on Marlins Stadium to hold opening ceremonies there, and laid out another $30,000 for a deposit for the Jackie Gleason Theater to hold the closing ceremonies. They sought numerous LGBT sports organizations to help with the establishing tournaments. Public relations efforts resulted in numerous local media running news releases or puff pieces that relied on tourism boasts, opening and closing ceremony announcements, and speakers who were expected to be at the human rights conferences.
There was hardly a word about the athletes or sports competitions expected.
Almost immediately, many of those funding and support initiatives proved to be pipe dreams.
The city government coughed up two $100,000 grants but tied another $200,000 to fundraising goals that organizers never reached. The crowdfunding pages combined brought in less than $13,000 – or about $287,000 short of their stated goals. Many sports groups elected not to be involved or associate their names with what they saw as a doomed venture when critical logistical and organizational questions could not be satisfactorily answered by Outgames organizers.
Little outreach to athletes
Accurate and comprehensive information from Outgames organizers on finances and sports planning were causing obvious consternation among city officials and potential sports registrants. Repeated requests to city government committees for their backing of Outgames efforts to get more public funding were met with committee requests for better information and updates on Outgames progress. Athlete inquiries for venue and competition information continued to draw little or no response.
World Outgames did little to draw interest from potential sports registrants. Its newsletters provided scant information on sports preparations, usually focusing on conferences, ceremonies, parties, and tourism destinations and activities. Local LGBT media ran news releases promoting the Outgames, but event organizers did not ask them to write features on Outgames athletes and the media did not monitor organizers' activities to the extent they would any other multimillion-dollar LGBT operation in town.
The Outgames board seldom met and ran through numerous directors, some of whom left frustrated by the "rubber-stamp" nature of what few meetings there were, as well as the lack of information forthcoming from the paid operational staff. Several regular financial reports required by the city as part of its sponsorship agreement were not delivered. When reports did start coming in in March 2017, the reported numbers did not make much sense.
In late March, city manager Jimmy Morales wrote the mayor and city commission that the city "administration has not received copies of any sponsorship agreements and cannot verify the cash collected. The financial report presented at the March 14, 2017 meeting represented a total cash balance of $31,499, indicating that any sponsorship funds received had already been largely expended." It was also reported that needed event permits and venues had not been secured and paid for.
Days later, Outgames dropped seven of its scheduled sports because of poor registration numbers. Organizers said they had about 2,000 total registrants – or about 13,000 shy of their original projections.
In the last two months before the event's scheduled opening, a few more sports were quietly dropped. Then, with many of the registered athletes traveling to Miami from across the globe, organizers announced that opening and closing ceremonies were being canceled, along with all but three of the sports events. Only dancing, soccer, and aquatic events would survive the sports program cancellation. And as if to underscore a point I have written several times through the years – that World Outgames are focused on conferences and not on ensuring good inclusive sports competition – it was also announced that the cultural and conference programs would go on.
Apparently those venue and permit fees were paid by the organization that crushed the hopes of so many of its sports constituents. In its glossy full-color 38-page program, the Miami Outgames devoted 14 full pages to the conferences, complete with mini-biographies of all 22 scheduled speakers. Thirteen pages on sports had no bios on the athletes who made up the vast bulk of the Outgames registrants except for 24 dance instructors, judges, and staff.
With the cancellation, the registration fees, travel expenses, and vacation time athletes had invested to get to what was supposed to be a major global sports event were gone. Gone, too, were the more than $100,000 in deposits the Outgames forfeited for Marlins Stadium and the Jackie Gleason Theater. Gone were hotel fees Outgames had collected from registrants for rooms booked through the event's website without ever paying the hotel.
Swimmer David Helliwell told the Miami Herald he and his husband were hit with a $798 bill from the National Hotel despite having already paid the Outgames for their room.
"We tried to be as supportive of the Outgames as possible, hence booking through them," Helliwell said. "It was really sad that the games failed, and I can understand these things sometime happen. What really disappoints me is that they took our money for a specific thing, but appear not to have paid it forward."
The National Hotel issued a public statement stating it had signed a contract with Cano to reserve a block of rooms for the Outgames but was not compensated with scheduled payments called for in the agreement.
"The National Hotel and many of its guests who participated in the WOG are victims of WOG's mismanagement and wrongdoing," the National Hotel said in its statement on the World Outgames. "WOG tendered three untimely partial deposits for its master account, but has never paid the entire amounts, thereby leaving a substantial balance. Additionally, WOG failed to properly qualify for the tax-exempt status they represented they maintained, thereby increasing its liabilities to the National Hotel and their booked participants. After taking into account all monies paid directly to the National Hotel by WOG, as well as from WOG's booked participants who were guests at the National Hotel, the National Hotel is still owed a substantial amount of money from WOG. The National Hotel supports the ongoing investigations and financial audits being conducted against WOG. It is (our) goal to have WOG pay its debt to the National and repay and/or refund all of their participants who were subsequently charged by the hotel."
Gone, too, were personal reputations, credibility, and, in all likelihood, the future of GLISA and any future World Outgames.
Government audits and investigations were launched as soon as the Outgames were canceled. City staff scrambled to help athletes in several of the canceled sports to stage smaller alternative competitions with little to no assistance from Outgames organizers. Past GLISA presidents and current athletes called on GLISA to dissolve and stop attempting to hold any future Outgames.
An LGBT sports group in Buenos Aires that had sent a large contingent to Miami and had been bidding to host WOG 5 in 2021 has dropped references to 2017 and World Outgames from its logo and Facebook page, apparently refocusing efforts on creating its own event. The action by Buenos Aires echoes a step taken previously in 2015 by Auckland, New Zealand, when organizers there reached an impasse in an agreement with GLISA to host the regional fourth Asia Pacific Outgames. Team Auckland instead successfully held its own new event in 2016 without the GLISA Outgames brand name.
The current GLISA board issued an unsigned statement that it regretted the Miami fiasco and was taken by surprise because it, like local government officials, had been assured by organizers that everything was fine and events were on track – but was silent on the fact that it had done nothing to verify the validity of any false assurances organizers had provided.
The initial choice itself to schedule the Outgames to begin on Memorial Day weekend seems to have been ill advised. Miami Beach was already hosting two other major tourist events that weekend, straining local resources to beyond capacity. Additionally, numerous small sports competitions are historically held during that weekend with a lot lower registration fees. And opening up municipal venues that are typically closed on Sundays and Memorial Day would require double and triple overtime for city employees to staff the venues.
All in all, an odious mess of disinformation, poor planning, bad judgments, disillusioned LGBT athletes feeling a general sense of betrayal and unfettered greed, and actions that bordered on alleged fraud.
The first World Outgames 11 years ago in Montreal lost more than $5 million. Miami 2017 has lost much more than that – not in actual money, but in the currency of trust and credibility. In the grand scheme of things, that is a heavier loss from which to recover.