Utah Sports Commission cancels, postpones multiple events, but CEO Jeff Robbins optimistic about the long term

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jeff Robbins of the Utah Sports Commission speaks at a luncheon at Rice-Eccles Stadium during a visit to Salt Lake City on Wednesday Nov. 14, 2018.

Jeff Robbins, president and CEO of the Utah Sports Commission, has been watching events slip off the calendar.

The World Cadet Fencing Championships vanished. The North American championships for Ironman triathlon were postponed. Even the AMA Supercross — professional dirt bike races anticipated to bring in more money to the state than any single event since the 2002 Olympics — was canceled. All have fallen victim to COVID-19 and measures taken to prevent the spread of the highly contagious coronavirus.

Still Robbins, whose job is to bring in events like these as a way of upholding Utah’s claim as The State of Sport, hasn’t hit the panic button. Yes, shelter-in-place orders and general public uneasiness have wiped clean his calendar of sporting events for April, May and even June. But that pain is only temporary. Once the coronavirus threat has passed, he believes, the current drought will be relieved by monsoons of sporting events and a healthy public appetite for them.

“We think there's a lot of pent up demand,” Robbins said. “But the good thing is by the time we're all in a position to host more events, I think, you know, everybody will be ready to go out and go to events and kind of get back into some form of normalcy.”

The sports commission staff have kept busy in the weeks since COVID-19 started spreading through the United States, prompting the cancellation of major sporting events across the nation. Every day, Robbins is on the phone with companies and promoters. Some want to chart a course forward after postponing their spring and early summer events. Others are trying to schedule new events for later this year or for 2021.

As long as he thinks they will appeal to Utahns or provide evidence to the International Olympic Committee that Utah is capable of hosting large-scale events, Robbins does his best to make room for them. That is, after all, what he has been doing for 20 years. When then-governor Mike Leavitt created the nonprofit Utah Sports Commission in 2000 to beef up the state’s athletic reputation in the hope of landing an Olympic Games, he put Robbins in charge of it.

Robbins’ 2020 schedule is quickly filling up, though. The USA Cycling Master Road National Championships are slated for late July. Vans will hold two world championship skateboarding events in August, which is the month of the Tour of Utah cycling race and the USA Judo Junior National Championships. The Ironman event in St. George was moved to September.

The commission coordinates about 50 races, showcases and championships a year. Some of this year’s events won’t be rescheduled. Most of those are international events, like the fencing championships, which were canceled outright. For those that are looking for new dates, Robbins said he is trying not to schedule anything earlier than July out of concern for how long moratoriums on large gatherings may last.

“Often times we will look at, since we don’t have a crystal ball, do we need to look at a backup date, too?” Robbins said.

The earliest event left on his schedule is the Professional Disc Golf Association World Championships, slated for June 13-20. The Utah Championship, an annual golf event that is part of the Korn Ferry Tour (formerly the Web.com Tour), is slated for June 25-28 in Farmington.

The disappearance of major events will cost Utah millions of dollars each day, according to the Utah Office of Tourism. Robbins could not provide an estimate of how many of the commission’s events are in limbo. It’s enough to make him concerned about the void in the short term, but he said he believes Utah might even be better off in the long run.

He said in addition to rebooking events that had already been scheduled for Utah, the sports commission is looking to lure in events that, in changing dates, may not be able to secure their original venues. Some of those events could be Olympic trials or national or world championships, he said.

“It puts you in a good position to be a problem solver if need be,” he said. “But again, you're compassionate and you never wish anything on anybody in terms of trying to go after things that others have. But you just, again, it's a long-term approach and you try to do the best you can to service the clients so that they'll come back long term.

“You know, there will be some impacts like the economy is having for all of us. So the goal is to get through it and and and bring more events in as time goes on.”

Because eventually, Robbins said, sports will again have a place in everyday life. It may just be the thing that gets everyone through this ordeal.

“I think there’s a healing component,” he said. “At the appropriate time there’s a role that sports can play.”

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