20 years since Spring Fling left Chattanooga, the event is not about to return

The idea was born out of a casual conversation during an afternoon session of the 1992 State Wrestling Tournament at Maclellan Gym.

As Merrill Eckstein, who at the time was the chairman of Greater Chattanooga’s Sports and Events Committee, and former TSSAA Executive Director Ronnie Carter sat together surveying the crowded arena, Carter mentioned that he wished there was similar support for state competitions for spring sports. . At that time, state championships in baseball, men’s soccer, softball, tennis, and track and field were spread across Tennessee in different locations, and they generally only attracted players’ family members and may -be a handful of fans. Only softball came close to breaking even financially.

Eckstein, always looking for ways to generate revenue in the city through sporting events, had previously considered the idea of ​​an Olympic-style event for Southern Conference spring sports. But there had been pushback from some of the conference’s athletic directors, so rather than pursue the idea as a college event, Eckstein acknowledged that the state’s high school sports governing body would be much more receptive.

“You could see the wheels turning in Merrill’s mind as we talked,” Carter said. “At that time, we were already playing the state softball tournament at Warner Park, so we’re starting to discuss possible venues for other sports. And all the while, you could see that Merrill was sort of planning this thing.

“Our big problem was that we couldn’t think of a place that could accommodate the track. But then we spoke with Stacy Hill at GPS, and he told us about their new facility, and all of a sudden this thing had real potential.”

From this conversation, the Spring Fling was born.

Chattanooga easily won the bidding rights to Clarksville and Nashville to host the first event in 1994 and remained the spring sports destination for the first nine years of the TSSAA event. Meanwhile, the event has helped turn these state tournaments from an afterthought into a true multi-million dollar event.

“From a business perspective, we were looking for ways to increase public interest and athlete visibility,” Carter said. “For children, the championships of these sports are as important as football and basketball, so we wanted to create something special for them and make it profitable for everyone as well.

“Chattanooga seemed like the perfect fit because the softball and wrestling tournaments had gotten big crowds and great media coverage there, so you knew there was huge interest in prep sports in and around Chattanooga. When we announced the idea, there was a sportswriter from Mid-State who told me that we had lost our minds and that it was going to fail because nobody would cover it and nobody would come watch it. .

“After that first year, I knew we were onto something. Chattanooga helped us create something that took spring sports tournaments to a whole new level.”

Staff File Photo / Chattanooga sports executive Merrill Eckstein played a pivotal role in the development of the Spring Fling, the TSSAA’s week-long event in late May to determine state spring sports champions .

FLING AWAY

From that humble beginning, to go from a mere idea to an ideal setting, Chattanooga has turned the event into such a lucrative production – bringing in more than $2 million a year to the local economy – that other major cities began to seek to attract him.

And of course, just as the city has done with the Southeastern Conference Women’s Basketball Tournament and the Division I-AA National Football Championship Game, Chattanooga has developed an event up to that it becomes too big for Scenic City.

This year marks the 20th anniversary of the last time Chattanooga hosted the Spring Fling. After three trouble-ridden years in Memphis, the event has finally moved to Murfreesboro, which appears to have a firm grip on future hosting rights.

Just two weeks after that 2002 Fling, the TSSAA Board of Control – stunned by Memphis’ more lucrative offer – voted to uproot the event and dump it in the westernmost city of State for the next three years.

“When the call came, I remember feeling very disappointed,” Eckstein said recently. “I told everyone I spoke to at the time that Memphis bought the event. They gave the TSSAA a much bigger guarantee than we could.

“We had created something very special, and every time one of the events we put on reached a point where the big cities wanted to take it, we took it as a compliment for the work we had done to develop it. “

Memphis dazzled the TSSAA with dollars, guaranteeing double the initial financial offer to secure the right to host the event from 2003 to 2005. However, since Tennessee is such an elongated state – spanning more than 520 miles from Memphis to Johnson City in the northeast corner – many fans didn’t make the trip west, and Bluff City suffered a huge financial hit, losing nearly $200,000 over its three years as host, which resulted in the closure of the Memphis & Shelby County Sports Authority.

The event’s short stay in Memphis will be remembered for its shortcomings. Along with the travel challenges — the teams from northeast Tennessee that qualified could have crossed New York and across the Canadian border in the 11 hours it took to reach Memphis — many of the facilities that had been promised were found to be unusable.

Baseball’s two finals venues – AutoZone Park and USA Stadium – ended up having scheduling conflicts with other events, while softball was forced to cross the state line to be played in Southaven, Mississippi. , because the original installation was not complete.

It was the first time in 55 years that a Tennessee State Championship was decided outside of state lines.

“We took a few hits, for obvious reasons, early on in Memphis,” Carter said. “But once the games were played, the kids bailed us out and things have actually improved in the last two years there.”

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Staff File Photo / Adam Howard of Ooltewah is welcomed back into the dugout after advancing the runner during a Spring Fling Baseball State Tournament game against Munford in Chattanooga.

FIND A MIDDLE GROUND

After the contract with Memphis expired, Chattanooga’s hopes of winning back the Spring Fling were dashed by another unbeatable foe. This time, instead of finance, the combination of location advantage and better facilities was Murfreesboro’s winning formula for securing hosting rights from 2006.

Murfreesboro, which has also hosted the Flingless Boys’ and Girls’ Basketball State Tournaments since 1989, helped develop the Fling to the point that the city’s Chamber of Commerce estimates it now hosts 4,200 athletes. and over 20,000 visitors during the week-long event in late May, which contributes approximately $5 million to the local economy.

Each of those numbers more than double Chattanooga’s totals at the start of the Fling.

“The Spring Fling is not the event it was when it started in Chattanooga,” said current TSSAA executive director Bernard Childress. “In the beginning, Chattanooga was ahead of everyone, then Memphis offered more money and that was a major factor. Our history in Murfreesboro, with tournaments going well and a good crowd, helped us to make the decision to move it there.

“A lot of our people had heard from coaches all over the state who wanted the championships to be as close to the center of the state as possible, so if all things are equal, we prefer to stay in a central area.”

Two positive aspects of moving to Memphis are that it ultimately gave the western part of the state a chance to host a state championship event, and because the larger city offered more facilities, it enabled the TSSAA to increase the number of baseball and softball teams that qualify for the state tournament from four to eight in each ranking.

Starting this school year, the TSSAA also increased the number of public school classifications to four for baseball and softball, as well as men’s and women’s basketball. Adding an additional classification, in addition to having doubled the size of the slices for all classes, required more usable sites – Murfreesboro provides 15 host sites – and also meant more money for the host city as well as for the TSSAA.

Due to Murfreesboro’s recent population boom, the surrounding high schools all have newer and larger facilities than Chattanooga could offer.

“I had a lot of concerns when they voted to move him to Memphis because I personally felt they couldn’t live up to the guarantees they had made, and it turned out they couldn’t. couldn’t,” said Eckstein, who admitted he never made the trip to Memphis to see the event there, but was impressed while attending games in Murfreesboro. “He had real problems when he got out there.

“It’s more understandable that they took the next step after Memphis. With the facilities and having less travel for most schools, it only makes sense that they would move to the middle of the state. I would never optimistic about it. going back to Chattanooga.”

Contact Stephen Hargis at shargis@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6293. Follow him on Twitter @StephenHargis.

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Staff File Photo / Megan Feher of Baylor competes in the high jump during the Spring Fling State track meet at GPS.