April 23, 2022, CHATTANOOGA, TN - It took a single weekend for the self-described “pestering” to begin.
Brant Donlon, the Sports Business Development Manager for Chattanooga Sports, a subdivision of the Chattanooga Tourism Company, traveled to Greenville, South Carolina, to take a look at the 2020 AVP Grass Nationals. Alongside him was colleague Cassidy Brinkley, the Chattanooga Sports Event Manager. They took inventory of what they saw: the hundreds of grass players, the laid back vibe – a mix of professional competition and family-friendly tailgating – the sponsor activations, the social media content being blasted from one Instagram account to the next, on YouTube accounts from East Coast to West and TikToks everywhere in between.
And they both thought the exact same thing: We have the perfect city, the perfect venue – the perfect everything – for this event.
For weeks afterward, Donlon let AVPAmerica Executive Directors Carly and Wayne Gant know: He and Brinkley wanted to bring Grass Nationals to Chattanooga, Tennessee.
“We went down to Greenville in 2020, talked with [the Gants], watched the event, and selfishly, we’re going: ‘We’ve got the perfect venue for this,’” Donlon said. “How do you tell someone that we have a venue that is perfect for you, and not come away overconfident?
“Going there, and seeing just the setup – we already do a lot of grass events such as soccer and lacrosse and ultimate frisbee, and there’s so much. You see it, and in our world when you know something fits in that little layout that you have, in your mind, it just starts going – ‘Hey, we could do this, we could do this.’ The activation, everything in your mind is going ‘We can do that, we can do that, we can do that better.’”
This fall, Donlon, Brinkley, and the city of Chattanooga will have their opportunity, as the AVPGrass Nationals is coming to the scenic city on October 8-9.
“Just the demographic of grass and the outdoor nature that Chattanooga already has naturally fit with the athletes’ lifestyle that we talked about, just with outdoor opportunities, the local restaurant scene that we have, the bars,” Brinkley said. “When we went to Greenville and saw Nationals last year, we said ‘This just feels like Chattanooga, an outdoor adventure type fit.’ We do a lot of volleyball indoor at our convention center, but when they come, what do they see? They see the convention center, they don’t see everything Chattanooga has to offer. It also just felt like something that, even if we weren’t doing a ton of grass yet, it seems like a sport that fits really well with our locals as well.”
For nearly a decade, Chattanooga has been developing a reputation as a young, vibrant city, the ideal host for all things outdoors. It began not with lacrosse or soccer or volleyball or ultimate frisbee, but with, interestingly enough, a Half Ironman competition, which was awarded to the city in 2014. So successful was that first event that the following year, a full distance Ironman was awarded. Two years after that, Chattanooga became home to the Ironman Half World Championships.
The NCAA has awarded nine events to Chattanooga, which has become a popular stop for high school and lacrosse tournaments and showcases of various types.
“We’ve pushed,” Donlon said. “We’ve been a little bit more aggressive. We’ve added staff and that’s enabled us to keep pushing and get more events. All of that has an impact, whether it’s economically, socially, or whatever it is, we want to support that through sports tourism. That’s really what we do is create an impact on our community.”
An impact will certainly be felt when the Grass Nationals come to town in October. In Greenville, for example, 280 doubles teams competed, and another 163 triples, which resulted in hundreds of hotel rooms booked, thousands of meals ordered, and untold ounces of adult beverages consumed. New restaurants will be discovered, new sights seen by players and fans – and their audiences on social media – alike.
And there are sights, too. On January 6, Outside Magazine published a list of the best mountain towns in America. Coming in at 13?
There is hardly a better combination than a bucolic mountain town and grass volleyball, which Carly Gant describes as “a bit funkier than beach. Beach is pretty – pretty people and pretty bodies. Grass is a bit more gritty and guys who fish on the weekend, guys who are going to go hunt. They’re still fit, they’re still with it, just in a different way.”
It made AVPAmerica as good a fit for Chattanooga as Chattanooga was for AVPAmerica.
“Chattanooga – we’re the scenic city and we’re also the outdoor city,” said Sean Phipps, the marketing director of the Chattanooga Tourism Company. “One of the things we like to claim fame to is our community attitude. When events come to Chattanooga, the community rallies around it. We like to use the term that our locals are aggressively welcoming. If you’re going to be in Chattanooga, you’re going to enjoy Chattanooga, you’re going to enjoy the bars and the restaurants and this feel of Chattanooga like you’re one of us.”
A little gritty. A little funky. A lot outdoorsy. Overwhelmingly welcoming.
That’s grass volleyball.
~ Travis Mewhirter: @trammew