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PUM One on One-Jennifer Hawkins, Executive Director, SportsPITTSBURGH

 Jennifer Hawkins is the executive director of SportsPITTSBURGH, the sports development division of VisitPITTSBURGH that oversees all business-to-business sales, operations and marketing functions related to sports and associated events.

Over the past 12 years, Ms. Hawkins has been involved in numerous high-profile sports events taking place in Pittsburgh, including the Atlantic 10 Men’s Basketball Championships, USGA Men’s and Women’s US Open, NCAA Frozen Four, Dick’s Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon, NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Championships and USA Gymnastics Championships.

Most recently, she oversaw a comprehensive bid strategy that led to Pittsburgh being awarded the most NCAA championship events of any city.  In conjunction with seven host institutions, one athletic conference and seven competition venues, Pittsburgh will host 22 of the NCAA’s most prestigious national championships and qualifying events during the 2018/19 through 2021/22 academic years.

During her tenure at VisitPITTSBURGH, Ms. Hawkins has seen exponential growth in the sports-event and tourism industry, both nationally and in the Pittsburgh region. She and her staff have dramatically increased the exposure of the SportsPITTSBURGH brand, and  helped drive home the image of a legendary and authentic sports city.  She is a member of Women in Sports and Events, sits on the Executive Advisory Committee for Connect Sports and is a past board member of the National Association of Sports Commissions.  

Prior to joining VisitPITTSBURGH, Ms. Hawkins spent seven years with the Tallahassee Sports Council and Space Coast Sports Promotions.  She earned her master’s degree in Sports Administration from Florida State University and a bachelor’s degree of Kinesiology from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. 

 

PUM:  Tell us more about how you use your role as Executive Director, SportsPITTSBURGH  (my title changed within the past few months) and how you are helping Pittsburgh evolve into one of the country’s top destinations for sports events and meetings.

 

 

JEH:  My role as executive director of SportsPITTSBURGH is to maintain Pittsburgh’s position as a leader in the sports-event industry and position our organization as the recognized “go to” for sports-event hosting in the Pittsburgh area.  This is done through our partnership with the sports franchises, event planners, athletic departments and sports-stakeholders in our community.  Pittsburgh is already one of the country’s top destinations for sports events and meetings, and has been for a very long time.  Our job, at SportsPITTSBURGH, is to keep Pittsburgh on top, in an ever growing landscape of competitors.

 

PUM:  What's it like to work in a male-dominated industry that’s grown increasingly competitive as more cities leverage sports to promote tourism and economic development.

 

JEH:  I’ve been fortunate to have great male and female mentors in this industry, from day one.  I was always encouraged to take a seat at the table and speak up in meetings.  I may have been naïve, very early on, and not recognized that it mattered if I was male or female, black or white.  In hindsight, it was a blessing because I didn’t have those insecurities.

 

As you mentioned, this industry has become extremely competitive. Fortunately, many of the most successful of our competitor organizations, those that continue to raise the standards of the industry, are run by women. All of whom are willing to mentor me through challenges as they arise. 

 

PUM: There are some big sports events planned in 2018 for Pittsburgh, including the fact that Pittsburgh won 22 NCAA events through 2022, more than any other city. How did that deal come about, and why Pittsburgh?

 

 

JEH: Pittsburgh has a strong track-record of being an excellent city to host major events, whether they be sports related, political, cultural or live music.  To drive this point, Pittsburgh decided to pool its resources and present a “one Pittsburgh” bid proposal.  Essentially,  SportsPITTSBURGH partnered with nine host institutions, two athletic conferences and nine competition venues to submit a combined 70 bids for NCAA championships!  The unique aspect being that all bids were under the umbrella of the Pittsburgh Bid Committee.  The only differences, per event, were the host institution and competition venue. Our message, to the NCAA, was that all of our partners were going to support all of our events, whether they were Division I, II, or III Championships.

 

While we expected to be successful with our bid proposal, not in our wildest dreams did we think we’d win 22 of these events.  Most importantly, we were awarded all five of the “premier” events we are able to host, including the Division II Fall Festival, Division I Men’s Wrestling Championships, Division I Women’s Volleyball Championship, Division I Men’s Ice Hockey Championship (Frozen Four) and First/Second Rounds of the Division I Men’s Basketball Championship. The NCAA showed a faith in Pittsburgh’s ability to host their most prestigious events by awarding our community with the most championships of any bidding city, and sending the road to the Men’s Final Four through Pittsburgh for the fourth time since the opening of the home of the Pittsburgh Penguins,  now PPG Paints Arena.

 

 

PUM: When you reflect on your accomplishments at VisitPittsburgh, what are you most proud of? What set of goals do you have for this year?

 

JEH: A lot has happened in my time at VisitPITTSBURGH.  The sports-travel segment was added to VisitPITTSBURGH’s sales mix as an effort to incrementally increase room bookings at hotels throughout Allegheny County.  While we have been successful in achieving that goal, there is more that we can do to make Pittsburgh an even better place to host events.  SportsPITTSBURGH now has its own strategic goals that align with the goals of VisitPITTSBURGH, while considering the needs of the sports community as a whole.   We serve as brand ambassadors, telling the story of Pittsburgh as the ultimate destination to host major events to national and international planners and media.  We will continue to focus on attracting and hosting sports events that provide high value to the region through out-of-town visitation  and exposure. And we will also attempt to engage our community members in the events we host through participation and volunteerism.  This is all done through partnerships with the many sports stakeholders and entertainment organizations that are represented in this community.

 

PUM: Why is sports an important part of your life and career path? Did you play any sports growing up?

 

JEH: I cannot remember a time when I was not a sports spectator.  My grandmother worked 4:30am-12:30pm to get home in time to see her Cubbies on WGN, and my grandfather traveled to the Indy 500and the demolition derby at the county fair) every year.  In between, we did not miss a local high school basketball game and we loved those “Friday night lights.”  Fortunately, I discovered the sports events industry, and the world of sports commissions, which allowed me to be a professional spectator at a variety of sports events.  You know the saying, “those who can’t teach”?  Well…

 

PUM: Tell us more about why Pittsburgh is a special place for you to live and work?

 

JEH: I cannot think of a better place to have my jobI get to convince people to host their sports event in the sports city AKA, City of Champions. Home of the World Champions: Steelers, Pirates and Penguins!  Sometimes, it seems unfair.  This community embraces the opportunities to showcase Pittsburgh to the world, with a collaborative spirit that is dreamt of by my colleagues in other cities.

 

PUM: In the spirit of Celebrating Black History Month, who has influenced you the most and inspired you to help you achieve your career goals. 

 

JEH: Honestly, it is difficult for me to name one or two individuals that have inspired me.  I’ve been blessed to have a family and community that always believed in me and told me I could do and be whatever I chose, even when I didn’t believe it.  Now, I am motivated to set an example for all those that do not get positive encouragement.  For boys and girls that are entrenched in low expectations.  I want them to know there is a path to their passion, even if it’s indirect.

 

 

Click Here to Learn More about SportsPittsburgh

 

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