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Volume 22 No. 18
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Late-starting Oakland coming on strong with Super Bowl quest

The city of Oakland finally has a sports commission.

Following the lead of more than 200 cities, Oakland incorporated its sports commission just a year ago, but officials don't believe their late start will hurt their commission's primary goal: to bring the Super Bowl to the city in 2005.

"We're [one of four] finalists, which means we did something no one gave us a chance to do," said Zenophon Abraham, president of the Oakland-Alameda County Sports Commission. "It basically says that Oakland is finally maturing as a big city."

Make no mistake, the sports commission was founded specifically for the Super Bowl. The phrase "Super Bowl: Oakland" was actually part of the commission's incorporated name, though it no longer uses the title. When the idea of Oakland going after the game was first tossed around, the city was told that it needed to have a group that was in charge of the event.

Oakland didn't have such an outlet, and city commissioner Robert Bobb suggested creating a sports commission. In addition, Bobb figured, the city could use the sports commission to attract other events.

He put Abraham, who was an economic consultant to the city, in charge of the sports commission. At the time, Abraham had no training in sports. His background was economic development and city planning.

"It's perfect for the Super Bowl because you're really talking about a lot of the issues that are part of city planning," said Abraham, the only full-time staff member of the commission, which has a first-year budget of $90,000. "I'm a master of being a jack of all trades, and I'm good at learning on the quick."

But what may take time is the building of relationships, an essential part of the sports commission business.

"You have to have the relationships," said Dean Munro, executive director of the San Jose Sports Authority, which has played host to events such as the 1999 Women's World Cup and the 1997 NCAA men's basketball tournament West Regional. "It's a business that's largely driven by relationships."

Board members don't think it'll be a problem for Abraham to succeed, mainly because of the people he has brought to the 40-member board, which includes NFL agent Leigh Steinberg.

"We probably will play a little catch-up," said Beth Schnitzer, a marketing consultant with San Francisco-based Brandstyle Marketing and a former NFL Properties executive. "I'm truly amazed that Oakland is a finalist for the Super Bowl. It's proof that [Abraham] has done a lot of great work there."

Abraham and his board also hope that they can build on their momentum from the Super Bowl run, attracting other events to the city. The site of the 2005 Super Bowl will be named Nov. 1, but already the commission has identified several events that it wants to bid on, such as an NCAA regional basketball tournament, the Women's Final Four and the 2004 Olympic track and field trials.

In addition, the sports commission plans to help local high school teams by bringing corporations into sponsorships of inner-city high schools.

Abraham also plans to use the Internet to help expand Oakland's presence in the sports world, though he wouldn't go into specifics.

"Being the new person in the business, we have a lot to learn," Abraham said. "But we also don't get locked into the way things are usually done."

Still, Abraham admits that the first order of business, besides the Super Bowl, is changing the mind-set of people in the community. As in many cities across the country, many people in Oakland, including its city officials, look at sports as entertainment, not as economic development.

"We're spending a long time educating people that sports is economic development," Abraham said.

The one thing that Abraham doesn't want to change is the image of Oakland, even though some of the city's most memorable sports images are Raiders' maverick owner Al Davis and Latrell Sprewell choking his coach.

Said Abraham: "At least we have a sports image and people know we're not going to operate inside the box."

Alan Byrd writes for the Orlando Business Journal.