By Marji Wisniewski

I “met” Meaghan Hughes, Associate Director of the Ann Arbor Sports Commission, over a Zoom call six weeks into the Michigan Stay Home, Stay Safe order. Being a mom myself, I noticed that it looked like Meaghan was taking the interview from inside her closet. I didn’t mention it, but after a few moments of introductions, Meaghan revealed that that was exactly where she was! I think it’s something any parent can relate to, as we try to find space in our home where the kids won’t find us for a few minutes. But Meaghan admitted that she loves the extra time home with her family and, like many of us, is finding a way to make it work. 

We dove right into our topic of discussion: what it’s like to work in the male-dominated world of sports. We talked about the power of mentorship, hard work, and passion for what you do in life. Meaghan shared with me how sports have continuously enhanced her life, and how she hopes to share that with others.

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I’M NOT ATHLETICALLY GIFTED, BUT I’M GRATEFUL FOR THE GIFT OF SPORTS

Growing up, I was always interested in sports and being an athlete. However, I turned out to be a really good team manager, a role I played for my middle school volleyball team. Thankfully, I found my love of running when I joined cross country and track in high school. The experience allowed me to focus on being my best and improving my own PRs while building relationships with teammates. Participating in team sports really gave me a true sense of belonging. I carry this philosophy of the power of teamwork with me today — of building each other up instead of tearing each other down.

One of our partners at the Ann Arbor Sports Commission, Epic Races, holds an all-female triathlon every June — the Tri Goddess Tri. The Tri Goddess Tri celebrates women of all abilities, inspiring them to reach new heights of health and set new fitness goals by training for and completing a triathlon. I loved the mission of this race and participated in it myself. The sense of belonging with all these female athletes was amazing. Even as I rode my bike and women in their 80s were passing me, I cheered them on as loud as I could!

Finding my place with sports throughout my teens was vitally important as I was dealing with a difficult homelife. Growing up, my mom worked hard as our sole provider. My father died when I was 19. At that time, I was a student at Eastern Michigan University working at Applebee’s to pay for college without applying for any student loans. I didn’t resent the hard work; I felt powerful in my self-reliance, and that still lives in me today.

I FELL INTO A JOB, BUT MADE A LIFE 

At 23, shortly after graduation, I began my career as a receptionist at Destination Ann Arbor. I thought it would be a good foot in the door that would lead to other things. After a year, I was promoted to sales in their sports department. With my help in growing the sports market, Destination Ann Arbor formed the Ann Arbor Sports Commission. I continued in sales at the commission until I achieved my most recent position as Associate Director. I had found my home in sports!

The job has been a lot of learning-as-I-go, but I’ve welcomed that challenge. In a predominantly male industry of organized sports management, I’m proud that I’ve cleared my own path. But just like in sports, no matter how self-reliant you are, it takes a team. 

As the longest-serving staff member with the Ann Arbor Sports Commission, it’s been rewarding to work directly with sports events planners and sports organizations to bring them to Washtenaw County. Since I began at the Sports Commission, we have welcomed over 500 sports groups to the Ann Arbor area — many of them for K-12 athletes. Youth hockey tournaments, Junior Olympics, wakeboarding competitions, collegiate track and field — you name it, we’ve done it.

IMPROVING LIFE THROUGH SPORTS PARTICIPATION AND SPECTATORSHIP

The mission of the Ann Arbor Sports Commission is to improve quality of life through sports for all of Washtenaw County. The Commission was formed to attract amateur sporting events to Washtenaw County for the economic impact, positive national exposure, and recreational enhancement for its residents. The Commission acts as a conduit on behalf of the region in the bid efforts for all ticketed and participant-driven sporting events. We host both competitive and recreational events so that all members of our community can enjoy the great athletics and facilities Washtenaw County has to offer. We have a well-established history of NCAA joint partnerships in bid developments for a variety of indoor and outdoor sports, as well as partnerships with club sports in bidding events such as club hockey championships, national figure skating, and lacrosse, to name a few.

The Sports Commission also has a long partnership with the University of Michigan. Thanks to its world-class sports facilities, UM has a rich history of hosting major sporting events on campus, such as the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) Junior Olympic Games field hockey and swimming events, the NHL Winter Classic, International Champions Cup (ICC) soccer matches, and NCAA tournaments, regionals, and championships.


IT’S EASY TO CHOOSE ANN ARBOR

The great city of Ann Arbor offers some of the top athletic venues in the country with affordable and convenient lodging, dining, shopping, and entertainment for sports groups of all sizes, no matter the participants’ ages. 

So, what are some good reasons to bring your sporting event to Ann Arbor?

  • We’re only 20 minutes from the Detroit Metro International Airport
  • We’re a top dining destination in the Midwest (with over 300 restaurants in the area, you’re sure to find something to please everyone’s taste buds)
  • We offer unique and historic spaces for one-of-a-kind events
  • We have access to world-class athletic facilities throughout the county

And what can the Ann Arbor Sports Commission do for you?

  • Provide planning and research assistance
  • Facilitate hotel proposals and room blocks
  • Provide site tours, networking event recommendations, and expertise on facilities and accomodation
  • Supply welcome materials for your attendees
  • Operate and manage events
  • Grant sponsorship and volunteer help

FULFILLING THE DREAMS OF YOUNG ATHLETES

In 2011, I worked with the Chelsea Chamber of Commerce to bring a cycling event for the Special Olympics to the Chelsea Proving Grounds. Athletes of all ages attended, and it was one of the most positive, powerful events I’ve ever had the privilege to be a part of. Since the first event, it has grown into the Fall Games that now include kayaking, golf, flag football, soccer, and softball — which take place throughout all of Washtenaw County. In 2019, over 2,100 athletes competed!

I was reminded of the precious time I spent on the track in high school when we supported the Girls on the Run organization last year. The Ann Arbor Sports Commission sponsored their annual 5K race last year. Girls on the Run reaches girls at a critical stage, strengthening their confidence at a time when society begins to tear them down. Underscoring the important connection between physical and emotional health, the program addresses the whole girl when she needs it the most. I love their message of support for all girls and look forward to the day that my daughter, Gracie, can lace up and join their group.

THE SELF-RELIANT BENEFIT FROM MENTORSHIP

“One of the greatest values of a mentor is the ability to see what others cannot see and to help them navigate a course to their destination.” – John C. Maxwell

Being a female leader in the male-dominated world of sporting events has not always been easy. At times, it can be hard to be taken seriously. I have found that being confident, finding and using your voice, and fostering great relationships is the best way to break through. Two of the many things in my life that have made me stronger are CrossFit (proud member at Joust in Ann Arbor) and mentorship. I credit my increased self-confidence to my mentor at the Lansing Sports Authority. He’s been doing this for a lot longer than I have. When starting out in this business at 23, I wanted to find someone to push me to do things I thought I wasn’t capable of doing. I’ve been able to call him with any questions I have, and he finds a way to answer them in a manner that always builds me up. He encourages me to push forward through my doubts.

I’ll consider it a success if one day, someone calls me their mentor. I want to help build people up, make them believe in themselves, and help them down whatever path they chose.

LEADING UPWARD

I was recently appointed to the Board of Directors for the Sports Events and Tourism Association (sportseta.org), one of the industry’s most trusted resources for sports commissions and destinations. Since 1992, our promise has been to deliver quality education, ample networking opportunities, exceptional event management, and marketing know-how to our members, and to protect the integrity of the sports events and tourism industry. We work to provide tools and support for destinations around the country that are hoping to bring more sports to their areas. It’s an incredible and far-reaching non-profit organization!

The Sports Events and Tourism Association, or Sports ETA, started the Women’s Summit three years ago, and through this I’ve gained new relationships with strong women in the industry around the country. The power of this summit is that you can talk about issues that women face, such as being a working mom or other things not normally discussed at a work conference. As I’ve said, I believe it’s important for women to lift each other up, and this conference certainly supports that. 

At last year’s Women’s Summit, I was honored with the Rising Star Award by the Sports ETA for my commitment to the organization and service on committees. With their support, I look forward to moving onward and upward in the industry.

FAMILY AND THE FUTURE

Of course, being honored at the summit was rewarding to me, but being a mom to Gracie (6) and Maxwell (4) is what I’m most proud of. Most days, I feel confident in the job that I’m doing as their mom, but I’m also definitely learning as I go! 

So, what’s the key to my work/life balance? My supportive husband, Eric, who’s a partner in life and helps to balance out the logistics of running a household with two working parents and two young children. During the Michigan Stay Home, Stay Safe order, Eric and I have tag-teamed our efforts. Each of us works when we can and supports the other as we go. Both kids are now homeschooling; we’ve been doing lessons at the kitchen table.

For now, I’m focusing on the many exciting groups coming to the Ann Arbor area in the future, including the NAIA Competitive Cheer and Dance Championships and the NAIA Women’s Golf Championship, both in 2021.  

And just to let you know, we always need volunteers at the Ann Arbor Sports Commission! We’re constantly looking for sports fans that want to get involved. The amount of work that goes into putting on a sporting event is tremendous. If you want to be a part of an event in Washtenaw County, what better way to do that than to volunteer? There are many kinds of labor to choose from as we host local, regional, and national sporting events.

To learn more about the Ann Arbor Sports Commission, visit annarborsports.org. You can also keep up-to-date with the Ann Arbor Sports Commission on Instagram and Facebook at @annarborsports.

I’m so fortunate to live and work in such a wonderful community, and I’m eager to orchestrate the next opportunities for our athletes and the wider community. In the meantime, you can find me running the trails or area sidewalks of Ann Arbor as I prepare for my first full marathon later this year — even if it ends up being virtual!

Marji Wisniewski

BIO:

With a passion for marketing that started as a young girl, Marji Wisniewski created her own marketing and communications organization in 2017. As owner of Blue Zebra Marketing Solutions, she helps local and regional businesses, and non-profits tell their story through branding, graphic design, content creation and PR; focusing on customized solutions for each client that are more unique than a zebra’s stripes. 

A Michigan native, Marji received her undergrad from Western Michigan University and master’s from Wayne State University. When not working you can find her gardening, doing Pilates, listening to podcasts, and spending time with her family and two dogs.

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