Company’s coming, Birmingham. This summer the Magic City will host the biggest international sporting event since the Olympics—the World Games 2022—and will welcome thousands of athletes and spectators. Two Leadership Birmingham alumni—local organizing committee CEO Nick Sellers (’09) and World Games Foundation board chair Jonathan Porter (’11)—are managing the preparations. And they say the knowledge and experience they gained in their classes have been invaluable during several key moments leading up to the opening ceremony.
- The World Games becomes Birmingham’s games.
Since Birmingham won its hosting bid, World Games organizers have had plenty of opportunities to build upon concepts they learned and discussed in Leadership Birmingham. Perhaps the most important is that we’re all part of one big community.
“It’s important to have an event that everybody feels invested in. It can’t just be for one segment of the population,” Sellers says. “Leadership Birmingham prepared me for that more than anything else I’ve done.”
The organizing committee has worked hard to include communities throughout the region in preparations for the World Games. Competition venues dot the metropolitan area from downtown to the suburbs. A variety of outreach initiatives have planted trees in neighborhoods, provided elementary school teachers with education resources, and built connections with local athletic organizations. Right now, local artists are creating murals to bring the excitement of the World Games to walls across Jefferson and Shelby counties. “Even though we may have our own city or place, we’re all Birmingham,” Sellers says. “We’re inextricably connected.”
“We’re competing globally but uniting locally,” says Porter, who also serves as senior vice president of customer operations for Alabama Power. “It will take the entire community to make sure that the World Games is successful.”
Sellers calls the Games a “coming-of-age moment” that proves the Birmingham region can work together. He adds, “This is something bigger than a sporting event. These games can be a key milestone that propels us to bigger things. We can show the world how far we’ve come.”
- A World of Opportunity opens for diverse businesses.
Porter and Sellers are especially proud of World of Opportunity, the supplier diversity program. The organizing committee has committed to spend a sizable portion of its budget with small minority- and women-owned businesses for construction, technology, security and transportation services, event production, merchandise, printing, and other areas. “We are intentional about inclusion of folks from all walks of life,” Porter says. “We are leaving a legacy of collaboration.”
One part of that legacy will be the World of Opportunity supplier database, which currently connects diverse businesses with opportunities to provide goods and services to the World Games. After this summer, the city of Birmingham will receive the database, giving diverse companies a chance at future business opportunities. For Porter and Sellers, Leadership Birmingham shone a brighter light on inequities in the community, and they hope that World of Opportunity offers one solution to narrow the gaps. Sellers often reflects upon an exercise at Kelly Ingram Park, when members of his class shared insights into their childhoods, education, and more by stepping forward or standing still. “It was a visual observation that we all come from different stages in life, but that doesn’t put a lid on what we can achieve,” he says. “We have a wonderful opportunity to create a new mosaic of Birmingham moving forward,” Porter says.
- COVID-19 postpones the World Games.
The Birmingham Organizing Committee faced its biggest challenge when the COVID pandemic forced the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics to July 2021—the month originally designated for the World Games. Moving the event to 2022 meant reworking reams of meticulous plans for venues, schedules, athlete housing, sponsorships, budgets, and more that had been carefully negotiated with dozens of local and state governments and agencies, universities, corporations, and other organizations.
In that moment, Porter was thankful for the relationships he had forged through Leadership Birmingham. “It’s helpful to be able to call other leaders who understand that it’s important for the community to come together and showcase the city and state in a productive way.” Porter adds that the World Games is the state’s largest fund-raiser, and he is grateful for the financial support that is helping the organizing committee approach its target. “We couldn’t have done that without Leadership Birmingham graduates who are leading major corporations and who stepped up,” he says.
- A social media campaign champions fair play.
In the spring of 2020, phones began blowing up all over the World Games offices. An avalanche of social media posts was advocating for the Iroquois national lacrosse team—ranked third in the world, with athletes from the Native American tribe that invented the sport, yet unable to compete for a gold medal in Birmingham because the Iroquois were not recognized as a sovereign nation under the rules of the World Games or the International Olympic Committee. As leaders of the local organizing committee, Sellers and Porter weren’t really in a position to change those rules. But they decided to try anyway.
They were inspired, in part, by what they had learned in Leadership Birmingham. “You have to try to put yourself in other people’s shoes and understand where they’re coming from,” Sellers says. “As leaders, we have the remote,” Porter says. “If we don’t like what we see, we can change it.” Porter and Sellers spent the next three weeks appealing to the United States and Canadian Olympic committees, the International World Games Association’s executive committee, and World Lacrosse. Ultimately, the Iroquois were granted an exemption to compete. By then, World Lacrosse had seeded the top eight teams, but “in an unbelievable display of sportsmanship, the Irish lacrosse team voluntarily withdrew from the World Games so that the Iroquois nation could take its rightful place,” Sellers says. This summer, the Iroquois team will be the first in the history of the World Games to represent an indigenous ethnic group.
Sellers and Porter aren’t the only alumni organizing this summer’s World Games. See who else is preparing to welcome the world:
World Games staff:
Kathy Boswell (’13), executive vice president of community engagement
Jay Roberson (’13), vice president of sales
Khadijah Abdullah (‘16)
Leroy Abrahams (’16)
Scott Adams (’10)
Brian Barr (’03)
Rebekah Elgin-Council (’14)
Bobby Humphrey (’12)
Joe Knight (’12)
Scott Myers (’14)
Andrea Smith (’12)
Tad Snider (’14)
Britney Summerville (’22)
Jeff Underwood (’98)
Lisa Warren (’17)