Sunday, August 05, 2012

Sports columnist Aaron McFarling: Local sports club is on the ropes

The dinner had been eaten. The speech had been delivered. The monthly raffle would be performed in just a few minutes.

But first â? any questions?

Oh, yes. The 70-year-old woman near the front had one. And another. And another.

"Stinespring won't ever answer my questions," Carol McGuire-Bishop said Monday night, leaning forward in her folding chair at the Salem Civic Center. "I want to know: Are you trying to find some good O-linemen?"

Shane Beamer smiled.

"Well," the Virginia Tech assistant coach said, "we don't try to find bad ones, I can say that."

McGuire-Bishop, a longtime Tech football season ticket holder from Clifton Forge, was not done. She wanted answers. She grilled Beamer about missed blocks. She grilled him about questionable special teams play. The late Mike Wallace would have been proud.

"You're on a roll," Beamer said at one point. "I'm not going to stop you."

The exchange drew some laughs from the audience, but Beamer never dropped his pleasant demeanor. He's a pro. Besides, he was only doing something his father had done before.

In fact, he was doing something Howard Cosell, Charlie Manuel, Dave Parker, Archie Griffin, Skip Carey and dozens of other prominent sports figures have done: spend an evening with the Roanoke Valley Sports Club.

It'd be a shame if the club were to disappear.

Think about it: Where else can you get this? Where else can you pull up this close to a decision-maker on the team you adore, with no alumni or booster requirements? Where else can you get the answers you seek, straight from the source, and enjoy a little camaraderie while you're at it?

The Roanoke Valley Sports Club has been meeting one Monday a month since 1993 - and its roots date all the way to the 1970s - yet it appears to remain one of the best-kept secrets in the Roanoke Valley.

Next month, the guest is former UVa basketball star and current ACC hoops commentator Cory Alexander. November features new Tech basketball coach James Johnson. In December, former champion boxer Pernell "Sweat Pea" Whitaker is scheduled to speak.

Did you know all that? Don't feel bad. Neither did I.

"Essentially nobody knows we're having the meeting," board member Phil Key said. "Unless it's some really outstanding speaker, it doesn't get noticed."

Part of that, quite honestly, is the club's own fault. Facebook and Twitter present fabulous opportunities for free publicity, and the club has yet to use either.

Their PR approach is more traditional and reflective of the average age of membership, which is pushing 70. They tell friends, make pitches to the local newspapers and TV stations, hand out flyers to folks they see on the golf course.

Those are great methods, too, but they don't seem to be working. Once a booming organization of 400 members, the club is down to roughly 120 and seems to be losing about a member a month.

Membership is cheap. The dues are $30 a year, with all the money going to pay speakers. The buffet is $15 per session, with all of that going to the Salem Civic Center to pay for the food and service. Nonmembers can attend a meeting for $20.

"If we get down below 100 members, this is not sustainable at those rates," board member Bill Shrader said. "You put a pencil to it. It won't work. â? You've got to do something to get more bodies or fundraise, get a stream of revenue coming in here."

Special events have been highly successful. The club drew 900 people to the Hotel Roanoke for a banquet honoring J.J. Redick last decade. A night featuring Frank Beamer and Al Groh had the Salem Civic Center conference room so stuffed that the club had to move the buffet into the hallway.

But those meetings are the exceptions.

"My pet peeve is that if it's not a Tech or UVa person speaking, people don't come," said secretary Maggie Drewry, who became the club's first female member when she joined in 1978. "And we've had some of our very best speakers who have not been affiliated with either school. [ACC basketball official] Roger Ayers comes to mind. He's a wonderful speaker.

"It's embarrassing sometimes, we'll have 50 people show up for what turns out to be some of our better speakers."

They drew 75 for Shane Beamer, but how many will return is the question. After Monday's meeting, a club member handed McGuire-Bishop a brochure that included an application for membership.


The sports fan shook her head. No thanks.

For more information on the Roanoke Valley Sports Club, call president Dave Ross at 293-3548 or vice president John Montgomery at 761-6751.

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