The coldest month of the year made Greensboro cool.
And Hill Carrow? Well, he was Jack Frost.
Four years after their debut here, the U.S. Figure Skating Championships have returned to the Greensboro Coliseum, with Carrow again serving as chairman of the local organizing committee.
Carrow, the 60-year-old CEO of Sports & Properties Inc. in Cary, led the effort to bring figure skating to Greensboro in 2011, convincing an established winter sport to try a little Southern hospitality.
It was audacious. And it worked.
It worked so well that Greensboro bid for the 100th anniversary of the event and was a finalist in an Olympic year, losing the 2014 championships to traditional figure-skating hotbed Boston but winning this year’s event without bidding. Not a bad consolation prize.
“Honestly, could Greensboro have gotten this event without Hill? Yes,” said Bob Dunlop, senior director of events for U.S. Figure Skating. “But would it have happened? Probably not. Every event needs someone like him. This is what Hill does.”
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What Carrow does is network. He is a lawyer and an events promoter and a businessman.
But, above all, Carrow is a relationship builder.
Carrow finds ways for both the events he promotes and the places where he promotes them to win. That’s a valuable skill, said Henri Fourrier, president of Greensboro’s Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“A lot of people don’t know this,” Fourrier said, “but Hill used to work for the U.S. Olympic Committee and reported directly to Mitt Romney. He knows people. He knows a lot of people — in swimming and track and gymnastics and skating, just to name just a few. He has helped us get our foot in the door.
“This ice skating event, for instance: Someone needs to be accountable for contracting and taking care of all the little details. Hill and his company are very good at that. It’s been a good partnership, for him in the private sector and us in the public sector.”
Carrow’s work in the private sector started as a lawyer for Carolina Power & Light in the go-go 1980s.
In his spare time, the then 32-year-old former college swimmer at UNC-Chapel Hill organized the 1987 U.S. Olympic Festival — a 34-event monster he dragged to his home state by force of will.
Force of will to get more than 40 North Carolina companies as sponsors. Force of will to bombard the U.S. Olympic Committee every day with letters and petitions signed by tens of thousands of people.
Carrow went on to work for the USOC and Sara Lee before starting his own consulting firm. He lived in Colorado and New York and finally back home in North Carolina. He started the National Association of Sports Commissions, wooed USA Baseball from the Arizona desert to the Triangle and promoted event after event.
“It’s all about relationships,” Carrow said. “You want to do business with people you feel comfortable with. That’s the way I try to position things working with Greensboro. Yes, it was an untested market in 2011 when figure skating came here. But we had two things going for us.”
No. 1: U.S. Figure Skating had already taken a chance on mid-size market Spokane, Wash., in 2007 and 2010. Those two events rank first and second in attendance in the organization’s 100-year history.
No. 2: Greensboro has strong leadership and a reliable volunteer network.
“This business is all about risk-taking,” Carrow said. “They needed to feel like if they took the risk, everybody in Greensboro would work their (tails) off. That’s certainly what we did. All the commitments we made, we delivered on.”
Those of us who were there that night remember the scene. There was the mascot of the new ho…
Success begets success. And events beget more events.
Carrow’s colleague Ron Galimore, chief operating officer for USA Gymnastics, was at the coliseum for the figure skating nationals in 2011. That wasn’t an accident. It was a sales pitch.
The Greensboro Coliseum complex was the first venue to host figure skating’s main rink, practice rink and FanFest under one roof.
Since then, Greensboro hosted last year’s Nastia Liukin Cup and American Cup international meet and landed this year’s USA Gymnastics Championships, which draw about 1,600 competitors in trampoline and tumbling, rhythmic gymnastics and acrobatic gymnastics.
“Greensboro has demonstrated through other events that there’s a critical mass to support events like ours,” said Steve Penny, president of USA Gymnastics. “... This is a prototype of something we’ve wanted to do for a long time, and it works because of the venue.”
And the leadership.
Carrow also convinced U.S. Masters Swimming to hold a national meet at the then-unfinished Greensboro Aquatic Center. Success there led to events including three YMCA nationals and December’s USA Swimming Winter Nationals, featuring star Olympians Katie Ledecky and Nathan Adrian.
“If you count 2011 and 2015 figure skating, and the two gymnastics events, that’s somewhere in the neighborhood of 25,000 hotel room nights and 33 hours of national TV coverage,” Carrow said. “And you can trace it directly back to that one event in 2011. People don’t think of it this way, but cumulatively, it’s been a huge impact.”
The impact has been huge. So, too, has the ripple effect on Greensboro’s sports scene.
“Generally speaking, any time you host a national event, others watch. They pay attention to what it’s like,” said Kim Strable, president of the Greensboro Sports Commission. “... With Olympic sports in particular, Hill has made a lot of headway. He doesn’t bring events just to Greensboro. He’s a well-recognized professional in the industry. They realize if Hill is involved, it will be done really, really well.”
Carrow has marketed both figure skating championships as North Carolina events rather than Greensboro events, selling tickets statewide.
But the truth is, Greensboro is the only place the event works.
“You couldn’t do this in Raleigh. You couldn’t do this in Charlotte,” Carrow said. “You’ve got to have the additional facilities of the Special Events Center to pull it off. Even a city like Boston — our candidate for the next Olympics — had to do this event at four different sites last year with long shuttle bus rides to get from place to place. People don’t realize the full capabilities of the Greensboro Coliseum Complex. This is an event that shows it.”
So what’s next?
Dunlop, figure skating’s events director, said he can envision a “long-term relationship” with Greensboro. His group’s skaters and coaches like having their event under one roof. They’re impressed with coliseum renovations made over the past four years.
And Greensboro has Carrow.
“We’re essentially a traveling road show,” Dunlop said. “We need that strong local person who can dot the I’s and cross the T’s. Someone who can work behind the scenes and attract people and sponsors. Hill understands what it takes to put on an event. ... He’s kept Greensboro in the conversation, asking: ‘What else can we do?’ Will it be another championships? Will it be a Worlds? It’s a conversation that’s continued.”