Name a sporting event, and Frank Viverito has probably been there. Not just one time, but again and again and again.
Firsthand knowledge of the Final Four or Olympic gymnastics trials or U.S. figure skating championships and just about anything else imaginable has been his best business practice.
As president of the St. Louis Sports Commission since 1995, Viverito’s job has been to sell St. Louis as the landing spot for games and competitions of all shapes and sizes. His haul has been impressive.
With the commission’s plate full for a few years to come, Viverito is ready to step away, having announced his retirement at the end of 2022 at the organization’s board meeting Wednesday morning.
“We’ve spent every nickel on getting on planes, going to events and meeting the people who ran them to understand how they came together,” Viverito said. “That’s the only way we have ever done marketing. We’ve never had exhibit booths. We’ve never run a single newspaper or magazine ad. We’ve never sponsored a luncheon or dinner at a trade show. We don’t have trinkets.”
Viverito built the sports commission into one of the best in a field now crowded with hundreds in the United States. Three times it has been named the best in the country by the National Association of Sports Commissions.
The New York native along with his staff have relied entirely on private investment — most commissions benefit from public money — to bring some of the biggest sporting events to the city.
Top-drawing games have run the gamut from NCAA championships for men’s and women’s basketball, hockey and wrestling to major golf tournaments, Olympic trials and international soccer.
“I’ve talked to people from early on who said, ‘We really weren’t sure where this was going to go, but we’re pleased with where it’s gotten to,’” Viverito said. “I’ve always said this is such a great town to do something like this.”
The sports commission was formed in 1989, and St. Louis was one of 12 cities with a commission when the national association was formed in 1992. There are now more than 600 members.
The competition for events has become fierce with millions, even billions, of dollars involved. When Viverito made his first bid for the NCAA wrestling championships, he came to discover that three cities had made bids for three years. It would have been difficult to fail.
In 1999, he went to the wrestling championships at Penn State to spread the word about St. Louis hosting the next year.
“We were the new kids on the block, and this older gentleman came up to me — a grizzled former wrestler — and practically put a finger through my chest,” Viverito said. “He said, ‘I’ve been coming to this event for 65 years. Don’t you screw it up.’ It registered to me that this was a big deal.”
St. Louis has held the wrestling championships nine times, growing the event into what Viverito calls a celebration of the sport. He calls it one of the most rewarding success stories of his tenure.
The next generation of events will fall under Marc Schreiber, a longtime sports commission vice president and traveling partner for Viverito. Schreiber, who will become president, and vice president Chris Roseman spent a lot of time together on those trips, learning the ropes and cultivating relationships.
Together they scouted out opportunities and developed other projects such as the Musial Awards for sportsmanship, the Olympic legacy initiative and the upcoming Let ’em Play program as a support resource for referees at all levels.
“Just the events he has brought to St. Louis would make a resume of success,” Schreiber said. “But I think what made him so valuable was his visionary thinking. A lot of people wouldn’t go down these paths or think about doing these kinds of initiatives. He’s very much the vision behind them.”
When the sports commission was bidding for the 2020 Olympic gymnastics trials, Viverito and his staff arranged to take the USA Gymnastics staff to Washington University to see the newly installed Olympic rings and Francis Field, where Olympic events were held in 1904. When they exited the shuttle, the group was greeted by Jackie Joyner Kersee.
These are the kinds of touches Viverito and his co-workers have strived for to remain a player in an increasingly competitive field. St. Louis will always have memories of some major events that also were aided by Viverito’s wife, Patty, who has worked in commissioner roles with the Missouri Valley Conference for more than three decades.
The 2001 women’s Final Four was one of the biggest successes and received significant boosts from the presence of Missouri State and Notre Dame, led by guard Niele Ivey from Cor Jesu Academy. Four years later, the men’s Final Four did even bigger business at the dome with Illinois as a participant.
Then came the Frozen Four, a string of wrestling championships, the PGA Championship and men’s and women’s gymnastics trials, among dozens of events. Viverito will retire having helped lure an NCAA hockey regional in 2024, the Frozen Four in 2025 and first- and second-round games in the men’s NCAA basketball tournament in 2026.
What does he consider his role in all of it?
“The two things are a love for St. Louis and sports — just a passion for that — and the other attribute is consensus building and relationship building,” he said. “That’s what I did, and we built a team that could be successful.”