FAYETTEVILLE, Ark. (BRAIN) — The city has hired longtime event firm Medalist Sports to manage two high-profile cyclocross races this fall and next winter. Medalist replaces Parkven Productions, owned by Brook Watts and Kristin Diamond, which parted ways with the events last month as the race community pondered responses to Arkansas’ recent anti-transgender legislation.
Watts told BRAIN Friday that he was surprised and confused when the city asked to end its three-year, $320,000 contract with his company, days after he publicly denounced the legislation. He said the city’s tourism bureau, Experience Fayetteville, which owns the events, refused to seriously consider how the legislation could harm them. He said he raised those concerns with the bureau as early as February.
This week the city Advertising & Promotions Commission, which oversees Experience Fayetteville, approved the contract paying Medalist a $231,000 management fee to manage a UCI World Cup in October and the UCI Cyclo-cross World Championships, scheduled for January 2022.
The events are funded by a $2.3 million grant from the Walton Family Foundation. The grant also funded a 2019 race in Fayetteville.
Medalist, based in Georgia, has produced events including the Tour DuPont, Tour de Georgia, Amgen Tour of California and the LIVESTRONG Challenges. It will produce the 2021 USA Pro Road National Championships in Tennessee next month. Medalist is owned by Chris Aronhalt.
Causes for separation
In mid-March, as the Arkansas legislature was debating the legislation, members of the U.S. cyclocross community began questioning whether they should support the races. On March 26 Watts denounced the Arkansas legislation, calling it “discriminatory and hateful.” He said he understood calls for a boycott but asked that people instead support groups working to make Arkansas more inclusive.
A week later, an “as-told-to” article in Bicycling by transgender racer, team owner, and activist Molly Cameron brought the issue to the wider cycling community and industry. Stopping just short of calling for a boycott, Cameron said the high-profile UCI events were an opportunity for industry members to take actions in line with public statements in favor of inclusion and equity in the sport.
But even before Cameron’s article, Parkven and Experience Fayetteville were moving toward a split.
On March 31, Molly Rawn, the CEO of Experience Fayetteville, sent an email to Watts and Diamond proposing to end their $320,000 event management contract, which had begun in 2019. Both sides eventually agreed to separate, with Experience Fayetteville paying Parkven the balance of the contract to end it.
Watts announced the separation April 21. While he didn’t explicitly say the separation resulted from differences over response to the legislation, he ended by saying, “I remain dedicated to continuing to use my position of influence in the cyclo-cross community to fight for equity in racing, and to ensure that the sport is accepting and welcoming to all.”
Two days later Rawn released a statement thanking Watts for his work, especially his input on the event course design. She said her organization was 100% committed to producing “a successful and inclusive event.”
But Rawn later told Arkansas media that her issues with Parkven preceded the uproar over the legislation. She noted that both Experience Fayetteville (on March 31) and Bill Walton, the chairman of the Walton Family Foundation (on April 6), released public statements critical of the legislation. Rawn told ArkansasBusiness.com that unspecified “local problems” contributed to the separation and that Parkven and Experience Fayetteville had not been “a good fit.” She told the Arkansas Democrat Gazette that the separation with Parkven had nothing to do with Watts’ March 26 tweet.
On Friday, Watts told BRAIN he stood by his previous statements.
“My public statement on March 26 denouncing the Arkansas anti-trans legislation was made only after Experience Fayetteville refused to recognize the seriousness of this issue which we brought to their attention in mid-February,” he said. “A few short days later on March 31 Experience Fayetteville unexpectedly requested a mutual termination of our agreement. We were naturally confused. Our response was that there was no reason for termination.
“At that point, Experience Fayetteville’s attorney attempted to unilaterally terminate the agreement and offered to pay Parkven all amounts owed under the agreement. We consulted with legal counsel regarding our options. While there was a legitimate legal recourse for Parkven, there seemed little reason to remain where we were not wanted or to continue working in a state with so much hate,” he said.
BRAIN reached out to Experience Fayetteville on Friday for comment and we haven’t heard back. We will update this story when they respond.
According to meeting minutes, on April 26 Rawn told the Advertising & Promotions Commission that her group was closely monitoring responses to the legislation. She said she was aware of boycott threats but didn’t know of any business that had seen a decline in sales as a result. According to the minutes, she reminded the group of the anti-trans bathroom law passed in North Carolina in 2014, which hurt business in that state until the law was repealed. The Associated Press estimated the North Carolina law cost the state $3.8 billion in business.