Sports

'Game Changer' Mary Lee Malmberg retiring at end of month

Ogden column: Director of sports tourism in Cedar Rapids has been 'amazing' for community

Colorado Springs forward Trevor Krajcovic and Mizzou forward Tanner Pedersen battle for the puck during the National Col
Colorado Springs forward Trevor Krajcovic and Mizzou forward Tanner Pedersen battle for the puck during the National Collegiate Roller Hockey Championships in 2016, one of many events Mary Lee Malmberg brough to Cedar Rapids in her role as director of sports tourism. Malmberg is retiring later this month. (Rebecca F. Miller/The Gazette)
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Mary Lee Malmberg opened a recent Zoom meeting with some bad news.

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, Cedar Rapids lost 19 sporting events and $11.5 million in direct visitor spending.

That was bad, but not a surprise. The shocker was second on her agenda.

After more than 31 years in the tourism business — about 20 as director of sports tourism in Cedar Rapids — Malmberg announced she is retiring June 26.

Why should you care? Many of you may not even know who Mary Lee Malmberg is.

But if you’ve enjoyed events like the high school state volleyball tournament — “that’s always near and dear to my heart,” she said in a 2015 interview — or NCAA Division III and Division II wrestling championships, know Malmberg played a big role in those landing in Cedar Rapids.

How about more obscure things like the 2017 International Juggling Festival or the National Collegiate Roller Hockey Championships? How about the Ladies Titan Tire Challenge, a Symtra Tour golf event held at Hunters Ridge Golf Course?

Those — and many, many more — were Mary Lee, too.

The Cedar Rapids Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, in 1999, decided to launch a Sports Tourism Department. Malmberg volunteered to head the branch and soon after formed a Sports Advisory Committee. I’ve had the pleasure of knowing, and working with, Mary Lee for more years than I’d like to remember as part of that committee.

She may not know all the ins and outs of every sport, all the Xs and Os, but she knows what questions to ask and she knows how to sell Cedar Rapids. In 2017, she was awarded the “Game Changer Award” from the Sports Events & Tourism Association. It was a deserving honor and an appropriate name for someone who changed sports tourism in Cedar Rapids.

“I think there are quality-of-life things that happen when sports come here,” she said in that 2015 interview.

But don’t take just my word for it. Part of her job was connecting the right people with the events she wanted to bring to Cedar Rapids. She has worked with all of Cedar Rapids’ “sports people” at one time or another to make this happen.

Chuck Yrigoyen, commissioner of the American Rivers Conference, worked closely with Malmberg on wrestling and last summer’s NCAA Division III baseball championships. He noted in an email “the people of Cedar Rapids owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to Mary Lee for bringing major sporting events to Cedar Rapids. She is as genuine and caring as a person can be.”

Jack Roeder, president/CEO at Prospect Meadows Sports Complex after a long career with the Cedar Rapids Kernels, noted she “will be missed. ... I enjoyed working on many projects with her over the years, with my favorite being the 2006 American Legion World Series. Mary Lee was one of the key forces in making that a reality.

“Mary Lee was a true professional in every sense of the word, and had the perfect personality to make it all work.”

Angie Cole, recreation superintendent for Cedar Rapids Parks and Recreation, said “our memories together are filled with triumphs, defeats and a great friendship. Mary Lee has done amazing things for our community.”

Denny Goettel, retired activities director at Cedar Rapids Washington, noted Malmberg “brought thousands and thousands of people to events in Cedar Rapids that generated many dollars for hotels and restaurants ... Mary Lee did a terrific job for the community without ever bringing much attention to herself.

“Mary Lee carried herself graciously and with that constant smile throughout her work and association with others.”

Randy Krejci, another former Cedar Rapids Community School District activities director, said “Mary Lee is a pillar in our community. She is an example of what’s right in Cedar Rapids and has fashioned an extraordinary career ...”

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Scott Unash, KGYM sports personality and race director at Hawkeye Downs Speedway, said Malmberg “set the blueprint for how to bring in a wide variety of events.”

In her final email to the committee she put together, she wrote “I am very proud of the body of work we have accomplished together over this time.”

That feeling, obviously, is mutual.

Comments: jr.ogden@thegazette.com

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