In this edition, Angel City Games founder Clayton Frech talks about the challenges and rewards of creating a first-class adaptive sports extravaganza, and how a healthy wariness of tornados ultimately led to the discovery of beauty within chaos.
For the past several years, Los Angeles businessman Clayton Frech has played an active role in the adaptive sports movement, motivated in part by the achievements of his son Ezra, a remarkable paralympic athlete and motivational speaker. Team Ezra has long supported, advocated and raised funds for organizations like the Challenged Athletes Foundation, Camp No Limits, and the Prosthetic Outreach Foundation. But recently Clayton Frech took it up a couple of notches. He founded a new organization called Angel City Sports, and simultaneously created the Angel City Games, an adaptive track and field event and multi-sport festival. It probably goes without saying that it’s a huge step to go from advocate and fundraiser to founder and event owner. I sat down recently with Clayton and asked him how he came to make that leap…
You know, I wish I could tell you that it was part of a strategic plan, but it really wasn’t. The simple fact was for much of the last ten years, I’ve had to travel to give Ezra exposure to any kind of adaptive sport. There’s so little offering in sort of Los Angeles proper and even Southern California, that we just traveled. And a few years ago I realized—because Ezra loves basketball, loves team sports—I realized I don’t know when that ends for him, but I want him to know what’s out there beyond team sports. And he’s such a great athlete, and such a determined athlete that he could be successful in almost any sport. So I’d been kind of tracking the Endeavor Games, which is one of the bigger paralympic style multi-sport competitions, in Oklahoma, and waiting for the right time to go. And so 2 ½ years ago, so 2013, I signed him up. I knew nothing about track and field. I grew up a surf bum/skateboarder in Santa Barbara, and I thought people that did triathlons and track and field were out of their minds. So I didn’t even know what events to sign him up for. Just made up a bunch of stuff and signed him up, and he and I went. He got classified, which I didn’t understand at the time. It’s where you’re put into disability class so you can compete fairly, which to me is sort of an undersung component of the paralympic movement, which is they’re actually creating fair competition. He did a bunch of clinics before he competed, and then he competed in, I think, six different track and field events—some running, jumping and throwing events.
And at the last day of the event, on Sunday, we’re sitting on the track, and it just sort of hit me that I’m in Oklahoma in the middle of tornado season, sitting on a track, and there’s tens of thousands of tracks around the country—certainly plenty in California—to do something that just didn’t seem that unique that it needed to happen in Oklahoma. And so I sort of opened my big mouth at the time. And I asked some of the officials, “Why don’t we do these kinds of events in Southern California?” And two of the officials were from Southern Cal, and had flown to Oklahoma to officiate. They said, “Well, we’re from Southern Cal and we love this stuff, and I don’t know; no one’s stepped up to the plate. There’s nobody sort of leading the charge for this community.” And I basically made the commitment right then to these guys. I said, “Alright, well I’m going to do it. Cause it makes sense to me.” So that was really that sort of inflection point for us as Team Ezra going beyond just being that fundraising vehicle and supporting other organizations to starting to create things.
When I saw that I needed to do this I remember telling a friend of mine, “Everything I’ve done in my life has prepared me for this moment—to figure out how to do this, and do it well.” My events background, I’ve been raising money in this spot. I’ve seen a lot of these events already, taking my son around. Like everything was sort of aligned for me to figure it out, even though it’s really hard and complicated.
So who was your first phone call when you said ‘OK, I’m in now’? There were a number of different avenues you could’ve pursued, so what was your first phone call?
Really great question. So, the two guys that were on the field that day were Dave Smith, head of officials for Southern California chapter of USA Track & Field—one of the country’s top officials for adaptive track and field; and then Rich Robert, who is an IPC technical delegate and also one of the top officials. So he’s the one that goes in and makes sure IPC-sanctioned events are run per IPC sanctioning rules. And so I had two mentors right away. I actually stopped them at the airport leaving Oklahoma. And so Dave Smith and I, and Ezra sat together at the airport for an hour or two before we got on our different planes to head back to L.A. and I just started picking his brain, trying to understand who are the players—who do we need to talk to make this happen?
And then I got connected to WASUSA, now Adaptive Sports USA, and the chairman sort of adopted me—Gregg Baumgarten, who started the Desert Challenge Games in Arizona thirty years ago, started Arizona Disabled Sports thirty years ago. The guy’s a legend in this business. I went to Chula Vista to meet with U.S. Paralympics. And so that was like this 20-person meeting that was really overwhelming for me, because their question back to me was, “You can’t just have a competition. You have to have programming. You have to involve the athletes. Where are your clinics? How are you…” And I just thought, “I have a full-time job. I have three kids at home. I’m one guy that sort of raised his hand to do an event, and now they’re asking me to do all this other programming.” I said, “I can’t do it. I’m one guy.”
So the word from U.S. Paralympics is they view Southern California as a talent black hole. So you think about the talent that we send to the NFL, the NBA, the NHL, for god’s sake. Major League Baseball. We send talent to every major pro sport, but we don’t send talent to the Paralympics. We send talent to the Olympics. Think about the UCLA and USC athletes that compete in the Olympics, they’re like mid-sized countries, their alums. It’s a travesty. And so the problem is there’s no local programming. There’s no local sports programming. Or it’s got a lot of gaps.
I have an events background. I’ve been doing events, whether it was official job title or not, my whole life. I’ve always been the guy that just pulled stuff together, and I really believe in the value of the live events, and the importance of the live events for everyone. And frankly I think it’s becoming more important, with technology consuming so much of our time and we’re not interacting face-to-face with people. So I really think this is an important area for us as a society. Well, U.S. Paralympics was really pushing me to start with programming and clinics. And I just thought,“I’m going to create a big, sexy, fun competition. And we’ll do some clinics, too, along with it.” To me, the missing…there’s a lot of gaps in adaptive sports programming across the country. But Southern Cal, in particular, one of the most glaring gaps is there’s no place to compete. So as I sort of started to think about it, I just started to think, “OK, how can we take the existing paralympic multi-sport competition model and make it more interesting?” And so, the result of the Games is, you know, we weren’t as big as some of these other competitions, but it was our first year. But we really tried to make it more of a celebration, more of a festival, and more of an event experience rather than just a competition that happens and it’s like a tree falling in the woods and nobody’s there to hear it. And so we’re backing into the clinics side and athlete development now. Now that we’ve proven we can run a great Games, we’re going to create a surplus from the Games that we’ll move over to help support the clinics. A feeder system. Yeah. So, we felt like we, over time, could be a destination event, not just for people in the United States, but even beyond. So you get a couple of things out of coming to the Angel City Games. And over time we hope to do an Opening Ceremonies at the Universal Studios Live, and then Closing Ceremonies at Paramount Studios, and whatever—and really leverage what we have in L.A. We try to keep it as simple as possible for now, but the big vision would be do an Opening Ceremony with a parade of thousands of athletes.
What was the biggest surprise, as you went through preparation for the first Angel City Games—both good and bad?
I mean, I got a taste of it early on, but I think the bad surprise was just the complexity of this world, and just the different sanctioning organizations, and the classification is challenging. We try and figure out who’s really in control of what. So it is extremely daunting. I had a lot of advisors and support along the way, but it was really hard to maintain a full-time job and try to pull this off. Like, really hard. So just the sort of sheer complexity of it. The ideal scenario is probably that you’ve raised the funds, or had the financial support in order to dedicate staff way ahead—maybe two years ahead—to properly execute this.
I’ll give you a second challenge, which is the athletes or potential athletes are just not organized, in any meaningful shape. They’re not collecting anywhere. It’s really hard to find the athletes. They don’t know this is available. Most of them don’t even know too much about the paralympic movement. There’s a huge awareness problem. And they’re just not aggregated anywhere. So I think we have to build a brand that transcends all of these groups. You know, I think sport is one place where this community can come together—because of the classification system, it allows athletes with a wide range of disabilities to compete on a level playing field. So this is really a fascinating challenge, right, because you have to essentially you almost have to recruit person by person.
Have you heard from anybody that you were surprised to hear from? Someone that reached out to you that found out what you were doing and said, “How can we help? How can we get involved?”
That’s a really good question. I mean, I will tell you I feel really blessed to have the path that we’ve had so far, because when I talk about what we want to do, almost everybody I meet says, “How can I help?” People get it. They see the need. They see what sports means to Ezra, because it defines him. He’s an athlete. He’s not a kid with a disability. And so to the extent that anybody in this community would want to get into sports and, whether you’re serious or not, at least it’s an option. Most people can’t afford to fly around all over the country to take their kids to different things. So really the intent for us is to build locally so people don’t have to fly. They can save their money for other things and we’ll bring the programming to them, or as close to them as we can get it. And so really doors keep opening.
So you’ve got big plans. I’ve noticed in just the time that we’ve spent together, just your body language and your expressions—you’re visibly enthused. It’s great to see.
Well the fun thing about this community is, the way I say it is, “Every stone I turn over there’s a problem, but also an opportunity.” There’s so much that could be done, and should be done for this community. So I’m not trying to minimize what we’re doing, but like, the opportunity is so timeless, and if we can continue to build the brand and the database, and the programming that these folks are interested in, we could be the biggest adaptive sports program in the country.
Is there anything that I haven’t brought up that you wanted to make sure I took away?
You came to the Games, and that’s kind of the primary piece of the story, but maybe I can articulate the rest of the vision. We sort of see four primary buckets of activity. So the Games being the annual showcase celebration, essentially, where you get to learn and compete in a variety of sports.
The second bucket is sort of clinics and athlete development. And so this year we’ll probably add six to eight introductory sport clinics. So some of them will be at the Games—the Thursday of the Games—but some will be standalone; sitting volleyball down at the USA Volleyball facility in Anaheim. We’ll probably do an adaptive golf clinic. Probably do skateboarding, probably do baseball at the Dodgers—the Dodgers just built an accessible ballpark. So just pop a few different clinics and just get people out, learning and having some fun. So those will be sort of trial balloons. We’ll see where the interest is and then we’ll be able to create additional programming after those clinics.
The third bucket is equipment, and so, there’s a lot of layers to the equipment piece, because many of these athletes need some type of equipment to compete. So equipment needs are probably tiered into a few different levels. One is just for our own usage in different clinics, so we need to build our own inventory. With CIF getting into adaptive track and field and swimming for next year—it’s a new announcement, that just came out a week, two weeks ago, they put the press release out—there’s an opportunity for us to potentially create a loaner program for racing wheelchairs and throwing chairs. And then the third tier of the equipment would be loaning or granting equipment to other adaptive sports programs around Southern California. So that sort of assumes we fundraise way beyond our immediate needs and we can actually support existing…allow other programs to grow. Programming really needs to be pretty local, so if somebody’s local and willing to expand, we’ll try to help them. So that’s the third bucket.
The fourth bucket is what we sort of call leadership, but really trying to be the big umbrella, and the big tent for everybody to connect in, and sort of starting to do some networking events where we bring in the adaptive sports community together to talk about what do we need as a community, what direction are we going, you know, create event calendars, and be a resource for people, whether they want to sponsor, whether they’re a facility that wants to host, whether they’re a coach that wants to get into some of these adaptive sports, whether they’re an athlete… Limited to Southern California? For now, but I think because Howard and I both have national contacts, we can connect people wherever they are, to the best of our ability.
In event production, no matter what it is, there’s a moment of triumph—a moment where you say, “This was worth it, and not only was it worth it, I want to do it again.” What was your moment of triumph for the Angel City Games?
I mean, there were so many. So I know you’re asking me to pick one… You don’t have to limit yourself to one… I’ll give you the two moments where beauty was found within chaos. So during the competition there were two moments where we completely lost control of the event. Like completely lost control. I can think of one already—when Adam Sandler showed up. So when Sandler showed up—he’s a friend of ours—and he walked straight out onto the track in the middle of a track meet, right? And the crowd that sort of gathered around him to take pictures and whatever—and he’s such a kind man, so he was just hanging out with everybody. I literally watched it for about a minute and I just told everybody on the walkie-talkie, “Just shut it down until we can get Adam out of here.” It was bonkers.
And then the second moment was the toddler run. So we had four heats of these little toddlers, we had probably 18 or 20 little toddler athletes—all different disabilities. And we really wanted them to feel the love and so we tried to sort of put everybody around the track for them. But it was just too chaotic, and we really lost control of that moment. But it was still probably my favorite moment of the entire Games, was just watching these little guys.
Another moment, too, for me was watching…after the celebrity wheelchair game, which was…like everything went really well on the clinic day and we got three hours of radio programming. They were interviewing our athletes and our coaches on AM-570 Sports, L.A.’s biggest sports radio station. And then after the celebrity game we had a deejay with like, a drum set, and it just turned it into this party. We had like, real serious guys were scrimmaging on the basketball court. I didn’t even realize—I was doing something else and I went back in there, and it was just magical. The sun was starting to set, and the lighting was beautiful, and the music, and people were having a blast. And I just thought, “My gosh, this is so awesome.” And we made it through the day without any catastrophic injuries.