Thousands of gay and lesbian athletes took over the Tropicana over the weekend, suiting up for action on fields around the Las Vegas Valley in the 7th annual Sin City Shootout tournament.
Approximately 6,500 athletes from gay and lesbian community teams across the U.S. competed in 16 different sports.
Players competed in the usual sports like basketball, soccer and tennis. There were also less traditional sports like dodgeball, bridge and darts.
About 180 softball teams competed in this year’s tournament.
“Softball is the largest gay sport. Ever,” said tournament volunteer Gary Castro, from Los Angeles. “It’s like a fraternity almost.”
Castro, winner of four Gay Games gold medals for softball, said that gay and lesbian community leagues were commonplace in big cities like Los Angeles and Atlanta, but over the last decade they started popping up everywhere.
Castro began playing 23 years ago when he learned his gay neighbor played on a team.
“It broke every stereotype I’d ever heard of,” he said. “I finally found a place as a gay man that was safe to play ball.”
“From a stereotypical standpoint, gay athletes can’t be themselves in mainstream sports organizations,” agreed tournament director Eric Ryan, a 23-year firefighter from Southern Caifornia.
As tournament director, Ryan schedules games, books venues, finds performers, plans after-parties and auditions dancers.
“I’m definitely the alpha-male. I do not micromanage, but I’m very detail-oriented,” he said. “It comes from a passion (for sports) and a love for my community and treating them the way they should be treated.”
After participating in leagues across Southern California, Ryan wanted to take the best elements from each and combine them into a winter tournament. He said his friends thought he was crazy when he said he wanted to hold it in Las Vegas.
“It’s a natural fit,” he said. “People love to come play here.”
Ryan launched the Las Vegas tournament in 2008 at a small hotel off the Strip, selling 150 rooms. Originally it was only a softball tournament with about 60 teams, but in 2011 other sports started to join in.
“It was a very simple idea that blew up,” Castro said. “It makes everyone feel great.”
The Tropicana hosted the visiting athletes for the second time this year, selling more than 1,100 rooms each night of the tournament. The resort went to great lengths to welcome the players, projecting the Sin City Shootout logo on the side of the building, printing it on room keys and putting employees in tournament T-shirts.
“These are things we do for any big client that comes in,” said Tropicana spokesman Fred Harmon.
But Harmon insists that the property’s enthusiasm for the event is motivated by more than business, even though the event has grown dramatically every year.
“Our team members really love this group. It’s really diverse,” he said. “The LGBT market is very important to us. The owner is very supportive.”
The Tropicana also sponsors a team in the Las Vegas Gay Softball League, the Las Vegas Vipers, who played in the Sin City Shootout with seven other local teams. Last year the Vipers went to Washington D.C. for the World Series.
Las Vegas’ league has 18 teams going into the spring season, but when it started in 2009 there were only eight people, said assistant commissioner Kevin Lecik.
“It’s kind of difficult to find friends in this town, and it’s a great way to meet people,” Lecik said. “It’s a better option than going to a bar.”
Skill sessions for the LVGSL are being held at Sunset Park Jan. 26 and Feb. 2 about 10 a.m. for anyone who would like to join in. Everything is provided by the league, except the glove.
“We have people that have never thrown a ball, and now they’re going to tournaments,” Lecik said. “We don’t leave any players without a team.”