After college, the native Clevelander was offered a job in the public relations department of the Rose Bowl, but turned it down, deciding he would rather live in Cleveland than pursue a career in sports.
So he moved back home, where his interests converged when he was hired as president and CEO of the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission.
"To me, you're much more effective when you really have a passion for what you do," he says. "And in this case, all the things converged in the right way."
In his role at the commission, Gilbert has changed the way Cleveland looks at skateboarding, synchronized swimming, judo and other amateur sports -- and in the process, changed the way the world looks at Cleveland.
And although he's "still a diehard Cavs, Indians and Browns fan," his position at the commission has given him a greater appreciation for other sports.
"One of the neat things about sports is almost everybody is touched by it, whether they play it or they like watching it or their kids play it or they always wanted to play it," Gilbert says. "There's a lot of sports out there that may not be as mainstream in terms of the media, but people still have a strong feeling for them. It's interesting that we tap into people's passions for particular sports, and that's kind of fun."
Gilbert spoke to Smart Business following September's successful Gravity Games about Cleveland, sports and economic development.
What is a sports commission and what has the GCSC done for the area?
We have proven what an enormous influence sporting events can have from an economic standpoint, national recognition standpoint, and for adding excitement and quality of life to our city. That's done through a sports commission.
How do your events affect Cleveland's economic development?
There are two ways we measure economic impact of events -- through an independent, third-party economic impact study or the National Association of Sports Commissions' economic impact formula. It was put together so communities can talk apples-to-apples on what an event means to them. What people spend in Cleveland for a hotel and meals is different than in San Francisco, but it gives you a comparison.
Since we started four years ago, the sports commission has either attracted or helped to manage 45 events, and the economic impact of those events totaled over $160 million, based on those formulas.
Roughly one-third of the events have had national television exposure. Having Cleveland live on NBC for the Gravity Games, and the next six Sundays (were the) U.S. Gymnastics Championships -- those are nice intangibles. It's more difficult to put an economic figure on those, but it still helps Cleveland's image.
We also like to think it makes people feel better about living in this community.
How has the amateur sports scene changed over the last four years?
In terms of the number and the level of events that come to Cleveland, there is no comparison. We've gone from a city that was not on the radar screen to a city that now is one of the top cities in America for hosting major events.
The other benefit is helping to coalesce different sports in Cleveland. When we had the USA versus Ireland Boxing, there's no doubt it elevated the stature of amateur boxing in Cleveland.
If we're able to help that sport, it's a great thing for Cleveland.
Shouldn't the city plan those kinds of events?
There are a lot of partners in what we do, including the city and the Convention and Visitors' Bureau. But (a sports commission) is very specialized. There is a sales function in getting (event owners) interested in our community.
We get the mayor involved, and the CVB has (promotional) materials. But at the end of the day, this industry is about partnerships between a community and an events rights holder.
We become a management and financial partner with people who own those events to make the event bigger and better here than it is when they hold it other places ... In that respect, while the city's a valuable partner, it's not what they do.
How does local government support your organization, and what has been its response to your events?
The city gave us some money toward our operations, and the city and county were generous in kicking in to get the Gravity Games here. Without them, we couldn't have gotten it.
We've developed a great relationship with them. I think they are happy with what we're doing. We try to meet with them on a regular basis.
What makes Cleveland a good setting for these events?
If you look at the successful cities -- six to eight are considered the country's best -- most are the size of Cleveland. We are big enough to support an event, yet an event isn't going to be lost here.
We have a passionate sports community. It's amazing how well we do with attendance here.
Last March, we had three big events in a two-week period. We had the USA versus Ireland Boxing, the following week we had the McDonald's All American Basketball game, and the day after that, we started National High School Wrestling Championships. Each of those events broke all-time attendance records.
This is in the 26-year history of the McDonald's game; this is in the 15th or 16th year of this National High School Wrestling Championship; the 32nd or 33rd time that USA versus Ireland has been held either here or in Ireland. That says something for these people walking away saying, "Man, we know what Cleveland can do."
I also think we have very good facilities -- a good package of hotels, with Gund Arena and Convocation Center and Public Hall. Our lakefront is laid out beautifully for the Gravity Games.
How does the commission build a national reputation?
The most important thing we can do is to make the event a great success, to make sure we bring more to the table than other communities can, because ultimately, what we're doing is building a reputation.
When the USA/Ireland Boxing event left here, I heard from other heads of Olympic sport national governing bodies that the executive director of USA Boxing stood up a meeting and said, "Cleveland is amazing, and you should bring your events there."
You can't pay for that kind of support, you have to earn it. And I really think we are earning that reputation.
Are there any upcoming events you can share?
Our biggest event is the International Children's Games, which will be here next summer. It's the largest international multisport youth games in the world.
It's taken place each year since 1968, but it's never been held in the U.S. before. We will have about 3,000 kids, ages 12 to 15 -- from all over the world, about 50 or 60 countries -- here competing.
We're building programs around it forward to other community agendas (like) working with Cleveland Public Schools on the education program and a business development program to foster international business in Cleveland. We're working with a lot of partners to do these things.
We're going to close Public Square to do a major downtown cultural festival during the games. It's something that can engage lots of people. We're managing the whole thing, raising all the money and doing everything.
But before that event, we have the USA Boxing Olympic Box-Offs, in which the Olympic boxing team will be chosen; we have the U.S. Short Track Speed Skating National Championships; National High School Wrestling Championships again; we have the National Wrestling Collegiate Dual Meet, bringing over 50 of the country's top collegiate wrestling teams here; and several other smaller events.
You can't sit back and say, 'The Gravity Games were great. We're going to take a break.' We have a lot of things in the pipeline. We're looking at creating some events that we would own, that would fit our mission but we wouldn't have to go out and bid on.
We would create events that bring people here, and we would know it would be in Cleveland every year because we would own it and operate it. How to Reach: Greater Cleveland Sports Commission, (216) 621-0600 or www.clevelandsports.org