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On the Marc: NYC should change ways

BINGHAMTON, N.Y. — The Empire State Games have been a major part of Joanne Persico-Smith’s life, dating back to her years playing volleyball at St. Francis Prep HS. The Empires — the largest amateur sporting event in the United States — have been around for 31 years and Persico-Smith, the 42-year-old St. John’s women’s volleyball coach, has competed in 26 of them.

So, when she says New York City is far behind the other five regions in organization and placing an emphasis on the Games, it’s hard to ignore her.

“I think it’s a shame,” the Bellerose native said after helping the NYC women’s open volleyball team to its fifth straight gold medal. “I think we need a marketing department, a person stressing all the sports. People have come out of the Empire State Games and gone to the Olympics.”

In the city, we fancy ourselves as having the best of everything. But when we get upstate, it’s a whole new ball game. New York City, with the exception of a few finely run programs, is the bottom feeder of the Empire State Games. We’re the Washington Generals. And that’s sad.

In this year’s Games, held this past weekend in Binghamton and its surrounding areas, New York City finished with 50 gold medals. Doesn’t sound bad, right? Wrong. The overall leader was Western with 79. Only Central, the Games’ host, finished with fewer gold medals than NYC (45). In overall medal count, it gets worse. Western compiled the most (222), while New York City finished meekly with 132. That’s 32 fewer medals than the second worst showing: Central won 164.

There are two reasons why NYC is far behind the rest of the state. First, not many people know about the Games. As Persico-Smith said, there’s hardly any marketing and the people that should know about the event — high-school athletes — either don’t or don’t care.

“It gets no publicity,” said Tommy Torres, the coach of the New York City men’s scholastic baseball team. “We don’t get the top talent in the city, because summer coaches don’t feel like this is an event you can get seen by college coaches at.”

The best boys’ basketball players in the city are playing with their AAU teams in Las Vegas this week and it’s hard to blame them. Same goes for the elite girls’ basketball players and the top baseball players are with their summer teams playing at college showcases.

But here’s the thing: if the best players were at the Empire State Games, the college coaches would be there, too. When Sylven Landesberg played for the New York City men’s scholastic basketball team last year, Virginia coach Dave Leitao, St. John’s coach Norm Roberts and Georgia Tech coach Paul Hewitt were all in attendance at Iona College. I’m pretty sure they didn’t think their itinerary to Nevada actually read “New Rochelle.”

Almost everyone who competes in the Olympics-style event ends up enjoying it. It isn’t as if people like Persico-Smith have nothing better to do during the last weekend of July every year. Just ask Charles Jenkins, who led the Long Island men’s open basketball team to a gold medal, how cool the Opening Ceremonies were. On July 23, more than 7,000 people flooded SUNY Binghamton’s Events Center to kick off the Empire State Games.

Athletes will certainly feel more camaraderie than they would at an AAU event — they’re wearing the jersey of their hometown, not some sneaker company.

“I really like representing the city,” said Belle Harbor native Candice Clark, who won a gold medal with the NYC women’s open soccer team. “People sometimes underestimate how good New York City really is.”

And we should never allow that to happen.

Reach Associate Sports Editor Marc Raimondi by e-mail at mraimondi@timesledger.com or call 718-229-0300, Ext. 130.

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