LGBTQ South Florida

World OutGames sporting events canceled amid financial woes, sparking fraud investigation

The long-planned sporting and cultural event known as the World OutGames, a 10-day LGBTQ-themed meeting advertised as a spectacular gathering of athletes from around the world, unraveled Friday about 24 hours before the opening ceremonies.

Most of the sports events, along with opening and closing ceremonies, were canceled at the very last minute amid a flurry of financial woes and possible impropriety. By Friday night, Miami Beach Police and the State Attorney’s Office announced they were opening a fraud investigation “due to the potential misappropriation of funds.”

Financial documents submitted by OutGames to Miami Beach City Hall in March show discrepancies that caused alarm in the Beach’s administration. The documents show the OutGames maintained a low cash balance despite a slew of fundraising commitments. The numbers still don’t add up, which led to the investigation.

Earlier Friday, organizers cited “financial burdens” when they announced the cancellation in a short message to participants from the event’s board of directors Friday.

“It is with deep regret that due to financial burdens, World OutGames must cancel its sports programming and Opening and Closing Ceremony with the exception of soccer, aquatics and country western dance,” reads the statement. “The Human Rights Conference and cultural programs will continue as planned. We thank everyone who has supported the effort and apologize to those who will be impacted by this difficult decision.”

And with that, the high hopes for the games, meant to showcase LGBTQ athletes, were dashed as competitors from around the world streamed into Miami only to learn the games were canceled. Some arrived before the announcement, and others found out in mid-air. Many angrily blasted OutGames organizers online and in interviews, wondering if registrants will get their money back.

“This just displays bad management that has a serious financial impact on many people,” said Peter Clancy, a businessman from Belgium who was in a plane two hours away from Miami when he learned the news online. He was going to compete in track and field, and his partner was due to run in the half-marathon.

“Last-minute notice also shows a complete lack of respect for the participants and especially those of us traveling from other continents,” he said.

Rowen D’Souza spent about $3,000 traveling from Australia to play tennis in the games. He told the Miami Herald he was unimpressed with the flow of information from OutGames organizers throughout the process.

“The communication has been poor from the start,” he said. “I suspect they knew there were problems but did nothing.”

Even with skepticism, expectations were high. Earlier this month, organizers projected more than 2,000 registered athletes and more than 3,500 participants and visitors for the human rights conference. It was unknown Friday if those numbers would actually come through.

Ivan Cano, CEO of the OutGames, declined to comment beyond the statement from the board. As recently as Tuesday, he had spoken confidently about the OutGames. But even with a sponsorship from Adidas and a small fundraising assist from Miami Beach City Hall in recent weeks, it appears the organizers came up way short.

Several social events are still expected to go on, though the main focus of the games is supposed to be the athletic competitions. One of the events still going on as scheduled is the human rights conference, which was held Friday at the Loews Hotel. In the hotel lobby, athletes and attendees were shocked to find out sports events would no longer be held.

Community leaders greeted disheartened visitors and encouraged them to find other activities around Miami and Miami Beach.

Matti Herrera Bower, former mayor of Miami Beach, translated the news to soccer players who had just arrived from Mexico. She later told the Herald that the fiasco reflects poorly on the community as a whole, and the immediate concern should be to accommodate those who have had their competitions canceled.

“We all look bad,” she said. “We need to forget whose fault it is and we need to get together and fix it.”

The OutGames is supported and hosted by LGBTQ groups and allies and billed for years as a large-scale celebration of diversity through sports and social events. Tourism leaders lobbied to bring the OutGames to Miami — the first time the event is hosted in the U.S.

Miami-Dade county had agreed to reimburse $18,000 in expenses after the event. An additional $5,000 community grant was still being processed. Miami Beach had waived municipal fees and provided $200,000 in cash to sponsor the event. The city was due for two more $100,000 payments if OutGames reached certain fundraising milestones.

OutGames never hit those benchmarks. The organization’s money problems first began to come to light in recent months as it worked with the Beach to finalize plans and permits.

Officials at City Hall expressed concern for the OutGames’ ability to meet financial goals in memos to commissioners outlining slower-than-expected fundraising and questioning the organization’s financial position. Organizers publicly reassured elected leaders that fundraising was on track and the show would go on.

The city is now demanding an audit of OutGames’ books.

A memo from Miami Beach City Manager Jimmy Morales late Thursday signaled a rapidly worsening situation. OutGames officials had not paid a $5,000 deposit for necessary event permits. The city had been on standby, ready to issue permits in the 11th hour once payment was made.

“City staff has worked consistently for the past several months to assist the event producers with special events planning and permitting; fundraising efforts; relocating events to low or no cost venues; assisting with local partners to provide support and access; and providing financial support to cover police staffing costs,” said Morales on Friday.

OutGames also owes a “substantial amount of money” to the National Hotel, the headquarter hotel for the event, according to the memo. A source familiar with the circumstances said the hotel is owed about $57,000.

Steve Adkins, president and CEO of Miami-Dade Gay and Lesbian Chamber of Commerce and past board member of the OutGames, said local leaders are scrambling to appease disgruntled visitors.

“We feel terrible that this is happening. But rest assured, that community leaders are trying to do everything we can to create activities and entertainment options for all the wonderful visitors who have come to Miami and Miami Beach,” he said.

In response to the OutGames debacle, all registered participants received free admission to a 7:30 p.m. performance of the Miami Gay Men’s Chorus performance at the Colony Theatre on Lincoln Road.

Hours after the cancellation, a Facebook group called “Miami World Outgames Alternative” was formed for participants to organize informal games and gatherings. The Hotel Gaythering in South Beach posted on Facebook that OutGames participants will get complimentary drinks, sauna access and shuttles to Haulover Nude Beach every day through June 4.

At a separate city event Friday, Morales told a reporter he was frustrated because he recognized the financial problems during his interactions with organizers.

“We’re very disappointed and very frustrated, because we saw it coming,” he said. “We talked to them about it and they refused to sort of moderate their expectations. The frustrating thing is, if they canceled three or four months ago it would have been bad, but nobody would have gone out of their way to be here already.”

Herald staff writers Douglas Hanks and Chabeli Herrera contributed to this report.

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