MOUNTAIN MEN: The Mount Rushmore of the sports venue industry, shown here, includes the late Rick Nafe, from left, Ron Labinski and Bill Wilson, all principally involved in forming the Stadium Managers Association. (Don Muret/Staff)

Three scholarships now in place to aid students, industry pros

HOLLYWOOD, California — The Stadium Managers Association honored three core founders that launched the group more than 40 years ago, all of whom have died over the past 14 months.

Rick Nafe, Bill Wilson and Ron Labinski were saluted for their contributions to the organization and the industry as a whole during the SMA’s annual seminar, held Feb. 12-16 at the Loews Hollywood Hotel. Nafe, the longtime stadium manager in Tampa-St. Petersburg, Florida died in May 2022. He held court at the SMA podium as seminar chair and emcee since the first official meeting in 1986. Nafe now joins fellow NFL stadium manager Wilson and Labinski, the architect who created sports design as a practice, with his name attached to a scholarship award.

The Rick Nafe Award for Excellence in Stadium Management, in partnership with the Nafe family, will support excellence in the industry he loved by providing funds to college students enrolled in sports administration programs and industry professionals seeking further career development. SMA officials surpassed their on-site goal of $25,000 in donations for the new scholarship, generated among the 350 seminar attendees, said Jeana Schultz, the group’s executive director.  

Over his career, Nafe managed a half-dozen venues, oversaw the Final Four, World Series and two Super Bowls across three buildings and consulted on nine more Super Bowls. On June 16, the memorial service for Nafe at Raymond James Stadium drew more than 500 mourners, indicative of the local community’s respect and admiration for him. 

“Rick went from a promising career as a tackling dummy at his beloved Florida State University to running Tampa Stadium, where he was later named director of the Tampa Sports Authority,” said the group’s new emcee Jim Folk, vice president of ballpark operations for the Cleveland Guardians, echoing what Nafe often joked about his days as a walk-on with the Seminoles’ football team. “He provided an informative and enjoyable few days during the winter to gather with our peers, vendors and managers, creating relationships that extend well beyond our workforce. He inspired us all to give our best.” 

Last year, SMA officials established the Bill Wilson Lifetime Achievement Award, honoring an individual whose extended career as a leader exemplifies the group’s mission to provide resources to assist big league and college stadium managers in achieving the highest level of facility operations. Wilson died in December 2021. The former policeman in Pasadena ran the Rose Bowl Stadium and Qualcomm Stadium and helped manage six Super Bowls, plus the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. 

Six years ago, the Ron Labinski SMA Foundation Sports Scholarship was formed as another vehicle to provide funds for students and professionals in sports design. Labinski, the most recent passing, died on New Year’s Day of this year. Over the past two months, he’s been praised for his groundbreaking status in stadium design, which dates to the late 1960s with Arrowhead Stadium in Kansas City. In 1983, he co-founded HOK Sport, the first company to focus solely on stadium and arena development.

The joke in the hotel conference room was that if “Labinski designed the Colosseum in Rome, then Wilson was the owner’s rep,” Folk said, due to their longevity and leadership in the sports biz.

The same can be said for Nafe. “This is my first show flying solo,” Folk said. “My assignment is to follow Rick’s rules of life: be kind, be generous and be yourself. I’ve tried hard, but the shoes are way too large.”