By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published May 09, 2024 at 10:01 AM

What does Milwaukee have in common with Lakewood, California; Troy, New York; Colony, Texas; and 46 other U.S. communities?


Twenty years ago, as Sports Illustrated magazine celebrated its 50th anniversary, these places were all selected by the magazine and the National Recreation and Park Association as Sportstown Award Winners.

There were 50 awardees – one from each state – announced in the magazine from July 2003 through July 2004. The winners received recognition in the magazine, a cash grant and a commemorative Sportstown road sign noting that the city was named an official Sports Illustrated 50th Anniversary Sportstown.

Milwaukee learned it had been selected in a Sept. 4, 2003 letter from Sports Illustrated to Milwaukee Recreation Director Mary Gissal, which asked that the news be kept quiet until an official announcement could be made.

“We are delighted to inform you that Milwaukee has been selected as the Sports Illustrated 50th Anniversary Sportstown for the state of Wisconsin,” read the letter, which was not signed by a specific staffer.  

“The selection was made by both Sports Illustrated and the National Recreation and Park Association based on a variety of criteria that demonstrates your community’s involvement in facilitating and enhancing quality sports. As discussed, a representative of Sports Illustrated and the National Recreation and Park Association will make the official announcement and presentation during an event in Milwaukee on Oct. 11, 2003.”

Milwaukee Recreation applied for the award, as did the other communities, by penning a nearly 6,000-word application, “about the year-round sports opportunities we provide for Milwaukee’s youth, teens, adults, and seniors,” recalled Milwaukee Recreation’s then-Assistant Recreation Supervisor Brian Hoffer.  

“The 27 essay questions on the application encompassed the following categories: philosophy, policies/procedures, education and training strategies, youth development strategies, community commitment to parks and recreation resources, innovations for community development, and scope of programming.”

After receiving news that Milwaukee had been selected, Milwaukee Recreation sent a letter to community leaders on Sept. 22, asking – like Sports Illustrated did – for confidentiality until the public announcement. But, then, the Rec department hoped these leaders would help spread the word.

Eight days later the official announcement went out in a press release.

“The Oct. 1 issue of Sports Illustrated will reveal that Milwaukee has been selected as the Sports Illustrated 50th Anniversary Sportstown for the state of Wisconsin,” it proclaimed. “Sports Illustrated will present the Sportstown award to MPS Superintendent William Andrekopoulos during a ceremony at 3 p.m. on Saturday, Oct. 11 at the Pettit National Ice Center.”


The presentation was to be part of the Toyota Presents Sports Illustrated’s 50th Anniversary Tour, a 40,000-square-foot traveling village of free interactive sports activities and entertainment that was open to the public.

"The Sports Illustrated Sportstown program brings to life the notion that sports are an enormous force for good in our country," said SI President Bruce Hallett in the release. "Milwaukee's commitment to finding creative and resourceful ways to enhance sports for the well being of its community fits perfectly with the principles of our Sportstown program as well as the overall mission of our anniversary celebration."

The traveling village included features like a theater showing sports highlights from the previous half-century; a “Picture Yourself on the Cover” area where visitors could pose in front of a backdrop of a Toyota NASCAR Truck and take home their photo for free; a Best Buy-sponsored consumer electronics showcase; and a Starter-sponsored area that had an exhibit spotlighting a Starter All-American Teen from each state, an interactive basketball experience and other sports skills challenges.


“Sports Illustrated asked us to recommend a venue near a major expressway that could also accommodate their 40,000-square-foot sports village,” Hoffer later recalled. “Because none of our recreation centers could meet these requirements, we immediately contacted the Pettit National Ice Center.  Fortunately, the Pettit Center’s staff was enthusiastic about hosting the event in their parking lot – even with an incredibly short three-week notice!

“The tour eliminated the need for us to create a separate special event to announce our Sportstown award. Instead, we made plans to unveil our award on the village’s main entertainment stage during the second day of the event.  Sports Illustrated also invited us to recruit entertainment for the stage. We were happy to accept this challenge because we knew it would help us develop relationships with other community organizations.”

A number of local organizations, including the Milwaukee Admirals, UW-Milwaukee, ComedySportz, Milwaukee Mile, Riverside University High School Marching Band, Milwaukee Turners Gymnastics, Jay’s Tae Kwon Do, JK Lee Tae Kwon Do and the Mary Davis Trio Featuring Lem Banks took part in the event.

Sports Illustrated promoted the event with radio spots and Milwaukee Recreation coordinated media efforts that brought more than 20 minutes of local TV coverage, as well as articles in print media.

Bonnie BlairX

U.S. Olympic Speed Skating Gold Medalist Bonnie Blair made a special appearance and addressed the crowd. Other dignitaries on hand included Gissal, Mayor John Norquist, Milwaukee Public Schools Superintendent William Andrekopoulos, School Board President Jeff Spence, Common Council President Marvin Pratt and, presenting the award, Sports Illustrated Senior Editor Jim Herre and NRPA trustee Penny Randel.  

So what was in the application that wowed the judges?

“The Milwaukee Public Schools Department of Recreation and Community Services  was established in 1911 to enrich the lives of Milwaukee’s youth, teens, adults, seniors and families with recreational, athletic and educational opportunities,” stated the application’s overview section. ”We embrace this mission as we work tirelessly to provide, administer, collaborate and facilitate quality sports for the nearly 600,000 residents of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  


“As a department of the Milwaukee Public Schools, we have the unique ability to utilize school facilities during non-school hours. In fact, with the exception of two stand-alone facilities, all of our programs are held in school buildings and on school grounds. While many schools throughout the nation close their buildings on evenings and weekends, we keep the lights burning for countless hours of year-round sport, recreation, and enrichment activities.   

“Milwaukee Recreation currently employs over 50 full-time staff to oversee 2,500 part-time employees and thousands of services, activities, and special events every year.”

It was pretty impressive and worthy of honoring.

MKE Rec staff
Milwaukee Recreation staff at the Milwaukee ceremony.

“We were honored to receive the Sportstown Award,” said Hoffer, who continues to work for Milwaukee Recreation to this day as Marketing Manager, “and look forward to continuing the strong community sports programs that earned this recognition for our city.”

Over the following year, the metal road sign was rotated through the Milwaukee Recreation centers and then spent some time adorning the Milwaukee Recreation offices. It’s currently in storage, Hoffer says.

While the honor was welcomed, Hoffer isn’t sure it brought many long-term benefits, though surely there were positives.

“I think the benefits were short-term,” he says now. “It was great to receive national attention from Sports Illustrated and the National Recreation and Park Association. That, in turn, helped to generate more local interest in Milwaukee Recreation's programs and services.

“For me, the best aspect was that it gave us the opportunity to recognize some of our dedicated instructors by inviting them to perform class demonstrations on the Sportstown stage.  I remember our instructors felt honored that we invited them to be featured during the ceremony.”

(NOTE: This article was written for Milwaukee Recreation's institutional history project. While the topic was provided by Milwaukee Recreation, the content was not.)

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area. He has also won awards from the Milwaukee Press Club.

He has be heard on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories, in that station's most popular podcast.