With less than a month until July 4th, the question needs to be asked, “Will the Hmong Sports Festival happen this year?”
There are no fliers posted. The website is “Under Construction”. And when you call the front desk of Lao Family in St. Paul—the event’s organizer for the last 30 years–the answer is consistently the same:
“We believe the Sports Festival will happen on July 4th Weekend,” answers the receptionist, who admits nearly all the phone calls lately are inquiries about the tournament. “But we don’t have details yet. You’ll need to talk to the director.”
Perhaps even more alarming is that there are no city permits registered for the Sports Festival—an event that involves complex, multi-departmental planning needed to safely and effectively engineer the two-day event.
With less than 20 days to go, city officials seemed a bit concerned that the permits had not been pulled, yet remained optimistic.
Sgt. John Lozoya from the office of Police Community Services confirmed that despite the short period of time available to plan for the event, he was sure “The Hmong Sports Festival will happen.”
A spokesperson from the Department of Safety and Inspections confirmed that although “nobody from Lao Family has come in yet” she was convinced that the organizers would still be able to obtain the Special Events License necessary for food vendors to operate at the Festival.
“The Hmong Sports Festival is treated differently than any other event in the city. They do plan to get this done.”
The prevailing message coming from those at the city as well as those from Lao Family is that the Festival will happen because the Festival is too big not to happen.
Known as the single largest gathering of Hmong people in the world, the Sports Festival—otherwise known as ‘July 4 or J4’—is a financial boon, not only for the Hmong economy, but also for the City of St. Paul.
In terms of the number of out-of-state visitors it attracts annually, the Hmong Sports Festival is believed to be one of the biggest events in the city of St. Paul, generating millions of dollars for restaurants, hotels and area malls.
Specifically for the Hmong economy, the Festival is ground-zero for the numerous Hmong entertainment retailers hoping to score big with their newest movie, CD or fashion item.
For those two days, hundreds of booths are erected on a few square acres in Como Park, bringing to life thunderous sounds and eye-popping visuals.
“This is the Super Bowl for the Hmong people,” said Moua Lee of Golden Path Entertainment, one of the pioneering movie makers in the Hmong community. “I would say 99% of the entertainment world targets J4 as the time when they release their new movies or CDs. This is where I—and many, many others– make a majority of our sales each year.”
With no flier or contact information, retailers from all around the country are in the dark as to how they can reserve a booth or even make the trip to St. Paul this year.
Not only does the Sports Festival site at McMurray Fields swell with tens of thousands of attendees, but outside events all around the Twin Cities are specifically scheduled during that same weekend to take advantage of all the people in town.
Kace Vang from the band Destiny, for instance, has reserved the 3,500-capacity Myth Nightclub to hold a concert on July 3rd.
“If the Sports Festival doesn’t happen during the July 4th weekend, I think we’re dead,” joked Vang. “Yeah, we would have serious problems.”
For those sports teams planning to make the trip to Minnesota, the dilemma is even more harrowing because each team consists of many players.
David Xiong from Typhoon Futbol Club, for instance, needs to arrange the travel of more than 20 of his soccer players who are coming in from all over the country.
“With no fliers or contact info, we don’t even know if the Tournament will happen!” Xiong alarmed. “It would be a big waste of time and money if we all came to the Twin Cities only to discover that the Tournament was cancelled.”
Whether the sport is soccer, football, volleyball or kato, there are many complications to putting together a two-day tournament. With no sports director at the helm, teams and participants are finding ways to move ahead.
Kong Vang of the Plaza Boyz, the returning men’s flag-football champions, said that he and other team leaders have already taken it upon themselves to organize the football tournament on their own—without an official coordinator from Lao Family as in past years.
“It became too frustrating to wait and wait,” echoed Vang about the lack of planning and communication with the Festival’s organizers. “We decided we should just take control of the tournament and make sure this gets done right.”
Pointing to the cancellation of this year’s Water Fest—California’s most popular Hmong sporting festival held over the Memorial Day Weekend –Vang is concerned that the Festival in Minnesota will follow suit, especially because the organizer of Water Fest is also a branch of Lao Family (of Fresno).
“They kept telling us all along that the event was going to happen. And then, at the very last moment they cancelled the event,” Vang recalled with frustration. “Luckily we hadn’t bought the airline tickets yet, otherwise the team could have lost thousands of dollars.”
Even if the Sports Festival in St. Paul does find a way to happen in July as planned, the great lack of planning thus far is “completely irresponsible” noted organizational consultant Kathy Mouacheupao.
“To not even have a telephone number posted for people to call about the event is beyond excusable. There is so much at stake here, I’m in disbelief about how neglectful this organization is towards the general public—especially those who are planning to travel here in July!”
In terms of the tradition and prestige that the 4th of July Sports Festival had built up for the last 30 years, most observers we spoke to agreed that things have certainly gone the wrong way as of late.
This digression over the years is reflected in the overall numbers of attendees, which have been diminishing over the years. This negative trend is something that Lao Family executive director Long Yang is keen on reversing.
According to IRS records, Lao Family reported a combined loss of nearly $74,000 from hosting the Summer Sports Festival and Hmong New Years in 2007, the year before Yang stepped in.
In 2008, Yang’s first year as executive director, those losses were reduced to only $1,000. In 2009, Lao Family reported a $7,500 net loss.
On their 2009 Form-990, Lao Family claimed to collect $377,485 of total revenue from the July Festival. This includes all the cash collected at the gates, income from booth rentals and sponsorships.
Listing a total of $377,485 in expenses, there was a total net revenue of only $2,837. Itemized expenses include park rental, security, trash and prize payouts which totaled, by itself, more than $50,000.
“Because these events are so prominent and have high numbers of attendees, people believe that Lao Family makes lots of money from these events,” Yang explained. “But there are so many expenses involved and politics to deal with that by hosting these events, we actually lose money.”
This year, for example, there was a $40,000 debt that Lao Family owed to the City of St. Paul for expenses incurred during previous festivals.
Although not confirmed by city officials, that outstanding bill had been recently paid, assured Yang.
“I know it has been paid, because I personally went to the city and paid for it myself,” Yang proclaimed. “It was a matter of allocating funds from the correct pool of money. Everything we do with this tournament is under tight regulations and supervision.”
Referring to the 2006 court ordered restrictions mandated by then state Attorney General Mike Hatch, Yang produces a court document outlining a number of rules that Lao Family must comply with in organizing the Sports Festival.
Caught in the crossfire between the Attorney General’s office and the now defunct Vang Pao Foundation, Lao Family’s financials were highly scrutinized after it was found that the Vang Pao Foundation had squandered away $500,000 in undocumented expenses.
As a result, the Vang Pao Foundation was ordered to shut down completely. While Lao Family was spared, the organization was ordered to meticulously document all its financial activities, in particular to the way it managed money in operating their two major festivals, the Sports Festival and the Hmong New Year held in down town St. Paul.
“We are regulated to document every dollar that comes in and every dollar that is spent according to compliance rules,” proclaims Yang, pointing to the list of guidelines drawn up on the court document. “There are some very strict penalties if we are in violation. We need to be 100% transparent about our finances.”
The damage to Lao Family’s reputation went beyond the courtroom. Donors and corporate sponsors backed away from the once lucrative sponsorship deals that bolstered the organization’s bottom line.
Beyond the financial issues that Lao Family had been facing, this past year has been extremely challenging. Compounded with the passing of Gen. Vang Pao, the founder and symbolic head of Lao Family, the organization has been battling through the highly publicized board election fiasco which has resulted in an all-out rift between member elected board president Tou Xiong and court appointed board president ChuPheng Lee.
This dilemma began last December when Lao Family opened its board elections to the general public. Over 1,500 voters showed up, only to find themselves in a process that would turn out to be highly flawed with hundreds of pre-registered voters being told that they were ineligible. There were accusations of candidate fraud and conflicts of interest forcing Lao Family officials to seal the election results. Four months later, Lao Family held another election in which the candidate Tou Xiong was found victorious.
The situation got uglier when candidate ChuPheng Lee sued Lao Family in District Court to force the results of the first election to be unsealed. When the courts ruled in favor of Lee, the results showed that Lee had won the election. The courts then took it a step further to officially vacate the second election and declaring Lee as the Board President, enforcing the results from the original elections.
However, members of Lao Family voiced their displeasure in the court ruling, insisting that their second election was valid and thus holding on to the result that Tou Xiong is the Board President.
“Let’s get to the point,” said Long Yang bluntly. “The reason why we are so behind on planning for the Festival is because of the board situation. We have two sets of board members sitting across from one another arguing about everything, including what the name of the Festival should be to who’s phone number should be put on the flyer.”
With a look of frustration, Yang shrugged his shoulders.
“The action plan is that in the next few years we will shift responsibilities of running events to staff who are hired specifically to run these events, but for this year, my job is to work with both boards to get this event operating.
It’s not going to be easy, but I can assure you, July 4th Sports Festival will happen this year.”