Before the first pitch is thrown at the Gay Softball World Series at Lou Berliner Sports Park, Columbus and the LGBTQ community have already won. For the second time, the largest annual LGBTQ sporting event comes to Columbus on Aug. 17, bringing with it 185 teams, roughly 5,000 participants from across the United States and Canada prepared for top-notch competition, and more than $5 million in projected revenue for the city over the nine-day event.

Before the first pitch is thrown at the Gay Softball World Series at Lou Berliner Sports Park, Columbus and the LGBTQ community have already won. For the second time, the largest annual LGBTQ sporting event comes to Columbus on Aug. 17, bringing with it 185 teams, roughly 5,000 participants from across the United States and Canada prepared for top-notch competition, and more than $5 million in projected revenue for the city over the nine-day event.

"After Columbus hosted the Gay Softball World Series in 2010, people have high expectations for coming back," North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance (NAGAAA) assistant commissioner Keith Speers said. "We raised the bar significantly in 2010, now we have to pole-vault the bar."

The North American Gay Amateur Athletic Alliance was founded in 1977 to promote participation of the LGBTQ community in organized sports competition. Founders Jack McGowan, Everett Hedrick, Fred Howell, Richard Diaz, Chuck Dima, and Mark Brown also wanted to provide an opportunity for LGBTQ athletes to meet and build community. Now in its 39th year, the organization is a registered non-profit comprised of 700 teams, with the "best of the best" qualifying to compete in the Gay Softball World Series.

"People have an image in their head of what 'gay and lesbian' softball might look like," Speers said. "It looks like any other highly competitive game. If people were to see these athletes compete, it might change their mind about LGBTQ sports."

Teams comprised of both men and women are organized into five divisions, ranging from the most competitive "A" division to the Masters division for athletes age 50 and older. Opening ceremonies kick off on Aug. 17, with the tournament running from Aug. 18 through Aug. 22. Though tough competition is the focus, athletes nationwide are excited for Columbus to play host to the travelling event.

In 2010, Columbus gained a reputation among participants as well-organized and welcoming, with a vibrant night life and food scene that surprised out-of-towners.

"For a long time, Columbus was a well-kept secret," Speers said. "Now the secret is out, and we had to bring it back here by popular demand."

Philadelphia Wolves shortstop Eric Dolan had never thought seriously about visiting Columbus until he heard rave reviews from his teammates.

"You don't think of Columbus as one of the 'cities to visit'," Dolan, 30, said, reached via phone in Philadelphia. "But everything I've heard about Columbus is that it's been the best World Series host so far. Everybody raves about Columbus since I've been in the league. It's my first World Series, and I'm excited that it will be there."

"Bringing [GSWS] back to Columbus was very important to [Greater Columbus Sports Commission] because all that money means more jobs, as well as tax and tourism dollars," Greater Columbus Sports Commission executive director Linda Logan said. "Across the board, it's about economic development, and it gets people here who have never been here before. The city will sell itself."

In addition to generating revenue from players and fans booking hotel rooms and dining out, NAGAAA raises money with auxiliary events to benefit various local LGBTQ organizations. As a result of hosting the series in 2010, NAGAAA raised $20,000 in charity donations and invested $45,000 to renovate Tuttle Park near campus. This year, the AIDS Resource Center of Ohio (ARC), the largest HIV/AIDS resource center in Ohio, and Kaleidoscope Youth Center, which provides support and resources for LGBTQ youth in Columbus, will benefit.

"The Gay Softball World Series and NAGAAA have a legacy of doing good things with the money they raise," Logan said. "That strengthens the community as a whole in a different way."

The Gay Softball World Series has garnered support from Mayor Michael Coleman and the Columbus City Council, Franklin County Commissioners, and a slew of corporate and local sponsors. Speers believes the outpouring of support reflects on Columbus' progressive nature and a societal shift in how the LGBTQ community is viewed.

"Columbus is smart and open, and the enthusiasm and support for this event is just one example. I can think of a lot of cities in the Midwest where this wouldn't happen, and it certainly wouldn't have the support of the mayor and city council. The city said they wanted to be smart and open, so this year they got smart and opened their wallet." he said. "The world is changing. You're seeing companies that are recognizing the world is changing and are changing with it. The Stonewall Riots happened in 1969, and NAGAA was founded 8 years after; that's a lot of progress to make in that short amount of time."

With the U.S. Supreme Court's decision in June to allow same-sex marriage nationwide, the level of enthusiasm at the Gay Softball World Series is expected to reach new heights. Despite the recent progress toward LGBTQ acceptance in government and professional athletes like retired NBA player Jason Collins coming out publically, Speers believes holding sporting events spotlighting LGBTQ athletes is an important part of breaking down stereotypes.

"I grew up as an athlete, and I was gay. I always thought I had to pick. Growing up I didn't think I could be both because the stereotype of 'gay' was a certain way, and that didn't match athlete. This events sends a message to [LGBTQ youth] that you can be exactly who you are," Speers said. "We have 43 cities that make up the NAGAAA and not all of those cities are as progressive as we'd like; it's important for Columbus to temporarily share the acceptance of our city, but note there are hate crimes still taking place. It's a good reminder that there is still a need to provide safe spaces."

After the hard-fought competition ends, the champion will be named at the closing ceremony and block party on Aug. 22. High Street will shut down between Buttles and Hubbard Avenues, and the party feature performances Latrice Royal of RuPaul's Drag Race season four and R&B girl group En Vogue. Speers hopes participants and fans alike will leave with a sense of camaraderie and a new outlook on the Arch City.

"The Columbus community wraps itself around events like this," Speers said. "Columbus is showing us it's about more than just the LGBTQ community; it's about the city as a whole."