TACKLING A NEW market segment – amateur sports
By Michael Humphrey
It is the classic American scene: children playing on a neighborhood field with all the passion that amateur sports evoke, while parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts create the gallery of nervous partisans. We love it for its innocence and drama, the moments that become memories.
We love it so much, in fact, that amateur sports have become a cottage industry as teams travel across the region, state and country to find competition.
Convention and visitors bureaus have fallen in love, too. After all, the idea of families spending anywhere from a weekend to more than a week in their city is great cause for affection.
Jill Johnson, executive director of the Jefferson City CVB, says the average amateur sports event draws between 300 and 400 people to her community. And those people are usually spreading the wealth.
“When you have a sports activity,” Johnson says, “you have parents who come in, their children may be playing in the tournament, but while their children are waiting to play the game, the parent is circulating through the community. And, they may have to spend the night in the community, because the team is going on to the next level of the competition. So there’s more activity that is generated city-wide.”
Restaurants, shopping centers, convenience stores, all price points of the hospitality market, entertainment and recreation venues – nearly every sector of a community – is going to be impacted by a tournament’s presence.
A new ball game for planners?
But what about meeting and event planners; are they in on the love fest of amateur sports? In a sense, the answer is yes if you consider the tournament director a segment of the planning industry.
If the question is whether many business-oriented planners cross over into the amateur sports venue, again, it’s a close call. Planners might get involved in the occasional charity sports tournament, be it golf, basketball, softball, etc. But not many are tapping into the amateur sports market, usually geared toward children ages 7 to 17, and that’s the segment that is making sporting events so lucrative.
There are three reasons meeting planners find the sports market a tough one to crack, says Denny Vaninger, director of coaching for the St. Peters, Missouri-based Missouri Youth Soccer Association.
One, volunteerism is the backbone of amateur sports and so many times a coach, league administrator or active parent is working out details with the local CVB.
Two, all of these teams and leagues that host tournaments are looking to raise money for their programs and spend as little up front as possible.
Three, most of the league administrators have loads of experience at this point.
“For [a planner] to come in and say, ‘I can do this for you,’” says Vaninger, “you’re probably talking to someone who’s been doing this eight or nine years.”
Scott Hall, recreation league specialist for Jackson County Parks & Recreation, agrees that most of the directors who approach him are well seasoned.
“Maybe someone who’s running a charity tournament will need some help with the details,” Hall says. “But the great majority of people who contact us about tournaments know the ins and outs of it already.”
Vaninger says the city hosting the event often is willing to bend over backwards for the clubs coming in. And the market is so saturated with soccer, baseball, softball, volleyball, basketball, tennis, lacrosse, and most of the sports have been cornered in terms of tournament directors who have learned the tricks of the trade.
That might explain why Vaninger was one of the few directors of a youth sports program willing to answer questions for this article. One professional tournament coordinator answered the request for an interview by saying, “Why would I give my trade secrets away?”
But Missouri Youth Soccer Association only coordinates one tournament a year, the state championship. Otherwise, it acts as a clearinghouse for clubs that want to sponsor a tournament and need certification, insurance coverage and insight into getting the tournament rolling.
Vaninger has some ideas that could excite industrious planners looking to venture into a new field.
“There’s a niche in this market for somebody who can come in and say, ‘I read you’re having a tournament in Springfield,’” Vaninger says. “I know a restaurant that’s willing to give you X amount of dollars for putting coupons for this restaurant in the tournament packet.’ The club will say, ‘What do you want out of it?’ All these clubs are looking for ways to make money. A meeting planner is going to find a niche by creating sponsorships and other opportunities for the teams.”
Johnson says there is another way planners are getting involved in the sports market – by finding clubs that plan multiple tournaments each year.
“The Capitol Sports Club has hired someone who is going to put together all of their tournaments,” Johnson says. “The reason is they are starting to host more tournaments in their city. So they needed someone who is going to represent their organization.”
So, whether there’s a niche market to tap, an organization to help or simply a charity sports event to host, some of the details will look very familiar to meeting planners and others will be brand new. Here are some of the major points:
Lodging. For a business meeting or event, it is pretty easy to figure out who is coming, how many nights they need and what hotel is best for proximity to the activity. For sporting events, it’s not so cut and dried.
For one thing, Vaninger points out, the sheer numbers can cause booking issues much like conventions do. Different teams and families might be looking for different price points and it’s important for the tournament organizer to set a standard when asking the CVB for preferred hotels.
“We don’t want to put a team in a place that’s not appropriate for children,” Vaninger says. “We were in Detroit a few years ago for a youth tournament, and the directors put us in a hotel where you could rent rooms by the hour. So we got there, and couldn’t find another place, and we had to put parents on either end of the hall to act like guards.”
In fact, Vaninger says, the convention hotels and other high-end lodging are sometimes the best bet for host hotels.
“Now, some will need a lower-priced hotel, and they’ll find what they need. But as far as host hotels, I would look to the better ones,” Vaninger says.
Transportation. In some ways, this might be easier than it is for your business meetings. Teams either rent their own vans or families provide transportation. Where the issue of transportation does arise is at the sporting venue itself, when parking issues create a need for shuttle services, Johnson says.
“What we do is transport people from different parking areas to the actual events,” Johnson says. “Parking can be a challenge, so you have to use the best resources. There a lot of grandparents and elderly who attend these events and you want to be as accommodating as possible.”
Sporting venues. If you don’t get the venue right, expect a world of trouble, says Hall. Sound familiar?
“Directors are looking at how many fields there are, the dimensions, the quality of the fields and proximity to different amenities,” Hall says. “If you book a venue that’s too small or not accessible enough, that’s something every parent is going to notice.”
Vaninger says concessions are often a negotiable aspect of the venue. Sites willing to share concession proceeds, or waive part of the facility fee in lieu of concession sales, are not uncommon. In Jackson County’s case, the concessionaire is contracted out.
“But we’ve had directors who split the cost of the fields with the concessionaire in exchange for the proceeds that concessions will make at the tournament,” Hall says.
Liability. Sports always come with the chance of injury. Jackson County, for instance, won’t rent fields to anyone until they have $1 million in liability insurance. Most often, even with charity tournaments, the rider is provided by a sanctioning organization such as USSSA Sports.
Promotion. To begin something new – or for a one-time event – promotion is essential.
Hall says the lack of promotion is the primary mistake new sports planners make.
“They think just because they have a venue and some local teams, the rest will fill itself in,” Hall says. “I’ve seen a lot of tournaments cancelled because of that lack of promotion. People have to get out there and promote their events.”
But, Vaninger adds, once the initial work is done, promotion gets easier.
“Teams come back to tournaments they like,” Vaninger says. “And teams tend to scratch each other’s backs, you know, ‘Come to my tournament and I’ll come to yours’.”
Scheduling. Here’s the best saved for last. Scheduling games so that teams are not inconvenienced is the key to success.
“This makes people angry quicker than anything,” Hall says. “I’ve seen teams that get scheduled for a 7 a.m. game and then don’t have another until 4 in the afternoon. And I’ve seen teams drop out of tournaments for that very reason.”
Also, watch the city’s calendar of events when you are scheduling a game. If NASCAR or a convention is coming to town the same week of your tournament, finding hotel space could get pretty tricky.
“It’s like anything else,” Vaninger says. “Timing is everything.”
(Michael Humphrey is the contributing editor from Kansas City, MO)