SBJ/July 18 - 24, 2005/SBJ In Depth

Cities and venues increase pursuit of amateur sporting events

The director of sports for the Amateur Athletic Union, Mike Killpack, remembers heading to the National Association of Sports Commissions’ annual convention 10 years ago and finding about 35 cities shopping for sporting events to bring to their towns.

The sprawling Disney’s Wide World of Sports opened in 1997 with the goal of attracting competitions to courts and fields, and in turn increasing the number of visitors to Disney’s many theme parks and hotels in Florida.
A seller in a buyer’s market, Killpack hoped he could line up enough gyms, fields and tracks to host all of the 100-odd national championships that the AAU put out for bid.

When Killpack went to the NASC’s swap meet in Portland in April, representatives from about 200 communities showed up in search of events. A new diving championship that the AAU was offering attracted enough interest that a sports commission was willing to pay for the pool and throw in money to cover event expenses.

“There’s a ton of people out there now that know that youth sports is a business,” said Killpack, who is the ranking paid employee at an organization that says it will sanction more than 250 national championships this year. “Before, we were begging people to take our events. We don’t do that any more. Communities understand that our events put heads in beds.”

Super Bowls, Final Fours and All-Star Games are the glamour dates on the sports calendar, attracting tens of thousands of revelers and hours of TV coverage. But the pool of cities with the heft to handle them is shallow. Fifteen to 30 cities possess the facilities to host big events, which come and go and don’t return for years, if not decades.

Many communities — and particularly smaller communities — have found more consistent tenants in amateur sports organizations, such as the AAU and the U.S. Specialty Sports Association (USSSA), which won’t do much to raise a city’s profile, but will help it meet a more tangible goal: filling rooms in hotels and tables at restaurants.

Snapshots of
amateur sports hubs
Here is a sampling of how three key markets position themselves.
Backers of amateur sports say their events draw visitors who travel regardless of economic swings, stay longer than most, and often do it in the summer, when the convention business takes its siesta.

“When you start counting up big events that have a relatively high ticket appeal, there may be 30 of them out of the 3,000 events out for bid every year,” said Don Schumacher, executive director of the NASC, which counts more than 350 organizations from 270 cities among its members. “The real strength of the sports event travel industry is not coming from events that sell a lot of tickets.

“Participant-driven events are the engine that drives the business.”

Recent studies estimate the economic impact of amateur sporting events on the cities that host them at $3.5 billion to $4 billion a year, Schumacher said. That promise has communities climbing over each other to attract tournaments and sports festivals, offering rent-free facilities, sweetheart deals on rooms and, in some cases, paying rights fees in order to land the most sought-after events.

The most aggressive entrant in the race to develop a hub for amateur sports — and particularly grassroots sports — is not a community, but a company.

Disney opened Wide World of Sports on its Florida property in March 1997, spending about $150 million to build a vast complex that is both useful and picturesque. The development since has grown to incorporate 15 baseball fields, eight international-sized soccer fields, 10 tennis courts, a track and field complex and a 30,000-square-foot field house that can accommodate six basketball courts.

The park is most visible when it hosts the Atlanta Braves for spring training at 9,500-seat Cracker Jack Stadium. Or when the Tampa Bay Buccaneers bring their training camp to its all-purpose fields. Or when premier high school prospects converge for an elite basketball event at the 5,000-seat field house.

In June, Disney’s Wide World of Sports welcomed its 1 millionth athlete, who was at the complex for a volleyball tournament.
But it drives the most business for Disney when it brings in almost 500 high school and small college teams to conduct preseason training in baseball, softball, lacrosse and track and field during an eight-week span that begins in mid-February. Or when the AAU attracts 70 teams of 10-year-old girls for its national basketball championships, as it did last month during a span of 57 consecutive days during which at least one AAU national hoops tournament was going on at Disney.

In June, Disney welcomed its 1 millionth athlete to the Wide World of Sports complex. Desiree Wilkerson, 13, of Louisville, Ky., came to compete in the AAU Junior Volleyball National Championships.

“If you had to say what was the one and only reason it was built, regardless of how much the guy they hired cared about kids and loved sports, it was to drive incremental business to our theme parks and put heads in beds,” said Reggie Williams, the former NFL linebacker who runs the complex as vice president of Disney Sports Attractions. “With that singular purpose, it has significantly exceeded the expectations of the company. It really goes to one of the best learning experience I’ve had here, and that’s the depth and strength of sports at a grassroots level.”

Growing the Magic Kingdom

One week after the events of Sept. 11, 2001, the Disney sports complex was packed to capacity with athletes who had traveled from across the United States to compete on its fields, courts and track.

That served as a lesson to many within the walls of Mickey Mouse’s house.

“9/11 showed that when every other tourism channel was going down, sports continued to grow, because parents are going to go watch Billy or Suzy play in the national championship, no matter what,” said Mike Millay, director of sports events for Disney. “They’ll pass up Mount Rushmore and Washington, D.C., but they’re not giving up what might be the one chance they’ll have to watch their child play for a national championship.”

When teams register for Disney events online, many click on offers for rooms and theme parks.
The resilience of grassroots sports has made it increasingly attractive to cities and towns angling to fill hotel rooms.

For Disney, the draw is even more powerful. In classic Disney-ese, the company divides its guests into three categories: participants, affiliated spectators and non-affiliated spectators. Non-affiliated spectators — those who come to an event simply because they’re fans of the sport — account for less than 5 percent of Disney’s sports business. The bulk comes from athletes, coaches and the family and friends who travel with them.

While sports organizations claim that their events typically attract two family members for each participant, Millay said that Disney’s experience has been that the ratio is only slightly more than 1-to-1.

Still, because most athletes are children, teens and collegians, they dovetail nicely with the market that Disney targets with its theme parks. About half of those who compete at Wide World of Sports stay at a Disney property. But even those who don’t stay at Disney often will buy theme park tickets, which almost always are offered as part of registration for an event.

“The value of this business is that it’s highly incremental,” Millay said, pointing out that the sporting events drive significant repeat business for the theme parks. “A lot of our visitors would not have come to Disney — or returned to Disney — if it were not for that tournament that they’re playing in.”

Disney’s sporting event division operates similarly to a sports commission, but on steroids. Each of the facility’s 15 sports managers will head up about 13 events per year, or about twice what a city sports commission typically runs, Millay said.

With 170 events a year, Wide World of Sports operates at capacity. Its work is not in attracting events, but choosing, or creating, the ones that drive the most incremental spending.

About 40 percent of the events at the complex are Disney-created. The park’s busiest anchor tenant, the AAU, provides 33 events, or about 20 percent. Disney also has long-term deals to host events for USSSA and Pop Warner.

Determining the value of an event is an endeavor that stretches well beyond the more obvious stats that most sanctioning bodies can readily provide. Disney considers not only the number of competitors a tournament will bring, but also the likelihood that the entire family will travel with them and the way that they are likely to spend their time while in town.

“Things like food and beverage per caps for youth volleyball versus youth soccer — we have that,” Millay said. “You have to do that to understand the business. When you look at each sport, forget just the number of teams. You can have a basketball tournament with 85 teams. That’s a great weekend versus a 24-team baseball tournament. But, behaviorally, what do they do? How many of them stay on the property? How many go to the theme parks? All that figures in.

The Schwan’s USA Cup attracts 980 soccer teams and 15,000 players to the National Sports Center.
“I believe we know more about sports tourism than anyone on the planet, because we study it.”

Because sports commissions lack Disney’s resources, the NASC recommends that they rely on their counterparts in other cities to determine the potential of an event before they bid on it.

“A city that is at all on its game will still go back and talk to the last three cities that hosted that event,” Schumacher said. “They should do that. They must do that. And if they don’t, they should get out of the business.”

Once Disney has committed to an event, it begins working to drive participants and their families to its hotels and theme parks. About half the teams that play at Disney register for their events online, Disney executives said. When they do that, they often can click on offers for rooms, theme park tickets and packages. The AAU also includes links for discount park tickets on many of its registration pages.

The AAU points out that it provides options for teams that lack the budget to make a Disney stay part of their trip.

“We like them to stay in the Disney hotels and we want them to buy theme park tickets,” Killpack said. “But, here in Orlando, you can stay in a motel for $39. You don’t have to be on Disney property. To tell you the truth, most of the time the Disney hotels are full, particularly in the summer and during school breaks when a lot of our events are held. So it’s not just Disney, but the whole area, that benefits.”

It benefits, observers said, because it chooses its events wisely.

Before heading the NASC, Schumacher led Cincinnati’s sports commission. Before taking his job with Disney, Millay ran the sports commission in New Orleans. Both caution municipalities to study the numbers closely before deciding which events to pursue or accept.

“A lot of cities just don’t know what to ask to determine whether they want an event or not,” Millay said. “They rely on economic impact expectations that just aren’t realistic. Here, when we say $30 million, it better be $30 million.”

Having what it takes

In the same way that hosts search for the events that drive the most spending, event organizers work to find hosts that can deliver the facilities, finances and staff to make the tournament a success.

“It takes a long time and a lot of work to grow an event and develop a good reputation,” said Paul Campbell, who serves as chairman of the Junior Olympics for the AAU. “And it just takes one bad host to drive that event back five years.”

Hosting a major sporting event other than the Super Bowl is a relatively simple endeavor for most larger cities, because the requirements are straightforward. It takes a big stadium or arena, enough hotel rooms to house the people who will sit in it, and a few concerts or pep rallies to keep them entertained.

When the AAU or USSSA brings a national tournament to town, its needs are broader.

“A lot of cities have big arenas, but that doesn’t help us at all,” Killpack said. “We need lots of floors or lots of fields and we need to get back and forth from one to the other.”

Few locales can fit the larger grassroots events under one roof or within one complex of fields.

In addition to holding amateur events, Disney’s Wide World of Sports is the spring training home of the Atlanta Braves.
When Disney’s Wide World hosted the AAU’s 10-under girls national basketball championship tournament earlier this summer, it attracted 70 teams that went through pool play, followed by tournament bracket play. The AAU needed 18 courts to accommodate games and practices for all the teams. Disney’s field house has six. So the AAU booked all four courts at the nearby Champions Sports Complex — a 92,000-square-foot building operated by a partnership that includes Barry Larkin and Dee Brown — along with the gyms at eight high schools and two middle schools.

And that was just basketball.

When the AAU invades New Orleans with the Junior Olympic Games this month, it will bring events in 25 sports contested in 23 venues across the city. Between participants, officials and those who travel with them, the event is expected to bring at least 15,000 visitors to New Orleans.

The reward for a city can be vast. But so can the endeavor. The demand for sports facilities, housing, transportation and staffing, along with associated expenses, has stressed host cities so much that the AAU has created a rotation of five cities — New Orleans; Detroit; Des Moines, Iowa; Knoxville, Tenn.; and Hampton Roads, Va. — that have proven that they can handle the weight. The AAU is negotiating to add a West Coast city to the mix.

Continued growth could be too much for two of the current cities, Campbell said. He declined to identify which two.

“Large, multisports events are a tremendous, tremendous stress on a town,” said Millay, the former sports commission executive now with Disney. “Often, cities just don’t have the resources. They may think they do, but they don’t.”

To protect itself, the AAU often takes its events to the places that have succeeded in the past. In the last two years, it has worked almost exclusively with communities that work through a sports commission or convention and visitor’s bureau, rather than dealing with individual venues or sports clubs.

“That way,” Killpack said, “it’s much more likely that they’ve got the juice in a community to pull an event off.”

Making memories

For many municipalities and facilities, growth means adding or expanding events. But, with a strong stable already in place, Williams said the greatest opportunity for growth at Disney lies in technology that will continue to distinguish its facilities from the rest.

Mickey’s muscle
Since opening in 1997, Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex has posted some impressive numbers.
200 Number of governing bodies, leagues, teams and networks to host events at the complex
1,250+ Events hosted
46,908 Teams that have competed
70,000+ Gallons of paint used to line fields
87,973 Games played
280,000+ Hot dogs sold
1,014,879 Guests served at sports-themed restaurant
2,500,000+ Gallons of water consumed by athletes
Note: As of June 13
Source: Disney’s Wide World of Sports Complex
Wi-Fi will help coaches and event organizers deal on the fly with scheduling changes and improve communication. Eventually, a wireless network might be used to update scores and stream video from events.

“It may be a way down the road, but we’ll get to the point where you’re watching your child on a broadcast and we have them interviewed after the game,” said Alex Vergara, manager of sports marketing and technology for Disney Sports. “We’ll make it that Disney experience that you’re not going to get anywhere else.”

To Williams, an integral part of that experience is having families on hand to watch the athletes compete. “It’s like the line from the movie ‘Mahogany,’” he says. “Success is nothing without someone you love to share it with.”

Another key is in finding ways to preserve that success.

“This place is all about these adrenaline moments that you want to resonate for a lifetime,” Williams said. “How can you give someone something that triggers that, and along with it brings an association with where that event took place?

“The first thing I want is for them to remember that moment. The second thing is for them to remember where it took place.”

To that end, Disney is working on ways to preserve and sell memories.

A year ago, Williams hired Kellen Winslow, the NFL hall of famer, to oversee new events and initiatives. Winslow came to the job with a story of his own that illustrates the market for memories. He beams as he recounts one of his son’s trips to Disney’s Wide World of Sports. Kellen Jr., now a tight end for the Cleveland Browns, was playing in an AAU basketball tournament at Disney’s field house when he stepped in front of a pass, took the ball behind his back, and dunked with a flourish.

“If I could have video of my son stealing the basketball and going down and dunking, what would I pay for that film clip?” Winslow asks, dreamy-eyed. “I’d pay a bunch.”

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