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Managing the Athlete Relationship: It all Starts with Communication

19 May, 2016

By: Lee Corrigan

One of the most important aspects of putting on a successful sports event is attracting and retaining athletes to participate in that event. The way to do that is to encourage a positive relationship between the athletes and the event. You as an organizer are responsible for building and maintaining that relationship.

And it all starts with communication.

Managing a relationship with athletes in any sports event, first and foremost, means being able to communicate with them effectively. Whether you’re talking about a marathon, a lacrosse tournament or anything else, communication with the athletes involved (and their parents, if it’s a youth event) is going to be the key to getting them there, and ultimately, to bringing them back in years to come.

We like to think there are two kinds of communication: information and response. Here is a breakdown:

Information: Information can be defined as the outgoing communications that inform people about an upcoming event. For example, when we are producing the Baltimore Running Festival (BRF for short, an October event with a marathon, half marathon, relay, 5K and kids’ fun run as well as a number of other activities), it’s essential to make sure everyone is aware of everything they need to know on race day, as well as before and after.

Our website is kept updated with information on race times, routes, start line location, packet pick-up and more. Most people who have questions can have them all answered by going to the website. Our phone number and e-mail contact information are there as well, so if there’s a question that isn’t covered, they know how to reach out to us for help.

Another part of information is signage. If, for example, people are driving in and parking their cars for an event, they’ll need to start seeing signage almost immediately so that they know where to go, particularly if the event isn’t being held in their home city.

It’s amazing how well good signage and complete information can defuse a potential problem. For example, if you have someone who has parked their car a distance from the venue and paid for parking, they might be in a bad mood when they start walking in. But the more signs they see directing them to the event, the more they realize they’re going in the right direction, and the more welcome they start to feel. 

Why is this the case? Because you took the time to make it easier for them to get where they need to be. They don’t have to stop and ask for directions and they don’t have to feel frustrated because they went the wrong way and had to backtrack. They know where to go. And as a result, by the time they get to registration, they’re in a better mood and they’re looking forward to the event. This works whether the person is an adult runner in a race, the parent of a child in a lacrosse tournament or even a volunteer who has shown up to work. It’s a simple solution and it builds goodwill with your participants. What do you have to lose by posting the information people need to see?

Response: Just what it sounds like – your response to your athletes. All the outgoing information in the world isn’t going to help if your athletes (and/or their parents, for that matter) don’t feel like their inbound concerns are being listened to. As an example, once the BRF is over, we send out a post-event survey. We get a lot of responses back from that and our staff will sit around the lunch table and go through them. When we hear a comment or a criticism several times, we know it’s something we need to address.

But it’s not enough just to decide you’re going to fix something. It’s equally important to let people know you’re going to be acting on the suggestions they made. That’s why we work to get the word out: “We heard you loud and clear and we’re going to work on making those changes you suggested. Here’s our plan to fix this moving forward.”

In some respects, it doesn’t matter what you’re fixing – the food, the medals, the T-shirt, anything – what matters is that your participants know that you listened to their comments. In other words, you are going to deliver on the promise you made. Once a participant sees their concerns are being addressed, you’ve made a huge step toward developing that positive relationship with them.

Social media is another important part of relationship-building. People really love to use social media and we’ve discovered that it’s another great avenue for comments. Not everyone will take the time to fill out a survey, but a lot of people like to read and post about events they’ve been in. By listening to the chatter on our Facebook pages for different events, for example, we have become aware of people’s concerns. Maybe it’s the weather or the parking, for example. Maybe it’s the hotels or questions about mass transit. Whatever it is, we can respond to it on that page and also make sure the information is posted on our website and in any other communications. (Knowing the Facebook pages are monitored by staff makes people comfortable about asking further questions regarding the event.)

As an example, a few years ago, almost all our BRF participants got medals for participating – all except for our 5K runners. Well, they took to Facebook to say they wanted to get medals too. As a result, we posted that we would offer medals the following year to everyone, including the 5K runners. They liked hearing that and of course, they signed up to run again. It’s an example of listening to people, telling them you’ll give them what they want and then delivering on that promise.

We have also noticed a benefit we didn’t expect (but enjoy): because social media is so interactive, we’ve had the very gratifying experience of seeing people step up to speak in our favor when someone criticizes our staff or something about the event. Never underestimate the power of forming that good athlete relationship because it can pay dividends.

Creating a positive athlete relationship also means making people feel appreciated. Nobody wants to feel like they’re just another participant. The more you can do to make them know you appreciate the fact that they registered, showed up and competed, the higher the likelihood they will return to your event in the future. Spending that extra time on our attendees has bought us a lot of goodwill over the years.

All too often, we’ve seen people get into the sports event business for the wrong reason: because they think it looks like a way to make a profit. They don’t realize what an art and a science sports event management is. As a result, they put on a poor event and when athletes do participate in something like that, they don’t have a good experience and they certainly won’t come back to that event.

Like a lot of people in this business, we take a great deal of pride in what we do, and we want our athletes to feel their time was worthwhile and their money was well-spent.  It is personally rewarding for us to see someone cross a finish line or compete in a tournament, and look happy about it. We know it’s because we’re not just good at logistics and planning; it’s because we’re good at finding out what people want and delivering it.

Communication is the single most important part of forging a good relationship with your athlete. The more information you can offer your participants, and the more you let them know that their input is important to you, the more likely they are to tell their friends about the great time they had. That, in turn, translates to increased registration – and just as importantly, to a great reputation as a fun, well-run event.

About the Author

Lee Corrigan

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