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Winning on the Beach (Despite the Drama) in a Reopening Event

1 Jul, 2021

By: Tighe O'Sullivan
Pro-Am Beach Soccer Shares Its Success Story

How would you like to be the first tournament to be presented in Northern California after the June 15th reopening? If you guessed we had to deal with challenges regarding the timeline and overall craziness, well, you’d be right. In fact, to put it in simple terms, there was no true understanding of anything.

Our staff didn’t even know what would be allowed until June 1st. That was just 10 days before our deadline. What happened before and after really comes down to the fact that we did in two weeks what we usually do in three months. The timeline for the 16th annual Santa Cruz Open ran as follows:

Easter Week, the week of April 6th

We had our first conversation in quite some time with the city of Santa Cruz. The head of events let us know they were going to support an event in Santa Cruz but what it would look like was impossible to envision. The state had just made the announcement: June 15th was the target for reopening in California if it could meet the guidelines. At the time, we were counting the days and waiting for the area to move to the next tier (an explanation of the tier system can be found here) and hoping for the best.

Our situation for the next month did not change much. We were operating with the idea things would change. At the time, we were going to be allowed 200 participants total. Everyone would wear masks, get temperature checks, we’d be checking vaccination cards and identifying people with a wrist band for local authorities, and following a number of other guidelines in order to make this tournament happen. It was a true challenge to add this layer of complexity to what was already the most difficult event we operate.

Memorial Day Weekend, May 28th Proclamation

We spent the long weekend basically sitting and waiting to hear the latest allowance. It seemed we were going to be good to go, but what the final decision would be – well, we didn’t know. On June 2, we were told we could be open for a full-fledged event and the excitement really began. At the time, we had 38 teams enrolled without any real marketing done. This was 10 days before the late deadline a week before the event. We usually put two weeks to deal with the ghosts, drop-offs and missing/broken groups. Even with two weeks it’s always a challenging moment.

At the moment, we were told we would need to operate as a Mega Event. This meant temperature checks BOTH days, masks when not playing, identifying those vaccinated and non-vaccinated with separate wrist bands, social distancing enforced and a variety of other obstacles. It was a tall order, but we prepared for that and informed all the participants of what to expect.

June 11th Deadline

Registrations jumped from 38 teams, 10 days prior, to 109 teams. (Were people ready to go? Um, YES). We were in shock, but perhaps we shouldn’t hve been, considering the number of teams who follow us – and obviously, our one-week sprint in advertising had been a success. The event gained 71 team registrations in 10 days. So, now that registration was closed, we had groups of 2, 3, 7, 9 which mostly do not work. We, of course, wanted to have everyone play age pure, so now came the next push – a process for which we normally would have allotted two weeks, but now had to be done in six days.

A perceived mistake made by me was planning a site visit to San Antonio & South Padre Island the day after the deadline. The thought was I would have plenty of time to work the work while there. Another mistake was not realizing how far San Antonio and South Padre were for driving. The 4.5 hours down and another back made for a total day lost due to my motion sickness working/reading in the car. My brother was kind enough to do the driving, but my stomach not up for the challenge.

June 15th Return to California

I had planned to finish schedule on the flight back on Tuesday. Many of the groups were still unknown, so multiples scenarios were created for groups of which we were not sure. They would shift in the days to come. Whereas we had 109 at deadline, now three days before the Friday setup, we were down to 96 teams.

Honestly, all our staff was in awe at those who ghosted. (Our definition of ghosts are teams who have an e-mail, phone number and have the ability to text, call, and email, but refuse to answer our requests for confirmation either in or out). You would think if they don’t answer then they are out. But surprisingly, many times, we don’t know why they have not responded, and end up last minute saying “sorry, we were always in and we will pay immediately.”

June 17th Day of U-Haul Packing and Travel to Santa Cruz

Wednesday before, we picked up a half dozen teams, and reached 102, again making all the groups but Micro complete. We were happy to have the schedule done…so we thought. But, now the focus changed from schedule to the “Run of Show” operations and the race to Sunday afternoon.

We packed the U-Haul with all we had in storage. This was an exercise; literally, we had not done it since December 2019. The process was slower than usual for a variety of reasons, but mostly because no one but me had done this before. (Did I mention our crew was very green?) On top of that, we had a few scares as brown recluse spiders were found in the equipment twice scaring the crap out of me. That was a first of many “firsts” to take place throughout the weekend.

Finally, the U-Haul was packed and we were heading south to Santa Cruz. Things were now in motion. We arrived in Santa Cruz late in the afternoon, not quite beating the Highway 17 rush hour traffic. It was a slow, tiring crawl over the mountain. Finally, we settled down at the Aqua Breeze Inn and started to print everything we needed for the following days.

As we worked into the night, the unwanted messages arrived. Suddenly teams we worked hard to include fell off. This happened a few times over the next 24 hours. The latest was a team suddenly had a COVID-19 scare. They pulled their team Friday night, leaving us with a group of three. Now, that may sound straightforward, but the message we received was pretty cryptic and didn’t really say 100 percent that they were in or out. (Oh, and that team gets the dubious honor of ghost winner of the event, as we had two phone numbers and three e-mails and still never got full confirmation with multiples to each in text, calls, and emails. Only Saturday when they didn’t check-in we knew for sure they weren’t coming, and the group shrank to three.

June 18th: 6am Setup & Early Check-in

For 17 years, we have done setup early Friday morning to avoid the possible heat. Leading up to this event, there was a tremendous heat wave in California. Luckily, it subsided partially on Friday, but it was still very hot by 10 a.m. In the past, I was always disappointed when we could not get off the beach before 12 p.m. Our record was starting at 7 a.m. and being done by 10 a.m. a few years ago. This time was different.

First, the organization who has supported us in setup, Si Se Puede, was unable to help this year due to COVID-19 restrictions which could not allow their people to leave the property. In addition, the city was short-staffed, so there was no vehicle to move goals, equipment, etc, down the beach. This meant we had to carry 13 fields and goals the length of the beach. Luckily, we had a fairy godfather who lightened our load; otherwise, what took us the time it did would have been even longer.

We entered the beach at 6 a.m. and we left the beach at 4 p.m. We crushed the previous record for slowness by 3.5 hours. 12.30 p.m. was the latest before this day. That said, I was not upset as I would have been in the past. Usually we are rushing to beat the heat. First thing in the morning, I knew there was no way we would beat the heat. We just paced ourselves as best as we could and didn’t worry how long it took. My fear was killing my staff before the event even started.

Early check-in started at 3:00 p.m. We lost some people at about 2:30 p.m to get set up. The rest of us arrived there about 4:45 p.m. At that time, I was back at the schedule, dealing with the kind of changes you would never want to take place less than 24 hours before the event. Because inevitably, someone doesn’t check the revised schedule, which then causes more obstacles and challenges for the staff.

Saturday June 19th – Check-in & First Games

Just two days previously, we found out we no longer had to mask or follow many other conditions. We were no longer deemed a Mega Event. This said, we were on the beach at 5 a.m. (earlier than ever), and everyone on the crew worked well. We had some volunteers from the participants and a few who came out from the local community to assist in our “Social Distancing” check-in process.

Whereas there are countless positives which came out of this event, the biggest was our process where we created Check-in Zones. We dealt with only managers at the check-in desk and then someone on staff would accompany them to a zone where their team waited away from the tables to be banded for the weekend. This made things move so much faster than usual it is hard to quantify. Also, a big thank you to all those teams who worked tirelessly to get through the process of being paperless. It made check-in the best we have ever had in 17 years.

The rest of the day was spent trying to keep up with changes in the schedule as we continued to deal with new surprises. You may wonder, why so many problems with the schedule; should we not have had this figured out already? Yeah, sure, but again, increase of 71 teams in 10 days, a loss of 10 teams, an additional six teams, lose a few more, add a few more… if you can even imagine the confusion, you can see why perhaps (just perhaps!) things weren’t running completely smoothly. We did not have the luxury of two weeks to deal with the ghosts and broken brackets, so the mayhem didn’t really end until Saturday afternoon.

Sunday June 20th – Final First Round Games & Run to the Finals

A special thanks to our Referee coordinator Colin Arblaster and his whole crew. We are proud of our referees and the level of education they have reached in beach soccer. We know we have the best beach soccer referees in the country because not only have we strived together to achieve this, but they are the only ones who do their job with 100 percent adherence to FIFA’s rules.

Mr. Arblaster specifically was going through the schedule changes with us and working tirelessly to make sure all games were covered. Granted, some out there did not like the decision that were made, but that is the nature of the beast. I am fond of telling crew each time: our participants will have the best experience sometimes all year in their soccer until you screw up a call and ruin the whole event for them. They know this, and they actually take it to heart and try not screwing up. But, of course, it happens, and sometimes, you think it happens and it never did…the essence of transferring of blame.

In any case, we had some interesting things take place. Twice, for the first time in years, we had teams accused of fielding illegal players. When this has happened, we had to take the roster to the field, ask for the player passes, or other identity checks used for check-in, and quiz the kids without interference from coaches, parents or otherwise.

The Biggest Dramas, since there are always a few…

In one situation, a team refused to play and shamed the opposing coach for trying to cheat. The other situation only arose later after the event when a parent wrote to us with a similar complaint. (Side note: Both times they were wrong).

In fact, both times, it was because kids were wearing two wrist bands. In the first situation, the manager called me with the accusation. We looked it up and knew exactly which team it was and what the situation was. The coach had kids drop off his older team days before the event and had contacted us about the protocols for kids playing up. I told her this, not once, not twice but in three separate conversations. Of course, she insisted they were cheating. Over the phone, she said she understood, but then got off the phone, and pushed her parents into a false frenzy.

The team abandoned the game and took the forfeit. That night, as well with the parent days later, I explained it plainly in an e-mail to all. Our check-in process is more detailed than any grass event to avoid these accusations. We check photo ID and birthdate against the roster, and we examine the waivers. It’s a triple- or quadruple-check in some cases. A coach must literally falsify records to such an extreme it makes it not worth it…for much of anything, but especially not for a beach soccer trophy.

Even then, if it is about qualifying for nationals, they would have to do it all over again with yet another layer of qualifications when we get there. In the end, those who lose out are the kids. They were given the idea they were cheated. More importantly, the opportunity was taken away to play the game.

Final Analysis Sunday Afternoon

That said, the event overall was a fantastic success for almost everyone. The event was (of course, given all the challenges) short-staffed which made everything a challenge. It made our staff have to work twice as hard and they really raised themselves to the occasion. I am grateful to all those who worked, supported, volunteered and participated in what turned out to be this year’s historic event.

We were the first tournament to take place in Northern California since the pandemic shut down everything. We are very proud of the standard we were able to provide with a short-staffed and very green crew and despite all of the challenges the schedule created. The staff made up for it in their patience, hard work and putting up with tremendous amounts of drama, which is normal for an event like this, but in an extreme situation.

We look forward to moving into the next phase of producing these events with much more fluidity and ease as green is no longer and Santa Cruz as a whole is a very difficult event to operate. For me personally, it will definitely remain in the top-three all time of all events for difficulties. But to have done it and survived and to have so many compliments is priceless. Again, what we did in two and a half weeks, we usually spend nearly three months trying to accomplish.

We congratulate the 38 finalists who qualified for nationals and the 19 champions of the first tournament post COVID-19 in Northern California. We are so happy to have had these teams be part of our first event, where it all started for us 17 years ago. Kudos to everyone who had the chance to participate!

Future Events in California

We are currently planning other events, about an hour and half away in San Francisco. Whereas Santa Cruz opened up with the state, San Francisco continues to consider a tournament an event playing once a day, between two teams. The officials plan to meet after the July 4th weekend and then reevaluate. This puts us in much the same situation as we just went through. No one really knows what to expect or what the city will do, but we expect them to follow the rest of the state guidelines and protocols, but until then, we are very limited in the type of marketing and push for teams we can do. It will be another tough run for us to the finish line, but much easier the second time with a few more weeks than Santa Cruz.

What can other event owners learn from our experiences?

Honestly, you always need to be ready for anything. I have latched on to the phrase of being able to "bend with the wind" when you don't really know what to expect. We prepared for the worst. In this case, being labeled a "Mega Event" and making sure we set up ourselves to deal with whatever might come. What it did was relieve us of responsibilities as we got closer, and things opened up. We anticipated this would happen, but you simply don't leave things to chance.

What changes would we make?

If we had it to do over again, we would set our deadline earlier. That is what really killed us with this event. Shortening the deadline to six days before setup did not leave any room for us to figure out who would become ghosts and/or drop out. Even with the earlier deadline, we can always let more teams in, but at least we will have more control over the outcomes, stress and the unknowns which almost always stare you in the face once you hit the registration deadline. We didn't have that luxury in Santa Cruz.

Overall, though, satisfied customers were everywhere

The kids were ecstatic. You could feel the relief all over the beach at check-in, sidelines, and everywhere else as our staff roamed up and down the beach. And the parents felt the same way. We heard the normal sort of relief statements like "finally" and then many more very colorful exultations of happiness when the kids were not in earshot. I think at the end of the day, the happiness of the city workers, the boardwalk and all the participants was impossible to miss. It had been so long and we, as most know, have been under some of the strictest guidelines. But with the nation’s lowest infection rate and the highest vaccination rate, I think the general feeling was, "It is about $#@% time!" (you can define that last terminology to suit your censors).

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