The North American Sand Soccer Championships (NASSC) are almost a living contradiction: a niche sports event that takes over an entire resort town in peak season, with maximum economic results. The event spans 30 blocks of Virginia Beach’s oceanfront and, in addition to its marquee beach events of amateur soccer and professional soccer, incorporates what are known as sidekick sports, events like beach volleyball, beach kickball, beach field hockey and beach flag football, to name a few.
Over 70 vendors, two pro stadiums, a free kids’ clinic and oceanfront entertainment add to the appeal. This year’s event made almost $14 million and consumed 8,000 room nights, setting the stage for the 30th anniversary of the championship, scheduled for June 7-9, 2024.
The Ferguson North American Sand Soccer Championships is a fundraiser for the Hampton Roads Soccer Complex in Virginia Beach. All of the money raised supports facility improvements and enhancements. SDM sat down with NASSC’s organizers to learn more about the event.
Sports Destination Management: How many teams, on average, take part in this event?
Lauren Bland: We have between 800 and 900 teams on average.
Matt Whalen: Consider the enrollment of any regular outdoor soccer tournament, then double that amount.
SDM: That’s quite an undertaking. When do preparations begin?
Bland: We start in January, six months out.
Whalen: The 30 days leading up to the event are the busiest, and the week before is incredible. We start loading our trucks, U-Hauls and flatbeds, on Monday or Tuesday. It takes us about three days to build out everything on the beach. There are 64 soccer fields in all to be put up.
Bland: Once we set up, we’re checking every net, checking every goal. Our event starts on Friday morning with the pro teams.
SDM: What is the atmosphere like?
Bland: I consider it a festival. We also bring in about 70 vendors and create a five-block-long village. There are local brands, national brands, interactive displays; it’s not just 10 x 10 pop-ups.
SDM: You also feature your sidekick sports. How do you choose those? It seems like a lot of sports have sand versions these days.
Whalen: There’s definitely an ebb and flow in beach sports. Beach volleyball is obviously wildly popular. We’ve also partnered with field hockey, flag football and with beach kickball; the World Kickball Association has a partnership with us. We’ll likely be hosting beach wrestling as well as beach tennis and beach lacrosse; we’re in talks about beach pickleball as well.
SDM: It sounds like you’re back from COVID.
Bland: I think we are. It took us a few years to dig out but I would say that now, we are better off than we were before. The thing I love the most is that the vibe of our event is back. It’s a fun, reunion-based sport.
Whalen: Ours was the very first event to reopen the beachfront. We had to get special approval from Richmond, our state capital. We developed plans to host the event three or four different ways, depending on regulations; at one point, we were trying to keep each competition 10 feet apart. By the time we were able to put on an event, it was obvious that people were happy to get back out there.
Bland: The city was so ready to open back up.
SDM: Do you think your event has encouraged other people to offer beach soccer competitions as well?
Bland: We’ve actually helped other events; our event is considered the grandaddy of them all. A lot of the folks who have an interest in creating tournaments will come to see ours.
SDM: What makes your so unique and successful?
Whalen: Really, the foundation of it all is Virginia Beach. We’re so lucky to have all that flat real estate, plus the city makes it easy to put this event together. We have worked with people who want to put on tournaments in North Carolina, Florida, California, Connecticut, Canada, the Great Lakes region, Washington State; in fact, we had people from FIFA come over one year. And from the north and south, as far as they could see, there were people playing soccer on the beach. They actually said, “There is no place like this; everyone needs to see this.” It was absolutely great to be recognized internationally.
SDM: And after 30 years, you probably have it down to a science.
Whalen: It is definitely more polished and more streamlined.
SDM: And people probably plan their schedules around it.
Bland: Oh, they do. In fact, there are weddings that are held in Virginia Beach in coordination with sand soccer weekend. We’ve seen engagements and pregnancy announcements, too; it’s more than just a soccer tournament.
SDM: How do you go about marketing it?
Whalen: You wouldn’t believe it, but—
Bland: We spend ZERO dollars promoting it. It has become part of the culture and part of the community. We’re so fortunate.
Whalen: In fact, our pro events serve as the main place for talent identification for the U.S. National Beach Soccer Teams. We work really closely with the U.S. Soccer Federation, and athletes have tryouts so that they can showcase their talents. In fact, the head coach for the men’s team was a player in our event for years and years. Now, he comes here because he can leverage the fact that we have athletes coming in from all across the country. People just flock to us to take part in the event because it can be a springboard into a pro soccer career.
SDM: What is the attendance, on average?
Bland: I’d say we have 10,000 athletes or so. We see daily attendance of about 35,000. Our weekend attendance is 100,000.
SDM: Is there a lot of demand for corporate partnerships and official affiliations?
Bland: Our sponsor scene has really evolved; we have focused on developing our corporate partnerships over the last six years. We went from having 15 to 20 displays to over 70.
Whalen: Lauren touched on our numbers but I need to point out something: We have a lot of local families that will come down to Virginia Beach and stay at oceanfront hotels throughout the tournament even though they only live five miles away. You can’t find another event that does something like that. People don’t want to drive home at the end of the day; they want to be with their kids and they want their kids to be able to be a part of the whole thing.
SDM: And the economic impact is incredible.
Bland: One of the things that makes this special is that this single weekend has such an impact on our Hampton Road Soccer Complex. Because of this tournament, we are able to keep sports program affordable there. For example, if we want to renovate a field, we can. If we want to buy a mower that costs $100,000, we can do that too. We call those our sand dollars at work.
SDM: And it all comes from an event that unfolds like a big happy reunion.
Bland: For us, one of the most fun things to do is to get in golf carts and go up and down the beach and see everyone there enjoying themselves and having a great time.
Whalen: There is no other event like it.