You have an enormous responsibility when charged with planning a sports event and determining its destination. There are many dedicated athletes and their families who have worked very hard to qualify for this event and the event's success is squarely placed in your hands. As a true professional, you are guided by, and possibly driven by, systems, procedures, and, above all, your own checklists. These systems assure the needs of all the event stakeholders are addressed. So, how close does the following post-event checklist of your events come to your idea of meeting the goals of a successful event?:
Facilities and vendors paid
T-shirts, meals and payment to outside staff
Sponsor fulfillment completed, thank-you notes and next-year proposals sent
Local community and volunteer support acknowledged and thank-you notes sent
Event P&L (profit and loss) prepared and analyzed.
That takes care of everything and everybody; let's get to work on next year!
Hmmm, is something missing?
The need to serve multiple, important stakeholders is one of the inherent challenges of hosting quality events. The problem this creates for the sports event manager can be the loss of focus on the most critical stakeholders in any sports event…the athletes and their families. Participation drives any event and is the one component essential not only to having the event, but also to serving the needs of all other stakeholders. Without the participants, all other stakeholders are irrelevant.
While this may be viewed as having a tremendous grasp of the obvious, the many demands of sports event management can result in the casual disregard of the athletes and their families when they should be the epicenter of any quality sports event.
To help refocus attention on the athletes and their families, two general areas of examination, core principles and difference makers, should be taken into consideration.
From the participant's perspective, the competitive experience must include:
Desired competitive level.
The competitive venue is where the action takes place. As the athletes and their families enter the facility or walk onto the playing field, first impressions are everything. Are the competitive venues regulation size and age/skill appropriate? Does the venue convey the appearance of organization and active management or inattention and disrepair? Is your event in a place or during a time of year that certain amenities are required, such as air conditioning? If there is an expectation for concessions, locker rooms, or other amenities, are they available?
To provide the appropriate competitive venues you must first know and understand the expectations of your market segment, which vary greatly from sport to sport. Volleyball athletes and their families tend to remain on site throughout the event, while basketball participants are more likely to play their games and go off site for rest, meals, and diversion. The event manager needs to understand and appreciate these differences and plan accordingly.
Anyone in sports events management, particularly team sports, knows the emotions generated by parents watching their sons and daughters compete. Competition by itself dials up our emotions.Watching our children compete can red-line the emotions of even the most mild-mannered and otherwise well-grounded person. Qualified and experienced officials help manage the competitive spirit of the participants and the resulting emotions of their families and supporters. Saving costs with inexperienced officials is not a good place to stretch your margins.
The core of any sports event is the competitive experience of each athlete: the teams and athletes must compete at the appropriate level. Do not over or under sell the competitive level of your event; either choice can result in a bad competitive experience for the participants.
It is important that your promotional materials accurately identify whether the event is intended for elite, select, or rec levels of competition. Each level is important and has its place, just make sure you identify and communicate your intended market and share how the different competitive levels may be blended. The sports event market is driven by word of mouth and a competitive level mismatch can be a source for negative feedback for your event.
From the competitive expectations of the participants, two additional core elements can be identified. While each of these core elements merits in-depth coverage, for this article, only a few facts will be highlighted: providing value to and providing for safety of the participants,
In these days of tight competition and squeezed margins, providing value is even more challenging than ever. Offering value-appropriate pricing impacts not only your single event, but also the participation by the athletes in subsequent events you offer. Developing residual relationships and repeat participation is the cornerstone to growing levels of participation and expanding the number of event offerings you have.
While the market reflects that parents will sacrifice in many areas of their personal budgets before they cut back on their children's activities, there are limits on disposable monies available for such activities, particularly in light of fuel price trends and tougher economic times. Do not over rely on entry fee bumps to make margins. Actively develop alternative revenue sources and actively manage event operating expenses to assure real value to your most critical stakeholders.
The safety of the athlete must always be a critical consideration of the sports event manager. Needs and expectations differ by the specific sports market and competitive level; the need to plan for and address appropriately does not. While a full discussion of event safety is far beyond the scope of this article, consideration must be given to safety features of the competitive site, on site trainers, need for and source for site security, responsibilities for injuries and illness on site, and crisis plans and training for catastrophic events. For youth sports, consideration must also be given to background checks for event management staff.
Being a responsible event manger should be reason enough to address the fundamental safety needs of the participants, not to mention the risks of liability and negative publicity for not doing so.
With the core elements addressed, the question becomes what else can be done to enhance the experience of the athletes and their families. Borrowing from an old adage, three keys to being a difference maker are communication, communication and communication.
In your pre-event communications you need to clearly define competitive format, schedules, venues, and more. By clearly detailing what will happen when and where, you can define the expectations that you can then plan to meet or exceed. Redundancy and multiple media will be your friend here.
Pre-event communications also present the opportunity for sharing off-site activities and local attractions the participants can enjoy outside the event. By directing them to activities and attractions with which you have developed sponsorship/advertising relationships, you can create the classic win-win-win result.
The second line of communications concerns operations. How are venue or schedule changes to be communicated? What is the plan for addressing the unplanned developments that arise with regard to any event? A seamless communication and response plan ensures that participants are not aware of the potential chaos behind the wizard's curtain.
The operations communication plan must include a process for participants to share concerns and problems. When problem arise, on-site staff must be trained to determine what the person "wants" and not simply what he or she is asking for.
The final facet of communications is post-event. The feedback from participants should be a critical part of any event wrap-up and the first step in planning the next event, whether conducted by random calls or a formal survey. Participant feedback is far more valuable in planning future events than anecdotal sharing by staff.
The final arrow in the "make a difference" quiver is to create a "big time feel" for your event. Most events do not have a "big time" budget, but these opportunities can be low or no cost items.
An example is lanyard, plastic credentials for athletes rather than paper wrist bands. Credentials create the look and feel of prominent events to which the athletes aspire. Another example is to empower on-site staff to acknowledge outstanding displays of effort or sportsmanship with a free t-shirt or other merchandise. Other examples include officials pre-game meeting with captains, warm-up music, and award presentations.
One of the greatest rewards an event manger can experience is to observe and even share in the thrill of intense competition, win or lose. When we do so, we must not forget this reward cannot be experienced without the efforts and commitment of the athletes and their families. The planning and execution of our events must be reflective of the role they play.