Smaller Market, Bigger Player | Sports Destination Management

Smaller Market, Bigger Player

Feb 28, 2010 | By: Judi Hess
Be a Big Fish in a Small Pond


© Jim boardman -
© Jim boardman -

Do all sports event planners and participants feel the draw of a big city? In some cases the answer to that would be "Yes." International events like the Olympics and Goodwill Games must be held in major metropolitan areas. But for many events it makes more sense and can beneficial to be the only game in town. There are some tangible benefits to be the "Big Fish in a Small Pond." Among those benefits are increased media coverage, easier volunteer recruitment, and "small-town" hospitality for athletes and fans.

The ability to manage and attract world-class sporting events has become a key focus for small and medium sized cities. These cities are able to inventory their facilities and to be able to focus on the sports that are the right "fit" for both the community and the event.And as competition to host events continues to heat up, smaller markets continue to find new ways to improve the experience for the participants and thus earn their repeat business.

Media Coverage
Some cities are large enough to host several competitions at the same time. And while the layout and needs of the various groups may not compete with each other, they definitely have to vie for coverage in the local media. Staff cutbacks have forced assignment editors at newspaper and television stations to make tough choices on which stories will have reporters and which will only receive photo or video coverage. However, this is less likely to be the case in smaller communities where the event is often the lead story. News outlets that are in competition with each other often look for a different angle, which translates into greater coverage overall. Some will choose to interview athletes with local ties, some will cover the logistics to stage events, etc. And all of that leads in to quality coverage for the actual competition.


Men's Open Cycling event at the Empire State Games in White Plains, New York. Martine Avenue. Photo courtesy of SVTCobra.
Men's Open Cycling event at the Empire State Games in White Plains, New York. Martine Avenue. Photo courtesy of SVTCobra.

The Empire State Games was the first Olympic Style State-run athletic competition of its kind. The summer games were originally staged in Syracuse, and remained there for seven years before they began to rotate between five cities: Albany, Buffalo, Ithaca, Rochester and Syracuse. In 1999 they broke that rotation and were held in Long Island. The following year, the Games moved to Binghamton, New York. That was their first opportunity to host a competition of this magnitude. For that reason, the community rallied behind the event. As the date for the competition was nearing, every media outlet in the community was focused on the Summer Games. There were "human interest" stories before the Games arrived, coverage of the "advanced team" and their activities to ready the community for competition, and vast coverage once the actual event began. The media push made the Empire State Games "the" focus of the entire community. That level of interest helped to drive ticket sales and attendance at events. The media helped to create a positive atmosphere that helped to increase the community's ability to host the Games again in 2004 and 2008.

In the summer of 2009, the New York Jets moved their training camp from Hofstra University on Long Island to the quiet central upstate community of Cortland, New York. With a county population of approximately 48,000 people, Cortland typifies a small community that offers a great quality of life in a setting far removed from the attractions, and potential distractions, of the New York metropolitan area. When the Jets selected the State University of New York College at Cortland as their training camp site, local media jumped all over the story.


New York Jets Cornerback, Lito Sheppard, stretches before training at SUNY Cortland, NY during training camp in 2009. © Kathleen Handy -
New York Jets Cornerback, Lito Sheppard, stretches before training at SUNY Cortland, NY during training camp in 2009. © Kathleen Handy -

The mid-May press conference announcing the move was covered by four Syracuse television outlets as well as other television, radio and newspaper representatives from Cortland, Binghamton, Elmira and others across central New York and the Southern Tier. Follow-up coverage continued to the opening of camp in July, with local and regional media looking for every possible "hometown" angle. It was all very positive stuff and it focused primarily on the community's excitement at being selected as well as the potential positive economic impact the camp would generate for the area. Media interest continued throughout the camp, and the Jets and Cortland were a frequent feature on local newscasts.

"Our local newspaper, the Cortland Standard, did an excellent job, as well," said Garry VanGorder, executive director of the Cortland County Business Development Corporation. "The paper ran daily features on the camp in its news section and frequently on the front page, and used front page teasers in "Jets Green" to lead people to the sports section, where even more coverage could be found. I've been in Cortland for a while and I have to say it's the single greatest community newspapering job that newspaper has ever done. Likewise, our local radio station, WXHC, ran daily camp updates for the entirety of the camp."

Volunteer Recruitment
Volunteers are an integral part of the success of a competition. From pre-event planning to help in executing those plans, local organizing committees and professional planners rely on support from the local population.


© Photawa -
© Photawa -

Jimmy Gabrielsen, Jr., director of Tournament Business Affairs for the Champions Tour, talks about the importance of volunteers and sites a personal experience example. "Volunteerism is key to the success of our events across all three tours: PGA TOUR, Champions Tour and Nationwide Tour. Without the efforts of volunteers who donate their time and money, tournaments would not be as successful in generating local charity dollars or providing such a great on-site experience for the fans, players and sponsors. The Dick's Sporting Goods Open (Endicott, New York) is a great example of how an event in a traditionally smaller market can generate tremendous interest from volunteers and be as successful as any top-tier market event. "

There are a variety of ways to show groups that their presence, and business, is valued by the host community. Welcome letters from officials, housing placement for athletes, literature to familiarize participants with the community, and goody bags are a few examples of services that can be provided.

Sports Commissions and Convention & Visitors Bureaus are constantly monitoring the items that they can offer when competing for groups. They are always striving to be more accommodating and to win over event planners. Almost every destination offers a wide range of services to planners to make their jobs and site choice easier.

CVB staff members in small to medium markets are another key resource for the event right holder. Being familiar with the local landscape lends significant insight in identifying qualified potential sponsors and navigating any socio-political issues that may arise. The intimate knowledge of the community's "players" can be instrumental to securing the funding needed to stage and attract events. One business may be into supporting professional tournaments while another sees value in amateur youth events. Making the right introduction can make all the difference in successful fundraising.

Michael Kusmuk, Sports Marketing director for the Lehigh Valley Sports Commission, shares his thoughts on the topic. "The little things we can do for them: sponsorships, liaison to the community at-large, attending their national or state conventions to make a presentation... those things go a very long way...." he said. Their Sports Commission realizes the importance of the business and the key contacts that they work with as well. Lehigh Valley goes the extra mile to show their appreciation, even including awards at their Annual Meeting.


© Photogolfer -
© Photogolfer -

TSE Consulting - United States oversees events of all sizes and scopes. Dale Neuburger, their director in Indianapolis, acknowledges that there are some advantages to 'small towns.' Among these is the feeling of "...authenticity. Like the bar in 'Cheers,' it's nice to be at an event where community residents know who you are and why you are there. This means virtual 'concierge' service for participating athletes because the entire population is committed to making sure that the experience is perfect."

Neuburger adds that there is also a comfort level cultivated by the community. "For athletes who spend considerable time away from home, the small town atmosphere can feel refreshing and relaxing. For many years, one of the most popular events for female professional golfers on the LPGA Tour was the Corning Classic, played in Corning (New York). The entire community was involved in the event, and the volunteer commitment was extraordinary. It brought out the best in the athletes and provided a memorable experience. The small-town atmosphere, combined with people who are genuinely pleased to serve as volunteers, brings lasting impressions."

Overall Experience
Salem, Virginia has hosted 59 NCAA Division II and III Championships since 1996. A small community (Salem is 25,000) that finds it easy to recruit and retain volunteers due to 'community pride' and the great southern hospitality so prevalent in the area. But the experience for participants is also enriched by the values of this small market. Each championship team (football, basketball, softball, lacrosse, baseball, volleyball) is assigned a host family from the Salem area to assist teams with team meal locations, laundry, finding doctors if required, etc. These families become an integral part of the 'Salem Experience' and shadow the teams at practices, meet their flights, etc. They do not stop when the team leaves the championship but develop relationships that last years.

Carey Harveycutter, the director of Civic Facilities for the City of Salem, shared this story. The December 2009 "...annual Stagg Bowl brought out the best of Salem. Twenty inches of snow fell on the stadium Friday and Saturday causing us to move the game time down five hours to enable us to prepare the field. To make the game possible, our civic facilities staff worked through the night, supplemented by the Parks and Rec Director and staff members from our Water and Sewer Department. The next morning when the snow ended we had volunteers from a county high school, along with the husband of one of our employees, shoveling walks and the stands. We even secured a snow blower from an orthopedic surgeon, who is now in a wheel chair as a result of a tragic accident." This sense of duty, responsibility and pride is representative of what can be found in many smaller communities.

With all of the challenges facing the global economy, sports marketing is more important than ever.The return on investment with sporting events is consistently positive for host sites. The influx of visitors and cash is vital, and sports travel is projected to remain strong into the future. In addition to the boost economically, hosting large and prestigious events often generate a sense of self-esteem and renewed optimism for the citizens who live and work in host communities. When Greater Binghamton hosted the Empire State Games for the first time the excitement was palpable. Residents planted flowers in blue and yellow, businesses cleaned up their store fronts, empty businesses were 'spiffed up' by volunteers. And though all of these efforts impressed the Games participants and staff, and helped to encourage that precious return visit, the community benefited from the activity as well.

From publicity to general tournament support, the benefits of hosting your next event in a smaller market are many. So here's an official invitation to all events rights holders and sporting event planners-if you've ever hesitated to consider a smaller market, come on in the pond-the water is fine!

About the Author