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Catering to Senior Athletes

21 May, 2020

By: Mike Guswiler

As destinations attract sports tournaments to their cities and regions,  it’s a natural inclination to pursue the prestigious, high-profile events - an NCAA Division I or Division II tournament, or the annual championship of a national governing body. But don’t overlook a very important and growing sector of sports tournaments – masters and related events involving senior athletes. 

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Baby Boomers (born 1946 to 1964) are at an estimated 73 million – the second-largest age group after Millennials (born 1981 to 1996). In 2018, there were 52 million people age 65 and older, with their share of the population growing from 12.4 percent in 2000 to 16 percent in 2018. In fact, the Census Bureau projects that older adults will outnumber children under 18 years old for the first time in U.S. history by 2034.

 With more aging seniors than ever before (thanks in part to healthier lifestyles), this is an important audience to pursue for sporting events in your market. And with almost all national governing bodies hosting senior and masters tournaments once or twice a year, these tournaments can be excellent for your region. One in particular we are excited to host is the USA Masters Games in 2021.

 Based on the West Michigan Sports Commission’s experience in hosting senior and masters level events, I offer the following perspective of why tournaments geared for this demographic are important to pursue and how to ensure their success.

Why You Should PursueSenior Athletes 

Seasonal flexibility

Senior athletes have more freedom to travel any time of the year, versus younger demographics with children in school or youth athletes restricted to spring and summer break for tournament participation. Booking a senior tournament allows your destination to bring important sports tourism revenue to your region in shoulder seasons when your hotels and restaurants may be slower and would especially welcome the increased capacity. 

Longer stay

Because many athletes in this demographic are retired, they can stay for a longer tournament versus a dual-income, working family with school-age children. For example, our 2019 USRowing Masters National Tournament was a four-day regatta versus a two- to three-day event at the non-Masters level where participants typically have more travel restrictions. The senior athlete also often combines tournaments with vacation time – so they may tack on a day or two to the front or back end of a tournament for leisure travel experiences, which in turn helps your local economy.

Discretionary dollars

Along with having more time, this audience often has discretionary dollars to spend on leisure activities when they have time outside of their tournament, especially if only traveling with one family member. This is why marketing your region’s offerings outside of the tournament itself is so important, which will be detailed later on in this article.

Loyalty

We have seen firsthand that if a tournament meets a senior- or masters-level athlete group’s needs, the organizers often want to return to the destination because it ensures a smoother experience plus allows participants to patronize the destinations that they enjoy. We have had the privilege of hosting multiple years of the USRowing Masters National Championships (2014, 2019), USA-Canada Senior Border Battle Men’s Slow Pitch Softball (2018, 2020) and USA Table Tennis US Open (2010, 2012 and 2014) – the last event not specifically a senior tournament but attracting many senior-age competitors.

Growing population

It goes without saying that as the share of the senior population grows, the more senior tournaments will be offered to cater to active members of this demographic. In some cases, sports are far stronger in popularity among seniors than young adults, as is true with softball. Softball hit its peak in the mid-1990s, and those athletes are now playing in senior leagues. There are more senior softball players than youth getting into the sport now, making senior softball tournaments an ideal target.

Tips for Successfully 

Hosting Senior Athletes

Here are some tips we have learned at the West Michigan Sports Commission to ensure success in both bidding on and hosting events that draw seniors. 

Price accordingly

While this may sound contradictory to the earlier point about this audience having discretionary income for activities outside of the tournament, many senior athletes are retired and on a fixed income, so they also appreciate a tournament destination that is fairly priced and offers value (and if they can save money on their hotel, for example, they may spend more elsewhere like area restaurants or museums). 

That means negotiating reasonable hotel room rates, offering discounts at dining establishments and attractions, and featuring affordable transportation to get to and from your destination (a manageable driving distance from various metro areas or supported by at least a mid-size airport with a variety of airline carriers and flight schedules).

Provide ancillary activities

While senior athletes can be just as competitive as their junior counterparts, many also compete for the sheer joy of participating in the sport with like-minded athletes. Many also view these events as a vacation, bringing a spouse on the journey so they can enjoy time together after the tournament. Strengthen your bid with information about your region’s entertainment options – even offering to assemble excursions and outings for athletes and their companions. 

When we hosted the 2018 Midwest Tandem Rally in Grand Rapids, an event that attracted a high percentage of senior cyclists, an ice cream ride was offered on the opening evening before the first official group ride. We also market our city’s renowned Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park (named one of the top 30 “Must-See Museums” on the planet), Grand Rapids Public Museum and Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum as side activities during a senior athlete’s stay – not to mention Grand Rapids’ diverse food and beverage scene as enticements.

Also, listen to your client’s needs and what their athletes like to do in their downtime. When we hosted the International Senior Fastpitch Championship, we learned that crowd especially enjoys its domestic beer, so we organized a beer garden and gave them a restaurant list with discounts to many favorites. It’s just as important to have a successful experience off the field as it is on the field.

Offer a variety of sports tournaments

Even if you don’t host an officially sanctioned “senior” event, you can select tournaments that attract a high percentage of seniors to cater to this audience. Over the years, we have hosted events like the USA Table Tennis US Open, Midwest Tandem Rally and Beer City Open Pickleball Championships – all popular sports for senior athletes, among others. 

Similarly, when hosting a multi-sport event like a state games, it’s important to offer a variety of sports categories and options that meet athletes at various ages and abilities. Our 10-plus year State Games of Michigan program continues to evolve, adding new sports every few years to meet the needs of aging athletes such as pickleball, rowing, badminton and shooting sports. 

Make it convenient

As is true with athletes of all ages, making your tournament location and partner hotel convenient to each other and entertainment activities is very appreciated, especially among senior athletes. Since senior athletes often travel with a companion, it’s a bonus if the hotel is connected to the tournament venue for ease of watching and also heading back to the room. Grand Rapids’ walkable downtown with tournament venues, hotels and dining/entertainment district all adjacent is especially welcome to this audience.

Catering to senior athletes can be a competitive advantage for your destination, and the rewards of attracting this loyal and growing group of travelers can pay dividends both now and down the road if they come back for a repeat tournament or to vacation in your destination. Most importantly, you are providing an opportunity to keep aging members of our population fit and healthy.  

 
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