Sports events are good business. They encourage health and wellness and generate revenue for the communities that embrace them. But some sports events go well beyond those very practical benefits. Sometimes the athletes who come to town leave their positive mark long after the last trophy. Sometimes they even become part of the fabric of the community, a kind of family. Let’s meet the senior class.
Are You Calling Me Senior?
The Social Security system generally considers us senior at 65, but in sports, the definition is a bit more vague. Most of the National Governing Bodies (NGBs) have masters levels of competition starting at varying ages. Some of them are appropriate for the average athlete, but they can also lean toward the elite level of competition.
But what about athletes who, as Kyle Case, CEO of the Huntsman World Senior Games, puts it, “played a sport in high school, but haven’t touched a javelin or stepped onto a soccer field since?" There’s a place for those athletes too. It’s huge, and it’s getting bigger every day. Along with a handful of sport-specific senior games organizations, the National Senior Games Association (NSGA) is here to make sure that continues.
It all began in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1987 when a small group of inspired individuals launched the first National Senior Olympic Games. St. Louis welcomed 2,500 competitors and 100,000 spectators for the first Games ceremonies featuring Bob Hope, a first-event success by any standard, but the NSGA was just getting started.
Today, there are state senior games in 49 states (the Oregon Senior Games will possibly reconvene in 2013), and this year, the NSGA welcomed a new CEO, Mike Sophia. A non-profit organization dedicated to motivating active adults to lead a healthy lifestyle through the senior games movement, the NSGA continues to help state games succeed while also growing its signature event, the National Senior Games, now attracting 10,000 athletes per event, into one of the largest multisport events in the world.
Sophia took the reins in January and hit the ground running, with the 2013 games imminent. “Especially starting this job in January, I couldn’t ask for better than being able to partner with a host community and org like the Greater Cleveland Sports Commission,” says Sophia. “I know these guys know how to run big events. They have great corporate and community support and fantastic venues. It has allowed me to focus on the other areas we are trying to grow as an organization.”
The National Senior Games has been the centerpiece of NSGA’s operations, but Sophia and his team are now refocusing on their core mission: to promote health and wellness to people 50 and over through education, fitness and sports. “We’re proud of the Games, but we’ve also started to move toward how we reach our mission every day, shifting our focus to different initiatives and alliances to promote overall wellness all year long.”
A Home in Florida
Stephen Rodriguez, vice president of Florida Sports Foundation and also vice chair of the NSGA Board of Directors, has had the chance to see senior games from the local level to the top. “I’ve been involved with senior games for quite some time in an unofficial capacity. When the Florida state senior games were held under the Governor’s Council of Physical Fitness and Sports, in the late ‘90s, I volunteered.”
Today the Florida games, now called the Florida International Senior Games & State Championships, are under the authority of the Florida Sports Foundation and Rodriguez’s capacity is much more official. He’s been running the event since 1999.
Local games are a critical part of the whole senior games mission, and Miami is a destination interested in serving more seniors whenever possible. The 2007 Miami-Dade Senior Games were an experience that the staff at the Miami-Dade Sports commission remembers well.
“For me personally, experiencing the Games, I honestly didn’t realize the level of competition we were going to see,” says Liz Gunn, operations director, Miami-Dade Sports Commission. “Once you get over the stereotype, you see that this demographic is in not just in excellent shape and extremely competitive, but also underserved. We’re looking forward to building more opportunities in Miami-Dade.”
Florida will also soon be home to the National Senior Games when the NSGA moves its offices to Kissimmee, Florida.
“We’re elated that NSGA chose to re-locate to Kissimmee, a decision motivated in large part by our strong community support, our facilities and our long history of supporting and conducting our own senior games,” says Shelley Maccini, Osceola County Director of Tourism Development. “This marks the beginning of a new chapter and the continuation of a proud tradition for us as a tourism and sports destination.”
As part of the agreement with Kissimmee/Osceola County, the NSGA will host five National Senior Games in Osceola County until 2025.
Delivering for Your Demographic
Experienced sports event planners give one piece of advice over and over: Make your athletes happy. So the first step to planning a great event for seniors is understanding your demographic.
“The senior athlete is a bit different than your other types of athletes,” says Rodriguez. “I also run our Sunshine State Games, and we do other multisports events, and I’ve noticed that the senior athletes like to try different sports. You also have to be aware that you may have some athletes who have certain disabilities and in general be aware of constraints on the body that are normal for aging individuals. Scheduling enough time, hydration, safety and well-being requires some special considerations, but it’s important.”
Rodriguez also advises keeping your senior athletes in mind when looking at venues. Not only should venues be able to accommodate athletes with disabilities, they should also have easily accessible parking. With a multisport event, transportation considerations become even more critical.
Kyle Case is CEO of the Hunstman World Senior Games, held in St. George, Utah. An event that vies with the National Games for the title of world’s largest multisport event, Hunstman draws 10,000 athletes each year. But what’s even more impressive is that each year, more than two-thirds of those athletes are return competitors. It’s easy to conclude that Case and his team know their demographic well.
“The senior market has pretty high expectations. They’ve seen it all, done it all, and when they show up, they want things to run well. So be prepared,” says Case. “When seniors give feedback, pay attention. You ignore that feedback at your peril.”
The social side of sports is also highly valued by seniors. Case and Sophia both underscore the necessity of planning numerous opportunities for senior athletes to spend time together off the field of competition.
“Our athletes create real friendships, and not just with other competitors, but, since they return to St. George year after year, with the hoteliers, restaurant owners and shop owners too. The Games are like a reunion,” says Case.
No matter what your demographic, Case says that staying upbeat and always moving forward is crucial for starting a new event. “Be sure to maintain realistic expectations for yourself. Don’t be disappointed and give up. I’m newer to the event than those who laid the foundation, so I often think, what if they’d been disappointed with 175 athletes the first year and quit? If they had said, we have to get 6000 people the first year or we stop, what a tragedy.”
The creators of the Huntsman World Senior Games weren’t sports event planners at all; they were a St. George hotelier and several of his friends, and they created the Games to bring business into St. George. Whether they were disappointed with the turnout or not, they certainly didn’t give up. And the 10,000 senior athletes who converge on St. George every year are grateful.
The Advice of Experience
Case also has a few words of advice about location, as well, in particular St. George, Utah, the host of the Hunstman Senior World Games since it began 26 years ago.
“I’ve always been an advocate of keeping your event in one place,” says Case. “I used to run the Utah Summer Games, also always in the same city, and I learned there that one of the real advantages that comes with sticking in one place is your pool of volunteers. With a multisport event in particular, you rely so much on qualified, willing and generous volunteers.”
Another benefit was almost serendipitous, says Case. The Huntsman World Senior Games began when St. George was still a relatively small town, and they’ve been fortunate to grow up alongside their host. “As the city has needed new softball diamonds, so did we, and just recently pickleball has exploded across the nation. Just as we needed pickleball courts, the city has come on board to build a new complex that will start with 12 courts and grow to 24.”
The relationship has been synergistic, it seems, as the Hunstman Senior World Games have also drawn other large and multisport events to St. George.
“The Huntsman Games put a footprint down that helps demonstrate we can do big things here,” says Kevin Lewis, sports & adventure marketing, St. George Convention & Tourism Office. “With 10,000 participants and 27 different sports, it shows that we have the venues to accommodate large events and also the volunteers. There’s also a spirit here that’s kind of unique. Historically people had to fight hard to make this area successful. They had to help each other and pull together, and there’s just that spirit here. People are proud of St. George and enjoy showing it off to people who’ve never been here.”
In addition to the Senior Games, the citizens of St. George have lots of opportunities to show off their beautiful town, including a highly popular Ironman and marathon, both of which are considered some of the most breathtaking courses of their kind.
With that kind of large-event experience, Lewis is another rich source of event-planning knowledge.
“One of the things you have to do is be conscious of your community,” says Lewis. “How many multisport events are too many? Volunteer needs, road closures, venues tied up with events, these things all present some level of disruption, so you have to be sensitive if your events are going to continue to be successful.”
Practice smart scheduling and stagger events throughout the year, says Lewis. That will lessen that disruption and keep communities excited and eager for the next event. Lewis also recommends that sports commissions and CVBs act as facilitators for event owners.
“We play the go-between, connecting event owners with city officials and services that they need,” says Lewis. “It’s a crucial role, making sure that all the parties who need to communicate come together.”
Another crucial role Lewis and his team play for St. George events: funding. The St. George Convention & Tourism Office is funded by hotel room taxes, so helping fund events like Huntsman creates a positive revenue cycle.
“We’ll also go out and seek local sponsors on our end,” says Lewis. “The Utah Sports Commission can sometimes help too, making connections between bigger events and the state’s larger corporations.”
All in the Family
The bottom line of senior games is that they are more than sports events; they become families. Nothing illustrates that more than when the locals start joining in on the event:
“I turned 50 this year, and I’m signed up for three-on-three basketball and horseshoes, which I’ll play with my dad,” says Lewis. “We really just love the event. It’s brings good people to town. They’re here to just enjoy the good things in life, and St. George is the perfect place for that.”