Inside Events: North American Sand Soccer Championships
22 Aug, 2018By: Mary Helen Sprecher
An Interview with Lauren Bland, Executive Director, Hampton Roads Soccer Council
Sports Destination Management: We’ve heard your tournament referred to as a real pioneer in sand soccer and the one everyone looks up to.
Lauren Bland: We’re pretty proud of that. This past June, we celebrated our 25th anniversary. It’s an event that was started because there was a need all those years ago to build a major soccer complex in our area. We couldn’t host major tournaments because we didn’t have that facility so we decided to hold a sand soccer event. It was just a little fundraiser and we only had 26 teams that year.
SDM: And now?
Bland: We now have over 900 soccer teams that compete here annually.
SDM: What makes these championships different from other sand soccer events?
Bland: We make it into a community festival. Not only are there our 900 soccer teams but we partner with other organizations to offer a variety of sports each year like sand field hockey, flag football, lacrosse and rugby, which we call our ‘sidekick sports.’ We take over most of the boardwalk, which is 40 blocks. Of that, about 10 blocks are dedicated to our sidekick sports. We use about 20 blocks or so for sand soccer.
SDM: How long have you been doing the multi-sport aspect of the event?
Bland: Over 15 years.
SDM: How are the sidekick sports received?
Bland: Very well. They give attendees the chance to see sports they haven’t seen before, and the event as a whole brings the Virginia Beach community together. A lot of tournaments focus on only one sport but we have embraced the whole festival feel.
SDM: What has really made this event the success that it is?
Bland: Different things. We’re lucky in that Virginia Beach’s sports marketing has really been at the forefront of sports tourism and has been supportive of our ever-growing wish list. We have this successful sand soccer event and every year, we try to add something new, something different.
SDM: Let’s talk for a moment about the section dedicated to soccer. How many fields does it take to run the tournament?
Bland: Last year, we built 63 sand soccer fields. It’s insane how many fields we have.
SDM: You said the tournament was initially started as a fundraiser. It obviously did well.
Bland: Yes, we were able to build the Hampton Roads Soccer Complex, one of the biggest in the Mid-Atlantic region. It has 24 fields which is considered huge.
SDM: But not quite as huge as 63 fields you put up on the beach.
Bland: We are a really big event, and a lot of teams have made a tradition of coming here. We go from U8 to over age 40. I would say about 75 percent of those are youth teams, though. We have every division you can think of – boys, girls, high school, college, co-ed. People have grown up with our event.
For our 25th anniversary, we asked the public for stories about the tournament. We had some great ones, including a brother/sister team that has been coming here for 20 years. It has become a real tradition: people wrap up their spring season and then go to the beach. It’s part of how they make their memories. I always think of it the way people think of Yankee Stadium; everyone wants to play here once. I would also say that mainly, our success is because the event is the same weekend every year, so families can plan for it. We have a pretty robust subscriber list. Our rate of return is 90 percent.
SDM: It must be the most in-demand tournament going. Do teams have to qualify to play?
Bland: No, our amateur side is an open invitational. We have a lot of excellent soccer teams club teams and travel teams – or you can round up friends and put together a team and play.
SDM: Do other tournaments call and ask you for advice?
Bland: Yes – in fact, we’ve helped a lot of other tournaments around the country get started. A lot of them have shadowed our team and our event. We’ve flown out our staff to other events, too.
SDM: You’re not worried about competition?
Bland: No, it ups everyone’s game and we want the sport to grow.
SDM: Any idea of your economic impact?
Bland: The City of Virginia Beach put out a report that said that NASSC weekend brings in about $9 to11 million annually.
SDM: How do you advertise the event?
Bland: Honestly, most years, we spend nothing on advertising. If we pay to advertise, it’s less than $3,000 to $4,000 a year. We’ve also built an excellent reputation and our core staff has been around 10 or more years. It’s our secret sauce.
SDM: Do you use social media?
Bland: We are very active on Facebook, Instragram and Twitter.
Something else that makes us a little different when it comes to competition is the fact that nobody is competing here when it comes to NASSC. We have several soccer clubs competing with each other for players and sponsors – but here, sand soccer is the one that brings everyone together. These groups may not agree on much, but they agree on NASSC because they know all the money goes back into our complex. If it’s a good year, we get new lights or a send funds aside for a new turf field or new picnic shelters and they all benefit from that if they play here during the season. There’s not a lot of events out there where clubs will take off their team colors and put on sand soccer shirts and work together – and it could easily not be that way.
SDM: You said you like to do things a little differently ever year. What’s on the drawing board for 2019?
Bland: For the future, we’re going to be the first tournament in the country to host t
he a women’s professional division. Our 2019 U.S. Open will feature a men’s and women’s division competing for cash prizes. This year, we floated the idea out there because the women’s pro side of beach soccer isn’t as developed as the men’s side. We created a modified version and selected four teams (Virginia Beach, Maryland, California and Columbia) to test it out. The crowd loved it!
SDM: Is there a center court, so to speak, for events like that?
Bland: Yes – we build a stadium in the middle of our event. It holds about 3,000 people and it has bleachers, a beer tent, LED screens, you name it. The kids and their families have a chance to come down and watch, and it’s really exciting for them because they get to see some very high-caliber play. In the past, we’ve had members of the U.S. Men’s National Team who have played here in that stadium. One of our local players on HRSC Elite, Chris Albiston, just made the U.S. National Beach Soccer Team!
SDM: Do you have special events allowing the kids to interact with those players?
Bland: Yes. On Friday night, we have team registration and check-in. There is a kids’ clinic with the pro players who will pose for pictures, give autographs and do interactive drills with kids. And seriously, what kid wouldn’t want to play in that stadium?
SDM: Does NASSC as a whole pull in teams nationwide?
Bland: I would say our footprint is mainly across the East Coast and we’re steadily growing across the country– now we’re bringing in not just teams from out of state but from out of the Mid-Atlantic Region. There are teams flying in from all over the country. We see them coming in from as far away as Texas and California. That’s a growing opportunity for us.
SDM: So how many teams total?
Bland: We’ve been at the 900 to 1,000 mark and that’s just soccer teams. When you add in the sidekick sports, that’s another 300 or so teams.
SDM: Will the event keep growing in size to accommodate all the players interested in participating?
Bland: That’s one of the things we are trying to figure out as a staff. We maxed out our fields this year. We’re in talks with the city about adding more fields. Right now, we need about 200 referees for the weekend and there are only so many available. We spend a lot bringing them in from other states.
SDM: It sounds like a lot of work, but a wonderful ROI.
Bland: What we’ve built is a private sports facility – we call it our sand dollars at work. We have to work really, really hard for sand soccer weekend but we see the benefit in things like new fields and new equipment.