Ever since the ancient Greek athletes ran, wrestled, threw the javelin and then probably headed out for some goatskins of ouzo, socializing has been part of the sports culture. Proof of that dynamic is the recent rise of social sports event venues – buildings with competition sports facilities but including amenities like bars, catering and function space. And their presence should be a call that event organizers heed when seeking out a new city. After all, what better place to host an event than in a city that has a ready-made public for it? Consider the case studies:
Table Tennis: When SPiN NYC opened its doors, it confused even the most jaded seen-it-all-heard-it-all New Yorkers. A club where the center attraction was table tennis? Never mind that its owner was Susan Sarandon. Never mind that it was in a primo spot. It was table tennis. Ping pong, for goodness sake.
But this was a table tennis facility with a bar, a center court, ball machines, lessons, leagues and everything that would entice everyone from the interested curiosity seekers and clubbers to the clueless A-list celebrities to the highest-level table tennis Olympians to play. These days, the facility also has locations in Chicago, San Francisco, Toronto, Austin, Philadelphia, Seattle and Los Angeles – and a recent press article mentions expansion into Dubai. Another table tennis social venue is Drive, which recently opened a location in Detroit.
Pickleball: The rapid expansion of pickleball – and a realization that many players considered the social aspect every bit as important as the competition – led founders to create Chicken N Pickle in Kansas City, Missouri. The venue, which includes indoor and outdoor pickleball courts, a beer garden, a rotisserie chicken restaurant, a roof deck, oversize board games like Battleship, lawn games like cornhole, a bar and more – now also draws players for leagues, tournaments, lessons, pro clinics and more.
The venue capitalizes on the fact that while pickleball was primarily seen as the purview of the over-50 crowd (the highest-spending demographic when it comes to sports and travel), it continues to skew lower and lower in terms of player age.
Golf: It’s never been hard to find courses, but participants have been a different matter recently. Golf’s struggle to retain its players, and to attract new ones, has been well-documented. The problem, many said, was that it seemed to cater to the mostly male, white-collar country-club crowd – a demographic that seemed to be shrinking away, or intimidating those who did not view themselves as the golfing type.
TopGolf, like SPiN and Chicken N Pickle, markets itself on its ability to combine the social aspect of the sport (a driving range, mini-golf, virtual golf and a pro shop) with the fun of a bar (plus a restaurant and other amenities). Started in the early 2000s, the company now has locations in 23 states, plus the U.K., Australia and Mexico. It has also spawned competitor venues including DriveShack, 4ORE! and REALiTEE – all of which also operate in various cities. And while those are not necessarily championship facilities, they do promote the game and introduce a younger demographic to it in a fun and recreational environment.
Whether more sports adopt the trend of purpose-building competition-level facilities and adding bars, banquet space and more remains to be seen, but the options are out there. Tennis, basketball, softball and more have long enjoyed the post-game social aspect. Bowling alleys, go-kart tracks, mini-golf courses and skating rinks have been fixtures for children’s parties – as well as for groups of adults.
Just as importantly to this industry, the placement of such facilities provides a roadmap to event organizers looking for tournament support in terms of volunteers or a ready-made player base. A city with a community of enthusiasts is likely to have other clubs as well – meaning, in addition to athletes, a strong spectator component.
Event organizers have already noted that keeping only to elite athletes doesn’t help their bottom line. And with obesity on the rise among both youth and adults, the need for drawing attention to the fun side of sports has never been more critical – not just to staying in the black ink and bringing in new participants, but to keeping the population healthier.
As the social and sport dynamic continues to intermingle (already, there are plenty of non-competitive 5Ks, for example, that use a party or festival atmosphere to encourage participation), count on the growth of sport-and-social venues to continue in cities across the map.