Starting a Sports or Recreation Business

Coaching, Teaching and Marathon Organization

"Those who can't do, teach," goes the old saying. Teachers around the world probably wince every time they hear that, especially if you're Melissa Dostis, who spent 15 years in competitive ice skating and now runs Total Body & Soul Inc., having started it just after graduating from the University of Delaware. She's using her skills as the foundation of a coaching business. She focuses on ice skating, but she understands the importance of diversification, having trained football, soccer and lacrosse teams. Her fees can range from $30 to $60, depending on the time involved, and the beauty of coaching is that your start-up costs are virtually nonexistent. You're selling knowledge, not fitness equipment.

Dostis, who will be 25 in December, opened her business right out of college, in 1999. It's still in the start-up phase-Dostis has no employees, but she insists she will. She says her business is growing at about 20 percent each year-and it's lucrative.


Don't Fumble
Before you get too excited about going into a sports or recreational business, here are some key things to remember:

  • Most sports and recreation businesses are seasonal, so you'll likely always have some downtime in your business.
  • Making contacts is important, and knowing when to approach them is, too. If you want a coach to try your product, reach him before the season begins, not in the middle of it, when his or her pressure is the highest.
  • While you need to love this sport, others do, too. The stranger the sport or recreation, unless it's growing, the more difficult it's going to be to make money.

"The biggest thing I've learned about this business is that it is a business. You're doing something you love, and working with kids, and it is very personal, but it is a business." And does Dostis ever wish she were carrying a briefcase to work every day? Doesn't sound like it. "Honestly, stick with what you love," she says. "That would be my advice. I have so many friends who are in jobs that they don't love. I love going to work every day, I look forward to spending time with everybody I work with."

The differences between coaching and teaching are subtle, but they're there. A coach is generally working with somebody who knows what they're doing but needs to know how to do it better. A teacher is often working with complete beginners.

In any case, Sam Drevo, 26, runs Northwest River Guides, which opened in 2000. He works with about six subcontractors, and next year, he believes he will hire his first employee, and maybe his second. Still in its infancy, his company's revenues are just shy of hitting six figures.

But Drevo isn't concerned. He really isn't in this for the money. "Obviously, this isn't a get-rich-quick scheme," admits Drevo, "but I consider myself rich right now, or semi-retired right now, because I do what I love. An entrepreneur once told me, 'Do what you love, and the money will follow.' I'm a true believer in that statement. It's just a matter of time, perseverance and trying not to make the same mistake twice, and things will work out."

Indeed, they are for Drevo. As he becomes known in his field, he's been invited to do kayak commentary for NBC sports, and he's producing his first instructional kayaking video, which is sold around the world and which he markets to his students.

And he may not be a millionaire yet-but consider the perks. This December, he'll be leading whitewater rafters in Costa Rica, and he's always in the water, whether it's instructing in a swimming pool or a river. He charges anywhere from $45 (for a class in the pool) and $85 (for a class in the river) to $420 (for a certified workshop in whitewater rafting) and $1,800 (for an actual trip, such as the journey to Costa Rica). And persuading people to spend $45 or $1,800 isn't as difficult as you might think, insists Drevo: "Passion is infectious, and anybody who has passion for something can draw people in. So it's never been a problem for me to get people to kayak."

Run Your Business-Literally
Anton Villatoro, 32, and Chuck Trujillo, 36, are the founders of the Mile High City Marathon, in Denver, of course. You wouldn't think of a once a year event like a marathon as a business, but it is. For three years now, Villatoro and Trujillo, marathoners themselves, have spent all their energy and time on making sure they pull off a race of a lifetime.

It can be a profitable business, but a challenging one, admits Villatoro. They haven't reached their maximum goal of participants yet-5,280 runners, which would bring in well over $300,000 of income to their business. In last September's race, 1,500 marathoners turned up, and so they once again fell short of their ultimate goal; but the numbers are promising, considering it's still a new race that athletes nationwide are learning about, and the high-altitude terrain is a harder sell than Boston or New York City's.

"Expenses are relatively fixed," said Villatoro in a hurried e-mail two days before the big race. "Various costs [are] attached to the runners, [which they pay for], including race T-shirts, time services and race numbers. The largest fixed cost is that of the Denver Police Department, which was $52,000 last year."

Cash flow-flooding in before the race, not so much after-is tricky, admits Villatoro, who ironically can never run in his own marathon, since he and Trujillo are too busy putting in on. Ultimately, Villatoro and Trujillo intend to create spin-off marathon events throughout the 12 months to generate more excitement and income, and they envision duplicating their eventual success in other cities. If they can pull that off, their business should have a nice, long run.

Geoff Williams has written for numerous publications, including Entrepreneur, Consumer Reports, LIFE and Entertainment Weekly. He also is the author of Living Well with Bad Credit.

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This article was originally published in the November 2002 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Starting a Sports or Recreation Business.

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