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Field Of Dreams

You don't have to be Mark McGwire to score big in sports. Here's how you can hit a home run with a sports event franchise.
July 1, 1999
URL: http://www.entrepreneur.com/article/17886

In high school, you were on the football team, yet now you're sitting behind a desk wearing a suit. While shuffling paperwork, you pray for weekends and calculate whether a 7-iron will make the 14th hole. You had thought about a career in sports, but that seemed about as likely as becoming a rock star, so you opted for an MBA program.

Sound familiar? If so, it's high time you ditched the 9-to-5 life and returned to the world of team sports because, even if you don't play like Jordan, you can still make a career out of your love of sports. There may only be a few Jerry Maguires out there, but there are countless amateur enthusiasts waiting for someone like you to organize and guide their events.

With so many people stuck indoors during their working hours only to go home and watch TV after work, amateur athletes are itching to breathe fresh air and enjoy the camaraderie and friendly competition of team sports. "There's nothing better than sports to reduce the stresses and tensions of everyday life, personally and professionally," says Mike May of the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association. "We need physical release to bring balance to our lives, and that's where sports come in."

To make amateur sporting events more play than work for participants, sports event companies organize teams for sports like golf, softball, in-line hockey and billiards by providing venues for events, recruiting team members and calculating score sheets and handicap systems. Since this is such a hands-on, customer service-oriented industry, companies like American Poolplayers Association and Triple Crown Sports are franchising their services to provide better local service. "Many people gravitate toward a sports franchise because, in their minds, it has instant credibility," says May. "There's organization and structure."

If you know the pleasure of playing a competitive team sport, it's not a big leap to imagine how much fun it would be to bring games into the lives of stressed-out weekend warriors. So suit up and get ready to play.

Batter Up

After participating in a Triple Crown Sports softball league for 10 years and running a few fund-raising tournaments, Grant Stanis knew a little something about softball events. For Stanis, owner of his own computer consulting business, business and pleasure formed a perfect match when he discovered that Triple Crown Sports, a sports event company based in Fort Collins, Colorado, was franchising.

"I knew Triple Crown had an established product here on Long Island," says Stanis, 33, whose territory covers part of New York and Connecticut. "I knew if I could come in and [build on] what they'd already built, it could be a very lucrative business." Stanis bought a franchise in Long Island last December to run in addition to his consulting business; he staged his first event in February.

Dave and Annette King founded Triple Crown Sports in 1982 out of a love of softball. "For five years, we ran the business strictly [so we could] play in high-end tournaments for the weekend warrior, the amateur adult athlete," explains Dave. The Kings gradually added other sports to their roster: youth baseball, girls' fast-pitch softball and in-line hockey, with plans in the works to add basketball and soccer as well. In 1997, they started franchising the territories they currently have in 35 states.

Although Triple Crown Sports' events run seasonally, time management is still of the essence. "My events run from February through August," says Stanis. "From September through October, I'm trying to sell sponsorships. In December, we're preparing for our off-season mailing that tells our teams the schedule for next year. So although there's downtime in [terms of] events, there's really no downtime in the workload." Stanis attends each event, oversees merchandise sales and gathers customer feedback from the players. "It's important that I have a presence because it's my product I'm giving to these people. I'm always interested in feedback, both good and bad. Without bad feedback, you can't build a stronger event."

Rack `Em

Though many people look to sports for physical release, there's also the social aspect--the camaraderie that comes from getting together with friends after work, showing off your skills and leading your team to the championships. "We offer an opportunity [for players] to get together and socialize," says Renee Poehlman, president of the American Poolplayers Association (APA), a Lake St. Louis, Missouri-based franchisor that organizes amateur billiard leagues. "It's a great social timeout."

APA franchisees recruit players wherever pool tables are present, from bars and lodges to corporate-sponsored events. By using a handicap system, players can compete on the same level, regardless of their skill, for the chance to attend the annual national championships, where the APA awards $800,000 in prizes.

Phil Brooker was already passionate about billiards before he became a franchisee. A veteran of APA leagues, he discovered other people were searching for well-organized leagues. "I started telling people about the APA league and how they use a handicap system much different than [most] local leagues," says Brooker, 33, who, with his partner, Taz, and one employee, runs 125 teams around Camarillo, California. "The response I usually got was a raised eyebrow and the statement `Someone should start that up around here.' Well, enough people made that comment that I decided to look into an APA franchise."

Brooker, who also works a full-time job, spends nights and weekends recruiting league players and finding locations. "I don't find customers. I find pool tables. Hang around pool tables, and customers will find you," he says.

One of the main challenges, Brooker says, is keeping up with the paperwork for the leagues. "We won't be successful if the handicap system isn't accurate. Many of our customers only see the paperwork we exchange on a weekly basis, so it's important the paperwork is handled promptly and accurately. Taz does a good job of that."

Team Spirit

Success in a sporting event franchise rests mainly on two skills: salesmanship and organization. For most sports enthusiasts, the first one comes easily. If you love the game, it's not hard to sell it. "Pool is the one sport anyone can play, and no matter how good you get, there's always room for improvement," says Brooker. "I feel good knowing I've brought my style of therapy into the lives of literally hundreds of people whose days are hopefully a little brighter because of it." If you're having fun running your business, it won't be difficult to convince customers it will be fun to participate.

Organization is just as important. "There's a series of many things that have to happen behind the scenes for the [events] to work," says Dave King. "The timeline is well out in front." Once the season starts, you have to keep up with your current players, score and run events, and simultaneously plan your next season by finding venues and new recruits.

"Anyone who gets involved with sports [franchising] has to realize you're involved because you love sports," says May. "You're going to put in some long hours because your job is to cater to people in their recreational time."

Though a sporting event franchise may not yield you millions, it's relatively inexpensive to get into and offers room for growth. The APA currently has 164 franchises, with only 50 percent of the nation covered. With an estimated 4 million Americans playing pool every week, it's not surprising the largest APA franchisee leads more than 1,000 teams.

Triple Crown Sports plans to slowly franchise the territories the corporate headquarters currently runs in 35 states, though Dave King says the company is in no hurry to do so. "We're a little different than a lot of companies because we're in no hurry to sell the next 10 franchises. We want to get the right 10 franchisees."

Looking back over the past 20 years of the computer age, it's not surprising so many people crave both a social and physical outlet to participate in outside of work. And with new sports popping up all the time, there'll be even more choices for weekend warriors. "There are so many levels of opportunity to participate within the existing sports that we have," says May. "When you throw in the mix of new sports that have come on the scene in the past 10 years--in-line skating, in-line hockey, snowboarding--the number of people who are involved in some type of grass-roots sports effort has probably never been higher." With so many sports and so many players, maybe it's time for you to get off that bench and see how competitive you really are.

They Got Game

By Liza Potter

Ready to get off the bench? Contact these companies for more information:

Advantage Golf Tournament Services

Golf tournaments

Total start-up costs: $59K-135K

(972) 716-9931

American Poolplayers Association

Recreational billiard league

Total start-up costs: $4.3K-6.2K

(314) 625-8611

http://www.poolplayers.com

Jam of Appleton

Basketball tournaments

Total start-up costs: $2.9K

(800) 861-6052

http://www.3on3jam.com

Triple Crown Sports

Amateur sports events

Total start-up costs: $19.5K-29K

(970) 223-6644

http://www.triplecrownsports.com