Hosting a Successful Tournament
Interview with James Davies
James Davies grew up in Nottingham, England and is a club director at FC Boulder. He has over ten years experience as full time staff coaching club soccer in Colorado. During that time he has developed two major tournaments – one aimed at lower level competitive teams, which grew from 100 to 340, and a second aimed at elite athletes, which has grown from 0 to 250 teams in three years. His coaching qualifications include the USSF A and Y Licenses, NSCAA Premier Diploma and Director of Coaching Diploma. He teaches USSF E and D licenses and various NSCAA certifications. James is also a project manager – which he has used in his approach to running tournaments.
If I was deciding whether my club should host a tournament, what factors should I consider?
Firstly you need to understand what tournaments are for and what they can do for your club. For my current event I was asked to help generate revenue for the club and also to increase their profile around the state and beyond. Tournaments can do both of these, but they can also do other things. If I was running a recreational event, the primary focus might be on giving back to club members – creating a fun jamboree-style day for everyone. They might also be trying to raise awareness in their community, to attract players. Our tournament doesn’t really do that because the competing teams come from outside of the county, around the state and beyond. Therefore you need to set out exactly what you want to achieve in advance, then see if there is a way you can design the tournament to meet those goals.
So how did you decide who to target for your event?
As the goal was making money and raising the brand of the club, my first decision was to target the highest level teams. Although they can be hard to attract, they bring a recognition that your club is among them, competing with them and that players wanting to join your teams would need to be able to play at this level. High level tournaments can charge higher prices, which can mean a greater profit margin for you. Also, the teams at the top levels generally decide which tournaments to go to at the club director level. This means you can target one person and get several of their top teams from different age groups coming as a block. When you aim for lower level teams you need to contact and convince each coach separately as they are often left on their own by the club to decide where to go.
Although you are saving time, you also need to understand that going for the most prestigious teams is the most difficult. Generally they go to tournaments that are already established as they know that there will be other good teams there and that they will get ranking points, college coaches watching, or whatever else they are looking for. At your new event you can’t guarantee that so you will need to be very convincing. Also, their clubs tend to be part of organizations like WCDA, ECNL etc. where they are required to attend certain tournaments and won’t have money or desire left over to go to yours. They might also host their own major events that they have to go to. Generally, the smaller teams and clubs are not tied to these so might be more willing to try your tournament.
When does the process begin each year? How much time does it take?
For us the tournament process never really ends. After the previous event we send out thank you cards which are good for customer service, but also tell them what will be even better next year. We then finish the accounting, paying referees and other groups. A month or two later we start the sanctioning process with our state organization or US Club, and then we begin the process of regular meetings to assign tasks to our committee and try to attract teams. Generally 6-10 months before the event we are working on updating the website, getting sponsorship deals in place and advertising to out of state teams who need more planning time. Our in-state teams will not be interested until the end of their season when they have had tryouts for the next year as our event occurs right before the start of the fall season when they would have their new team rather than the one they have now.
We will send out an email or two during the spring, just to keep in peoples’ minds, then target them heavily around tryouts and right after (in June) when they are talking to their parent group about which tournaments they will be attending over the next 12 months.
How do you attract teams to the tournament?
Generally, the first priority for teams is that there are other teams of a similar level to play against. This can be difficult if you don’t have any there yet! Once you have one you can ask them who they would like to play and advertise to those opponents and gradually build brackets promising each of the teams games against each other. It helps if you have all of your own teams in the tournament as a starting point as you don’t need to sell to them as much (hopefully). If you can get an out of state team or other ‘prestigious’ team, you can then email other coaches in the age and tell them who you have, to try to get them to sign up.
For lower level teams there might also be the attraction of the local area. Some come to us because we are located in Boulder, which is a beautiful town that people want to visit. Tournaments for some teams are a reward so they want to spend it somewhere desirable. For those we will tell them about attractions outside of soccer (tubing trips, hiking, professional sports games, restaurants etc.) they can visit while they are here. If we were running a college showcase, we would heavily recruit college coaches to be there (pay for them) then advertise to the teams who will be watching them if they come.
Some teams might also be attracted by cost. If your event is cheaper than the others over the same weekend, you might get some interest. Generally though, a $25 difference is unlikely to bother a coach (who isn’t paying) or a team who are already paying $600-1000 to be there. As host you are more likely to be damaged by the $25 loss from each team to your profits.
How do you keep them coming back to your tournament?
For us, this is the biggest priority, which other tournaments seem to forget about. Our goal is to think long term – over several years – rather than trying to squeeze as much money out of it that we can this year. If you take the latter approach, you limit any spending on teams and overcharge for everything, giving them a bad experience. Examples would be forcing them to stay at overpriced hotels or to pay for parking at your facilities. Our goal is to give them a great experience that they don’t get anywhere else, so they think favorably of us and want to come back.
The key here is establishing who the decision makers are. Generally, if the coach has a good time, they will want to come back. We give them great coaching gifts, chairs to sit on at every sideline, deliver food and drinks to them for free at every game, and make a point of having our staff talk to them throughout the event to see how they are doing. Any problems we attempt to address immediately. We also provide air-conditioned shelters for them to rest in during the long hot days. It is the little things like that that they remember.
Finally, we keep them coming by delivering on our promises. We do our best to give them schedules that work for them and to adapt them for their requests. We seed the brackets to give them the best games and we never ever give favoritism to anyone (especially our own teams like some events do). Once you build a reputation for hard work, honesty and dedication, you get a loyal following. Plus it helps if you can get your tournament nationally ranked!
What about for the other customers?
For players and parents we try to keep communication up to date and available. We have a manned reception area throughout the event, send them texts and emails if there are any issues with weather, and try to reach out to them on social media. We also give players individual gifts, partly to keep them happy, but mostly for the advertising that can come with them. If they have a bag tag or pin from us, they will carry it around all year and other players might see it or they will be reminded of us. The same is true for the coaching gift – we get them something they will actually use throughout the year and will constantly remind them and everyone else about our event.
How can we afford to do all those things though when the purpose of the tournament is to make money?
That can definitely be a challenge. Our goal was to build a great brand, and to do that you have to spend money. Sure, if we didn’t spend what we did, we could still have good teams, but we believe that part of why they come is for the things that make us different. We spend a lot of money on expensive glass art trophies that they might actually want on their desks or shelves (rather than the tacky, cheap plastic ones of generic soccer players kicking balls that other events use) because again it is advertising throughout the year. Same with the medals. It costs us thousands of dollars, but we have decided that it is worth it for the return we get.
The key is to set a budget and stick to it. You could allocate $10 per coach for a gift and $1 per player. That way if they are spending $500, you are only losing $25 of it to those things. If you have 100 teams, you have $1000 to spend on coach gifts, and generally when you buy in bulk the cost goes down.
What are the risks associated with running a tournament?
It depends a lot on your event. For us, the weather is a huge factor. We could have afternoon thunderstorms that wash out large numbers of games, which can play havoc with your scheduling. One year we had to cancel the entire tournament after there was a 100 year storm event which flooded everything. Most of your costs can also be refunded, but not all of them, so you need to be able to absorb that or get insurance. Also you need to know in advance how much you refund to teams and how this will look for you when they consider coming back next year.
Another factor we have is rival tournaments. There are several on the same weekend and others the week before and after. We need to convince teams that ours is better for them. One bad year for us or one good year for someone else can ruin your event. Tournaments tend to have limited life spans, so while you do well for a few years, you can just as easily watch your event fall out of favor as someone new and more exciting steps in. As long as you understand that this might be a limited time opportunity, and you don’t rest the financial future of your club on it, you can make it work though.
A major risk is the event not making any money. You are dedicating thousands of hours of your time to it, and your club’s resources (volunteers, funding, hosting etc.) so if it doesn’t make any money, you would have done better to use those resources for something else.
The biggest barrier of entry to running a tournament seems to be not having the experience. How and where do you start?
Certainly running a tournament is different to other club operations. There is no textbook (yet!) that explains how to do it though, because so many of them are completely different, and because the audience would be pretty small for a major book deal! The key though is to learn from experience. Someone in your club is likely to have run major events that are similar. By creating a tournament committee you can leverage parents in the club who have experience and have them teach the rest of you. Also you can learn from what other tournaments in your area do – see what they do well and what they don’t.
Every year that I run a tournament I have a ton of experiences I couldn’t have predicted or planned for. Part of the excitement comes from this jumping in to the unknown. Last year we had a coach have a heart attack on the sideline, which tested our safety procedures; the year before we had a freak windstorm blow away half of our vendor plaza… Just try to remain calm and think on your feet from within the well-planned structures and procedures you have put in place. Generally, how well you handle these events for the customer will determine the reputation that goes with you in the future.
So is it worth it?
Depends who for! Clubs can make a lot of money, which they often need and can put to good use. Players and parents can get a great deal of enjoyment from taking part in them, and coaches get the pre-season practice they are looking for in the case of our current event. I have seen clubs grow their image and establish themselves in the state by having a good tournament each year. Also it helps them to bond with rival clubs and maybe be able to work together on things in the future. Overall I would say you get out what you are willing to put in, so if you have a good team and work hard, your club can definitely have great benefits from it. For you as the director it is generally stressful and tiring though, so probably not something you want to build a long term career around, unless you are attracted to that! Build a model/system that works, write an instruction manual and train a successor.
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