Hitting the Green

By Amanda N. Wegner

Youth and amateur sports can mean big business for states and communities, and the industry isn’t set to shrink any time soon. For instance, in a report by the Traverse City Area Chamber of Commerce, that region found that two youth tournaments alone brought 15,900 people to their area and contributed $3.4 million in direct spending.

While the events may benefit the communities they’re held in, these events also need to financially benefit the host and organizer without losing sight of the experience of participants and attendees. Here, three experts share insights on making the most of a sports event budget while adding options that will drive revenue … and some surprise and delight.


A successful event always begins with a plan that includes overall objectives, identifying your target audience, logistics, budget and timeline of activity. “Having a plan allows you to find and budget for opportunities to maximize revenue from an event,” says Jackie Reau, owner of Game Day Communications. Game Day manages events of all sizes, including Cincinnati’s annual Flying Pig Marathon, which attracts 40,000 participants, and the Western & Southern Open tennis tournament held annually in August with the top 50 men’s and women’s professional tennis players competing.

“The best thing you can do is identify all your costs, especially if you’re working with new individuals and vendors,” says Eric Engelbarts, executive director of the Meijer State Games of Michigan, which is also hosting the State Games of America in Grand Rapids, Mich., in August 2017. “Ask a ton of questions so there are no surprises after the event.”

Particularly if working with a municipality, understand the costs, responsibilities, division of labor and any union requirements, says Jim Rathe, Midwest director of the North American Fastpitch Association (NAFA), which provides leagues and tournaments for girls fastpitch softball. For instance, with a fastpitch game, a contract with a municipality that tasks them with maintenance might mean paying employees that incur a lot of downtime, waiting between games to turn over fields. For another sport such as soccer, there is less involvement with field preparation, equaling greater cost savings.

“That’s a lot of cost in those two hours that’s not providing value, so those are things that you need to take into account,” says Rathe. While researching and planning your budget, don’t forget your target audience.

“To successfully understand the motivation of your target audience to spend, I would suggest conducting advance research to learn how much they intend to spend and on what items,” says Reau.

With research in hand, “put your money where it counts most,” says Engelbarts.

“A lot of the time when we are going through an event, the person we’re working with wants to put all the money into staging, AV, sound and everything else. That’s all good if you have the cash, but in the grand scheme, what is needed to showcase the athlete and give them the best experience possible?”


Building an audience for an event that will attract paying participants and spectators starts well before the registration date. To keep costs low and to readily meet your target audience where they’re at, look to social media.

“Social media engagement on a year-round basis is essential to connect with fans on a regular basis, even in the off-season,” says Reau. “Sports events should have a plan and editorial schedule on content for Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and even Snapchat to reach a younger audience.”


Recently Reau has seen sports events add hospitality events, such as a wine and food tasting at a tennis tournament, which adds incremental income to an individual ticket.

Additionally, fans are looking for experiential opportunities to enhance the overall event experience. This may include behind-the-scenes access, affinity group events, like a Football 101 clinic for women, or exclusive access to or training with a professional affiliated with the sport.

“These types of events also extend the length of time a fan stays at your event, which may add additional concession, merchandise and experiential income,” says Reau.


Something new the State Games of America has implemented for the 2017 event is providing information on promotional materials that details how athletes can purchase training and qualifying apparel.

“It basically says, “You’ve qualified, go buy a t-shirt  that says you’re training for the 2017 State Games of America,” says Engelbarts. “It’s a first touch, but also the first opportunity for participants to spend their dollars with us so we can start generating revenue up to a year-and-a-half prior to our event. And people are excited to share their accomplishment.”

Consider ways to monetize add-ons and upsells throughout the registration process and at the event. This could include an upcharge on the event shirt if someone wants microfiber instead of a cotton T-shirt, offering premium parking permits, custom engraved medals, entrance to an exclusive hospitality tent after the event and more.

“People like premiums, but they have to cost a little bit more. In turn, they become another revenue driver.”


While sponsorships are a great way to get cash in hand to offset event costs, developing sponsorships is not a quick and easy thing, says Engelbarts.

“It takes months to develop relationships, figure out what the sponsor is looking for and how to sell it.”

If sponsorships are a critical piece to the financial success of your event, target businesses that make sense for your audience; for instance, says Rathe, for a youth softball tournament, a local sports pub might not land well on audience members.

“Are there different organizations, education and training, equipment providers and apparel that would fit your target audience? Sponsorships are all about being a good fit and investment,” he says.

While the freedom that comes with a cash sponsorship is valuable, it’s important for event planners to seek inkind donations as well to offset budget line items such as rentals, water/hydration fluids, merchandise and food/beverage at an event, says Reau.

“These donated items can help a sporting event save money on the overall budget.”

In-kind donations also tend to be easier to get than paid sponsorships.

“That is a budget savings and can offset some significant costs,” says Engelbarts. “And, it’s an easier conversation. ‘You have water, we need water; what can we do to make it happen?’ Putting product directly in people’s hands is better than conversations about how many impressions a sponsor will get or how you’re targeting the event to get them the most exposure.”


Other ways to increase revenue include charging for parking and charging admission or a gate fee. But both Engelbarts and Rathe say there are certain factors that need to be considered before adding these costs.

“It’s a big question I always get asked,” says Rathe. “For some venues, it will make sense to charge,” such as the fully turfed facilities that Rathe works with. “They’ve spent many millions of dollars to provide a great facility and there’s no chance of a rainout, so we are going to charge. But then also consider lowering the entry fee so you’re not hitting them on both sides.”

Instead of charging a gate fee, Rathe has also seen organizations put the burden on the teams by charging a modest one-time fee that covers all spectators for the entire team.
Another instance may be an opening ceremony, says Engelbarts.

“That’s the kind of event where you have to make some of the budget back through other means. That could be as easy as sticking a few people in a parking lot with a table.”


For some sports, says Rathe, one of the key things that is often overlooked is whether to have an event be sanctioned, where qualifiers receive a berth for another event, or non-sanctioned.

“Unfortunately for some organizations, [sanctioning is] all about making them as much money as possible,” says Rathe, adding that NAFA is one of the most reasonable organizations in that respect. “So it’s important to look at the fees structure if sanctioning is a consideration. Those numbers can add up really fast and dig into your revenue.”


After the event and between each annual event, conduct research with your fan base to understand their overall satisfaction of your event, their future intentions to attend and spend at your event, how they consume media to learn about your event and other competing interests, such as other events they attend throughout the year, hobbies and more, says Reau. “This information can be used to bolster your overall event plan.”