Venues that regularly host youth and amateur sports events have had a hard time in the past year-plus of the pandemic, trying to keep expenses down with no revenue coming in and knowing that there were still things that could not be ignored.
But when there is little activity at a venue, looking at things from the type of long-range perspective that there often is not the time for is important.
“When you operate a venue and don’t have revenue coming in, it’s not like you can just cut all your expenses — you still have to maintain the venue and when you’re growing grass on 24 fields like we are, that gets very expensive,” said Matt Libber, executive director of the Maryland SoccerPlex. “We were putting out a lot of money to maintain our grass because we couldn’t let that go, not knowing when we’re going to reopen. … Luckily we were really good financially and we have great reserves, and we never had to question if we could keep staff.
“It also gave us some opportunities,” added Libber, whose complex had one tournament last year in a period when it normally hosts 20 events. “We were all usually so busy we don’t have time to work on things that we know need to be fixed. When we weren’t open it gave us time to do that.”
Libber and Ralph Morton, senior vice president and managing director of the Sports and Entertainment Division at Events DC, were on the American University webinar “Safe & Successful Protocols for Fans, Teams, Leagues & Camps” that was moderated by Matt Winkler, program director for the Online MS in Sports Analytics and Management at American University.
Libber said the challenges for any youth complex remain — his venue lost an event this month, “one of our largest tournaments of the year” — but that adapting to new markets can be a way to book extra events overall. The SoccerPlex has more than doubled the number of lacrosse tournaments it usually hosts this year, highlighted by an Athletes Unlimited women’s lacrosse event that will be held at the venue in mid-July.
“We’re even discussing do we rebrand because we’re no longer the SoccerPlex, we’re now the SportsPlex because we’re diversifying our portfolio,” Libber said.
And Morton focused on what areas could be growth opportunities as well for venues, specifically citing women’s sports. “There’s so much potential for growth and companies wanting to invest,” he said. “We’re so proud to have the WNBA’s Mystics play at our venue. There’s a growth limitation in certain sports to some extent, but (women’s sports) has really an unlimited growth opportunity in the coming years.”
Both panelists also honed in on the costs that come with youth participation, especially as things slowly become more normal but with many families having sustained financial hardship over the past year.
“It really has shown that the money of it has gotten out of control when it costs too much to enter a lot of these sports,” said Libber.
“We’re sending kids all over the country to play soccer tournaments — are we weeding out the elite and not connecting them more on a broad basis?” Morton asked. “Can a kid from the inner-city pick up tennis? Is soccer excluding a whole demographic because it’s expensive to play?”
Costs aside, the hunger to be at youth events is increasing with each day and even if things are different than they were before, that is OK. “There’s always some changes, how you handle food service and bathrooms and things like that,” Libber said. “There’s going to be changes but you’re going to see people on the sidelines — they’re going to come back, they’re going to fill the hotels and they’re going to travel.”