May 15, 2024

Chicago Sport and Social - Sold Out Podcast #3

This interview with Brian from Chicago Sport and Social delves into their birth in 1989 to becoming today's largest sport and social group in the country, with 130,000 active adult participants across 20+ different sports.

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Welcome to Episode #3 of the Sold Out podcast where we interview league organizers across the country for tips and tricks on how to sell out leagues.

In an era where community engagement and innovative business strategies are pivotal, the latest podcast episode featuring Brian from Chicago Sport and Social provides a riveting insight into the power of sports leagues as a cornerstone of community and business growth. Throughout the conversation, Brian shares the remarkable journey of Chicago Sport and Social, from its modest beginnings to becoming a major player in the recreational sports league industry. This tale is not just about sports; it's a study in resilience, adaptability, and the unyielding spirit of community building.

Brian's narrative begins with the foundation of Chicago Sport and Social by Sandy Thomas, highlighting how a simple desire for intramural fun and community connection can evolve into a significant business. The story takes us through the company's near-demise and phoenix-like resurgence, underscoring the importance of vision, tenacity, and strategic reinvention in navigating the unpredictable waves of business. With over 130,000 participants and a wide variety of sports offerings, the organization stands as a testament to the impact of sports on community engagement and social interaction.

The conversation delves into strategic decisions, such as focusing on quality over quantity and the importance of nurturing close-knit relationships within the industry through initiatives like the Sport and Social Association. These strategies illustrate the power of collaboration over competition and the significant role of industry associations in fostering growth and innovation.

Furthermore, the discussion on the operational challenges of scaling, facility partnerships, and staff management provides invaluable lessons on the intricacies of running a successful league. It highlights the critical balance between expansion and maintaining quality, the significance of building solid relationships with facilities, and the importance of investing in staff as the frontline of customer experience.

Brian also shares insights into differentiating the player experience, the nuances of pricing strategies, and the vital role of sponsorships in augmenting revenue streams. These discussions shed light on the importance of understanding your market, the value of direct community engagement, and the need for strategic partnerships to enhance business sustainability.

In conclusion, this episode is not merely a recount of the journey of a sports league management company but a blueprint for anyone looking to build or grow a business rooted in community engagement and service. It's a compelling narrative of how passion, when paired with strategic thinking and resilience, can create a thriving business that significantly impacts its community. Whether you're a budding entrepreneur, a sports enthusiast, or someone intrigued by the power of community and business synergies, there's a wealth of knowledge and inspiration to be drawn from Brian's journey with Chicago Sport and Social.

Below is the full transcript from this episode. The Sold Out Podcast is available on Spotify and Apple,or you can watch the entire interview on our YouTube Channel! Tune in every other week to hear AREENA interview the country's best league organizers about their success in selling out leagues consistently.


Lance (00:00.986)
All right, today we have Brian from Chicago Sport and Social. Thanks for being here, Brian. So let's just start with the basics. I think probably a lot of people know about Chicago Sport and Social, but maybe kind of give a background on where you're located, Chicago, obviously, how many leagues you're running, teams, how it got started, maybe a little bit of the background, and also your role.

Brian Irving (00:22.293)
Yeah. Yeah. Thanks, Lance. Appreciate you having me on. Yeah, I've been with the company for 28 years here in Chicago. We also have an office in Dallas. Our company started back in 1989. A woman by the name of Sandy Thomas kicked things off in Chicago. She had moved to Chicago from Detroit, didn't kind of miss the intramural fun and making friends and being active.

and kind of gathered a bunch of friends at a local park to kind of start a little flag football league. Started out with about four teams, kicked it off there. And then she decided to throw an end of season party afterwards and about 300 people showed up, friends of friends and people just looking for a good time. And she thought, hey, this looks like something here. And then started off doing.

indoor volleyball to beach volleyball from there and then kind of grew the club and the market into at the time 23 different cities across the US. And then I came on board in 1996, started in Chicago office and then progressed into our corporate office where I managed a few different other markets that we were in. And then at the time,

Right around 2000, 2001 -ish, she sold the company to a dot com out of San Diego called Street Zebra, which you would have never heard of. And they pretty much bankrupted the company. And then our company was bought out of bankruptcy and brought back to life and myself and a couple others from the company before came back to restart it. And so we've been going since about 2001 in Chicago. We...

have about 130 ,000 participants annually, about 6 ,000 plus teams annually, and we run over 20 different sports from kickball, dodgeball, pickleball, football, soccer, basketball, volleyball, bowling, et cetera. So yeah, that's a quick synopsis of where it started and where we're at.

Lance (02:33.722)
Yeah, yeah.

That's a wild, I had no idea that, yeah, that's a wild story to scale to that many cities. But you guys, yeah, that's a lot, yeah. So you guys haven't tried to scale up again since then? I mean, it seemed like that was some pretty great success. And then I know now there's like a sport and social association, like how does that all fit in?

Brian Irving (02:42.869)
Yeah, there's a lot in between there.

another episode.

Brian Irving (02:58.837)
Yeah, so obviously once our doors shut, it became kind of the Wild West in a way. Some former employees just took over and started it themselves in the period of time between shutdown and bought out of bankruptcy. And then some competitors that were out there kind of gobbled up what was left on the table. And then some markets, it took a while for somebody like ourselves to kind of start it up.

And so our goal initially was to kind of try to get back in as many cities as possible. We did have a club in Orlando, Philadelphia, San Francisco, DC when we first kind of reopened through some partnerships and alignments with people that were either former employees or interested in kind of getting things going. And it just became too tough to kind of oversee.

so many remote offices and kind of be in the weeds of their day to day. We ended up selling off those other clubs to those people after time. We've kind of maintained Dallas as our one, just kind of the relationship we have down there. But we just felt like there was so much growth and opportunity in Chicago and that part of what kind of caused the company to kind of go under somewhat was just the...

Fragment structure being across all these markets and trying you know as you as you know, you know the business of running leagues themselves is a tough financial burden to do on its own as just running leagues So it's the other stuff the social events the sponsorships that kind of help Sustain and make it more profitable to kind of do that business And so it became tough to kind of get back in those markets, but so out of that

kind of, as we were kind of kicking the tires around the country, trying to get back into some of the other clubs, we forged some relationships with people that worked with us before and others that didn't to kind of start this industry association to say, hey, hey, we don't work together, but is there ways we can work together to kind of collaborate on bringing insurance down, bringing purchasing power?

Lance (05:24.986)

Brian Irving (05:26.421)
increasing that, collaborating on different sponsorship opportunities and other ways to kind of grow the industry. And so I think the industry is just not been around for 11 or 12 years and has grown to over 63 clubs across the U S and Canada. And so we, we meet once a year at a annual conference and try to collaborate as much as we can to kind of help lift everybody up in the industry.

to kind of improve what they're doing and standardize some of, you know, purchasing power and sponsorship valuation and all this different stuff that kind of comes with that.

Lance (06:07.45)
Got it, that makes sense. So, I guess, you know, having talked to a lot of organizers across the country, there's a number that will really kind of go deep on a sport, and you guys are doing a bunch of sports, and I guess you're not necessarily competing directly with these other kind of people in the sport and social association. You guys are probably the only one of that type, I guess, in Chicago, and I'm curious how you differentiate, or you're not. So how do you differentiate, think about like competing and differentiating your experience for your players when you're doing so many different things.

Brian Irving (06:19.285)
Mm -hmm.

Brian Irving (06:37.589)
Yeah, we kind of always were doing a lot of different sports. I understand obviously the, you know, if you have somebody that's passionate and starts something like soccer, you know, they grew up playing it and they know that they know how to make a soccer league happen. And so soccer becomes their business. We just felt like, you know, at least in the climate in Chicago, you have to have a differentiation of sports because you can't be outside all the time. Our biggest sport is beach volleyball. That's a little bit.

because of kind of how Chicago is. We have a great lakefront with a lot of courts and everybody wants to be outside doing something in the city in the summertime. And so everybody kind of gravitates to that. That's about probably a third of our teams in the year is just beach volleyball itself. But we just, you know, the way we look at it is that, you know, we wanna find a way.

for anybody and everybody to spend their hard earned dollar with us, you know, whether they're, you know, the never played before or played in college or beyond and more serious. So we want, we want to have just a kind of a, a menu, if you will, of all different options to kind of choose from. And so, you know, it, it, it's a lot of work, obviously, you know, coming up with rules, policies and kind of working your way, working your way through.

Lance (07:56.026)
Mm -hmm.

Brian Irving (08:05.621)
kind of the growing pains of each of these new sports that you kind of add to it. But you see crossover, you know, with friends, you know, you get a team of soccer players together, for example, and as the season goes on, you need to just pull in some people if people are not showing up and maybe they're athletic but have never played soccer before. And then it's like, hey, well, why don't we play kickball too? It kind of translates a little bit to our abilities and.

more fun and so they kind of bounce between sports and that just makes it more fun, more engaging and getting more participation.

Lance (08:43.034)
Yeah. Yeah, that makes sense. So I guess another kind of question, though, about the player experience. Oh, yeah.

Brian Irving (08:50.933)
Yeah, sorry, I didn't touch on that. So we do have a rather large competitor in our market and a few other smaller competitors. In fact, one of them is in our industry association. And so we work well together. We've collaborated on a lot of different things from relationships with the park district and things like that. But, you know, anytime anything new becomes available, we're both fighting for that space, you know, and it's about relationships and about

Lance (09:02.33)

Brian Irving (09:20.757)
first to the door, more or less. But in terms of differentiation, you know, we don't concern ourselves too much with paying attention to a lot of what they do. We focus more internally to say, hey, what can we do to improve ourselves? So where we feel like, and they probably feel the same, but we feel like our customer service and our kind of staff on site.

Lance (09:23.802)

Brian Irving (09:48.533)
and our ability to communicate to them in a timely fashion are the things that differentiate us. We feel like we're accessible when they need us in terms of whether there's a question or problem. We'll always get back to them. We'll always, you know, and we feel like if there's a problem, we'll work really hard to kind of address their situation. Not to say that they're always right, but we'll do what we can to kind of show that we care.

Lance (09:59.226)

Brian Irving (10:17.589)
you know, first and foremost, you know, that we're not just this company, we're a for -profit business, but we're not here to profit necessarily off of them in that way. We care, our people play in our leagues, our people, you know, live and breathe this industry. And so by just showing that side of things, I think people become empathetic and they see and they forge relationships and, you know, there isn't a huge...

The kicker sometimes is there's not a lot of, you'd love to have a hundred percent loyalty from your participants, but some people choose the availability of the day or the location. You know, they could complain about our competitor, but the other facility is more convenient to them, or the day of the week or the neighborhood that it's in. So they opt for that and, you know, they do a great job. They're not, you know, I would never bad mouth the job that they do.

Lance (10:53.466)
I'm ready.

Lance (11:04.25)

Brian Irving (11:15.253)
I also feel like we try to push really hard in terms of trying to grow our professionalism and our technological impact, meaning that we're constantly looking at like kind of the gamification of things. And obviously that's where some of our conversations have gone, you and I. So yeah, we're trying, we're constantly looking at ways to find people.

and find ways for them to have fun and stay engaged. We want them like waking up in the morning and looking at their schedule and being excited to come play the league and then put it on Twitter or on Instagram afterwards and it becomes this cycle of like, hey, what am I doing that's fun? The stuff that I care about that's fun is always playing in one of our leagues or coming to one of our events.

Lance (12:08.698)
Yeah, yeah. Yep. I love that. I mean, that that's part of what we are excited about is trying to get people off of the couch, stop watching Netflix and get excited about getting out and meeting people and playing sports and doing something that's healthy. So I guess one of the questions of based on kind of something you said was about a facility when some new facility becomes available, you guys are both kind of in there. You said kind of first to the door. I guess what's relevant for somebody who might be listening to this is like if you're

Brian Irving (12:33.141)

Lance (12:38.362)
new or small and you're thinking about partnering with a facility, that's a big part of it. I mean, you mentioned even if some other things aren't as great, if the facility is super convenient to a population and it's on a day of the week that they like, they might still kind of choose that. So how would you advise somebody to find a good facility and kind of sell into them to get a deal for a partnership?

Brian Irving (13:03.541)
Yeah, see that it's a tough balance because obviously, you know, especially post COVID a lot of the facilities now, they want a firm financial commitment from you. And if you're starting in a new location, a new league or just a new operator, you know, you can't promise that you're going to be able to fill the gym.

Even one day a week for four hours, you know, without knowing that you already have this community behind you willing to kind of do it. So it's kind of a tough needle to thread in a way to say you got to build the community to feel confident enough that you can pull in, you know, at least four teams to kind of start something off. Because there's nothing worse than obviously being on the hook financially for something that you aren't able to fill. We've been able to kind of...

Lance (13:42.554)

Brian Irving (13:55.637)
work through those and I think some of that comes with time but you know if you have to sign a contract and they're going to be a stickler to it where you know you're paying hundred plus dollars an hour for X number of dollars over X number of weeks if you just don't get the teams to do it you know that that can be a huge financial hit for for any size organization you know just throwing money away and so obviously you would do everything you could to kind of scrape and

Harlebeg and steal to get people in there playing to at least get it off the ground, you know, you want to at least Start that out and then you'd really want to make sure and focus on that experience of those people Like even heavier than you would in any other location because you want them to feel like this experience Needs to happen again and so that they would continue and then you can find ways to kind of build off of that You know, there's nothing worse

Lance (14:28.73)

Brian Irving (14:52.693)
You know, when we have a facility that, you know, last season it filled and then this season it doesn't, you got to go back to tell them it's not a, you can't fill it. Someone else is going to be on, like I said, knocking on that door, our competitors or someone else to kind of take that space. And then, you know, let's say, let's say it's a gym that you play at fall, winter and spring and your spring season just, it's a, people.

You know, people don't want to be playing indoors, for example, and you just don't fill it. Well, come next fall, someone's going to be saying, hey, we could have filled that spot in the spring. Why don't you give it to us? And then you can lose it, you know? And so it's really tough to kind of, you know, and then to the point that you asked about is like trying to sell into a new facility. I mean, obviously you want to, there's a lot of different angles to look at it, depending on what type of facility it is. You know, if it's a,

Lance (15:29.018)

Yeah, yeah.

Brian Irving (15:49.685)
private facility, you know, it's exposure to their workout facility and gym and an opportunity for them to kind of bring in new clientele. It's also a way to fill unused space. If it's a part district or school, it's a way to kind of bring them additional revenue. Some of that can vary depending on how the parks or school operate where the school itself may or part district itself may not see those actual funds. They sometimes go to a general

Lance (16:19.066)

Brian Irving (16:19.413)
And so the incentive for them to not to stay open for you because they're not seeing the true financial benefit of it sometimes is tough and so finding other ways to kind of You know, it can be a long battle like there's there's been times where it's taken years of just kind of constantly going back to them like hey Do you have any extra space and starting with maybe even something small like can I can I rent?

an hour this coming Wednesday for like a pickup or you just move one of your games over there for a night to kind of show it off and you're just doing one hour to kind of get some people in the building to see it and to get them to kind of warm up to the idea of having some outside adult group in their school or gym. And then when, if that goes well, it's like, let's start building, you know, we're moving week three of our league over to this facility. And so,

Lance (16:58.97)

Brian Irving (17:16.373)
Do people like this? Is it proximity? Is it better than what we're playing right now? You obviously don't want to displace or damage the relationship you have with other places, but we've found that if you can kind of get in the door a little bit and then kind of show who they are, you know, the thing, you know, there's a connotation with adults, especially sport and social adult leagues, that it's a beer league or people are there, you know, they're going to be a hindrance or...

Lance (17:31.034)

Brian Irving (17:45.141)
an issue in your building, but you know, these are the people that work and live in your community, pay taxes. Eventually their kids may go to your school or, or, you know, you want to keep them in that city and find ways for them to keep having fun or else they're moving out of the city or out of your neighborhood and going elsewhere. So whatever you can kind of do to figure out who, who the point of contact is, that's, that's the real thing. You know, who's the decision maker.

Sometimes it's being friendly to the school engineer because they ultimately will decide who's going to stay late. And sometimes it's the school security. Sometimes you got to talk to a downtown office. Sometimes it's actually the park supervisor or the principal, just finding time to get on them and get them to get an answer that show that you are trying to enhance what's going on and not just be a bad tenant.

Lance (18:23.706)

Lance (18:36.474)

Brian Irving (18:44.565)
you know, leave a bunch of trash behind and get out of there. So we try to do our best to be good partners is how we look at it. You know, they're a part of our organization and we do what we can to kind of, you know, within reason and within, you know, kind of budget of what's allowed. You know, I'm not talking like lavish gifts or anything like that, but we've occasionally done, you know, if a school volleyball net system is...

Lance (18:46.938)

Brian Irving (19:13.813)
like old and run down, you know, we'll offer to donate a brand new volleyball net system which benefits the school and then would benefit us at the time that we're playing leagues there and things.

Lance (19:22.106)

Hmm, that's interesting. Part of that, I think that's interesting is like how, I mean, it's very nuanced to what you guys are doing. I can see why that can be tricky to scale into another city is because, and I guess this is kind of my questions. Like all those things that have to be done upfront, cause it's not just the facility and all the nuance of who to talk to and how to pitch it. And it might not be the right, the person that you think it is that's the real decision maker. But then also when you're,

getting it off the ground and they're wanting this long -term commitment and you're not sure so you gotta really make sure it's a great experience to get the thing off the ground. I guess I'm sort of curious about that and especially like at scale like who is doing that for you who is is actually there to to do because it sounds like that's that's operating differently than a league that's sort of been there for 10 years and is super established. Are you sending a staff member out there who is kind of really like tasked with

you know, for a certain period of time, just focus on this league, help us get it off the ground, and then we can kind of back off a little bit or how do you make sure that it's such a great experience versus like what's the extra effort, I guess, to make sure it's great.

Brian Irving (20:32.341)
Yeah, I mean, we do a good job of the employees, part -time and full -time. We hire trying to make sure that their goals are customer service. They don't need to be well -versed in sports, but they need to know how to handle conflict resolution and be really good with people, be able to be in front of people engaging. And then, and then,

Lance (20:51.674)

Brian Irving (20:58.997)
The people in our office that know what they're doing need to be accessible. We have an emergency hotline that we rotate who's on call. And so if something comes up, they can get a hold of somebody if there's an issue with the school's locked or someone's had an issue with the school, whatever the case may be. And so, yeah, I mean, we do a lot of hiring. That's the kind of the three real pieces to leagues for us are a place.

Lance (21:07.834)

Brian Irving (21:28.821)
community to play there and the people running it. You know, the rest of the stuff you can figure out. And so, you know, you could walk into a city and it could have nothing going on and you get all these beautiful facilities that you could kind of play at, but if you can't fill it and if you don't have good people running it, you know, after a season or two, people are going to be like, this is so unorganized or this is, you know, I don't know who to turn to, you know.

It surprises me, you know, some people continue to play at places that there's not good service, but eventually they come around when they find other options. You know, if there's no options, people will endure something just to play the sport they love. But so yeah, we focus a lot of energy and a lot of time on finding and training the right staff to kind of run those. So we rely pretty heavily on a part -time staff of, you know, about...

Lance (22:18.042)

Brian Irving (22:25.013)
150, 200 people seasonally that we're doing and we have someone that's kind of their job has been devoted to finding and training the staff. And so when you put a lot of effort into that and they're the right people out there and the kind of people you want to be around and hang with, it just, it makes it fun. You know, they're there, they're not just sitting in a corner on their phone while you play and saying, hey, give me the score to your game or whatever. They're part of.

Lance (22:41.178)

Lance (22:51.13)
Mm -hmm.

Brian Irving (22:53.237)
you know, experience and greet them when they get there and, you know, clean up when they leave. And so investing in your staff is really key. Cause even as a sing solo operator, you can't do it all yourself. You know, I mean, you could, if it's like a small hobby and you don't care enough about it being growing to a business, but you need others that you can trust and rely on.

And you'll make mistakes and you'll have people that aren't quite what you thought they were or whatever. But I've found that as long as you care and are empathetic and try to be, come with a solution for people, most people are pretty forgiving and will give you another shot and give you an opportunity to kind of...

prove what you say you're going to do for them.

Lance (23:53.946)
Yeah. So all that's very interesting to me because I've done a lot of that kind of hiring. It sounds like, you know, conscientiousness, being willing to stay after and clean up is very important. It sounds like a background and customer service might be important or a knowledge of that.

Brian Irving (24:08.565)
Yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah, just a knowledge, just an understanding, I guess, of what your goals are, you know, we're not, we're not giving out scholarships or NIL money or any of that kind of stuff for being in our leagues, you know, people were there once a week to kind of let off steam, be with their friends and have a good time. They want to show up, have all the equipment there ready to go, a staff to greet them, opponent to play, and the equipment needed to do it. And then go out.

Lance (24:15.77)
Mm -hmm.

Brian Irving (24:39.317)
home or to a bar or a restaurant afterwards and do the same thing. And so if you, as long as you're organized and make sure as best you can, obviously teams forfeit, problems happen, things like that. But as long as you kind of like care, like you said, conscientious and have someone out there that's like, Hey, it's great to see you.

Let's get the game going. You make the game, you know, your organization and kind of rolling with the punches, you know, the kind of people we look for, the people that can handle a difficult situation. You know, they don't, they don't need to have, they need to be outgoing and engaging and they don't necessarily have to have had a customer service experience. They just need to understand who our participant is and what the challenges might be. And you give them as much information you can, but sometimes it's got to be like, Hey,

Lance (25:03.93)

Brian Irving (25:33.941)
We'll deal with it back in the office the next day. And that's the solution sometimes. But you try to put them as the go -between. They're the good person. They're the good guy out there. They feel as bad about the situation as you do as a player when you show up and there's chairs all over the court because the school had a play that afternoon and forgot to take them down.

Lance (25:47.226)

Lance (25:56.378)
Mm -hmm.

Lance (26:03.578)
Right. So I guess the further questions, though, so that conscientiousness and an ability to do customer service, maybe not a background in it, and then almost like the beer test, like would you want to hang out with them? It sounded like that was important as well, like they're sociable. So how do you, I guess, test for that when you're hiring somebody? And then how do you ensure, because I faced this problem before, how do you ensure that they're doing all of these things?

Brian Irving (26:18.261)
Yeah, yes, absolutely.

Lance (26:32.986)
when you're not there, you know, like one, two, three months into the gig.

Brian Irving (26:35.445)

Yeah, and that's happened, you know, where somebody's been great and then, you know, something happens, they lose the excitement or something happens in their life and they're just not giving maximum effort. You know, we try to stay as engaged with our participants as possible. So we tend to hear about a lot of things, you know, when they're happening. You know, we don't solicit.

Lance (26:59.354)

Brian Irving (27:04.565)
you know, nightly surveys or feedback and things like that, but just through the amount of channels and communication that we do, whether it's through text, email, social media, all that kind of stuff, people know that there's ways to get ahold of us. And for the most part, you know, we, we charge a premium to be in our leagues. You know, it's not cheap to participate in our leagues. A nature of that is, you know, a lot of the facility fees in Chicago are really high. And then,

the fees to kind of operate a business are expensive, you know, insurance, staff, equipment, everything that goes with that. And so with that level of price point, a level of expectation is that much greater. And so when it's not being met, you almost hear about it pretty much right away. It's rare that you go through a week or a season that if someone wasn't doing the job,

Lance (27:51.578)

Brian Irving (27:58.133)
amongst the amount of people that kind of circulate through that facility, someone's going to bring something up. Now, we, in terms of like vetting them ahead of time and stuff like that, you know, we do interview them. We have a few different people interview them. We bring them out to shadow a more experienced or trusted person or full -time person at one of our leagues as a trial ahead of time to just kind of see how they are in the field, whether they're a...

monitor, manager, referee, all those kind of things. And we tend to look for people, we don't need someone that's a total stickler by the book. I reffed at the highest levels of high school. Those people we tend to almost shy away from because they don't, in our experience, they don't bring the level of customer serious. They're pretty much like, I talked to the coach,

I know the rules, you don't, and are inflexible in terms of that, which you have to be at the higher levels of officiating. But we want people in our leagues, everyone that pays is the coach. They all have a stake in it and an equal say. You can't just disregard everybody on the roster because they all may have a different mentality. Now they're all not going to be right, but you at least got to give them a voice.

Lance (29:05.209)

Brian Irving (29:23.765)
And so we want somebody that can kind of at least engage with them. And then, you know, that if they, you know, we tell people first and foremost, sit, tell them your name. So if they know your name, they're gonna get to know you and they're less likely to have a problem. It's easier to call and say that ref or that person instead of saying that Lance, you know, that the knowing the name and all that kind of.

automatically kind of causes a little bit of lack of conflict and you know it's so easy to to complain about somebody when you don't know their name.

Lance (30:04.186)
Yeah, yeah. Interesting. So I guess, yeah, the hiring process is a little bit more clear and it's a little bit more clear if you like, you'll know if something you're saying is not going well, because you'll hear about it. Are you all pretty strict like?

Brian Irving (30:17.397)
Yeah, we do also spot checks throughout the season. We'll have someone that goes out to just kind of pop in, you know, like undercover boss kind of style, where they just kind of show up and kind of observe, you know, don't make it known that they're there and just kind of see what's going on. And if you see someone off reading a book or a ref that's standing on one side of the basketball court and I'm moving up and down, you know, you know, we also sometimes like to switch up a little bit of who's working with whom.

Lance (30:20.794)
Yeah. Okay.



Lance (30:35.546)
Mm -hmm.

Brian Irving (30:45.301)
so that we can find out, you know, we're not looking for them to snitch on each other or anything like that, but you can kind of hear, you know, from the participants, like, hey, who's this new person you brought in? Or thank goodness you got rid of that person that was out there. Can you keep bringing back this person? So those kinds of things just every now and again. Obviously you can't always do that. You know, if you have a good soccer ref and you know, you want to fill your shifts first and foremost.

Lance (31:00.858)

Brian Irving (31:14.293)
you know, sometimes anybody in a pinch is better than, you know, nobody. And so, you know, you just have to deal with whatever potential comes that way. But, you know, sometimes a mediocre ref, you know, for one more week is better than telling the teams you have to count them a week. So yeah, you just try to evaluate them and do the best you can with what you got.

Lance (31:32.73)
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Well, I guess.

Lance (31:38.906)
So I guess outside of refs, more for like coordinators or other type of people, maybe it applies to refs as well. I mean, if you see something is off and they are off reading a book, are you guys pretty strict about like, hey, this is unacceptable? And are y 'all pretty quick to sort of let people go and say, hey, this is not or?

Brian Irving (31:55.093)
Not necessarily let them go, but we'll address it right away, you know, like, give them another chance, you know. And listen, there's shifts and times like that where literally they don't have to be doing, I mean, post COVID, we literally at a few of our locations have to store or have to have someone literally working the door, meaning they have to let them in the door of the facility. And there's a school security guard literally sitting next to them that could be doing that job.

Lance (31:59.738)
Yeah. Sure.

Lance (32:23.962)

Brian Irving (32:24.149)
the school for assurances and just making it that we have more control and more of our people. We have someone sitting in the door. So what more could they really be doing in that situation? You know, you want, you know, it could just be you walked in in the minute that they were reading a book and there hasn't been anybody coming in the door for the last half hour. So you obviously want to give them another chance if they've been with you and you know, but.

Lance (32:36.186)
Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Brian Irving (32:51.765)
If there is someone that's problematic, you keep hearing problems. You gotta take everything with a grain of salt that you hear though. You have to kind of get the full 360 degrees of what the crux of the question or the problem is. Because what you'll find a lot of times is when you kind of drill down into what the complaint about this person was, a lot of times that team lost and you know.

Lance (33:04.666)

Lance (33:18.714)
Yeah, yeah, yeah.

Brian Irving (33:19.573)
A lot of times the story isn't exactly what they're telling you. And so if you're quick to pull the trigger on somebody, you know, we'll defend our staff. You know, that's kind of our backbone is like, listen, we have your back, you know, no matter what, but you got to do your job. Now, if you don't do your job, we're not going to have your back in that situation. And so we're going to get complaints about you because it's impossible for everyone to never get complaints about them. But.

If you do what we ask of you, we're going to have your back and don't let them rattle you or bother you. And so then we'll dig into the situation and find out what's going on. It's usually a loss. It's usually some one person on the team that's kind of not aligned with the leagues that we run and probably shouldn't be playing in that league or whatever the case may be.

Lance (34:11.098)
Yeah, yeah. Okay, that makes sense. So I have two more questions. I know we're running a little short on time. So one is around pricing and one is around sponsorship. So pricing, how do you guys think about pricing both in terms of the amount that you're gonna charge and then the structure of it, you know, team fee versus individual fee or free agent fees or any of that? Like, how do you think about pricing?

Brian Irving (34:34.997)
Yeah, I mean obviously you want to price it to make a profit. So you have to obviously look at, you have to look at what's in the marketplace. If other people are doing things you don't want to like undersell or over price what you're doing. But you have to kind of evaluate like what would be the worst case scenario? If I have this space and I only get the minimum number of teams, how am I going to make this so I'm not going to lose money?

And so, you know, facility fees, all the other fees that come into it. And then we want to try to make, you know, as I said, a for -profit company, you know, anywhere to 15 to 35 % profitability on those teams, you know. Now, that's going to fluctuate, you know, depending on, again, what the marketplace dictates. And, you know, if you have a facility where they're charging you $250 an hour to play on this field,

you know, your profit margin, to make that kind of profitability, then the sticker shock of what you're putting out there may make it even impossible to run that league in the first place. So, you know, you kind of look at it as the pool of all that you're offering to kind of have that. And so if there's ways where a place is super cheap, you know, can we raise those prices a little bit more to kind of cover the other places where it's super expensive and we don't want to deter people from signing up and things like that.

but you want to operate at a profitability because things are going to happen. Someone's back out last minute, they're not going to pay, or you're in a credit card dispute, or all these different little things. Your equipment ends up being more expensive than you thought it was going to be. You have to pay someone a little extra during the season to cover for someone else. These little things come up and...

Lance (36:05.21)

Lance (36:18.33)

Brian Irving (36:33.013)
your business, you want to make money. And so, factoring that in and thinking about that stuff and forecasting that stuff ahead of time to make it so that, you know, we found kind of 15 to 35 % profitability is kind of the sweet spot to kind of make it on the league itself. You know, there's other avenues to your other question on sponsorship and partnerships and things like that that can kind of help make it more profitable.

Lance (36:34.874)
Yeah. Yeah.

Lance (37:02.042)

Brian Irving (37:03.093)
But yeah, you know running leagues as a business is about a break even as in my experience You know, it's the other you laugh because you know Yeah, right

Lance (37:10.586)
Yeah. Yeah.

Yeah, it can be tough for sure. But so, and yeah, and lots of times people don't, I think, realize that and they're like, you know, I'm paying all this.

Brian Irving (37:21.077)
Right, they see, yeah, they see, oh my gosh, I'm paying $500 a team, you guys have 12 teams out there, you guys are making all this money. Well, they haven't even thought about one expense in that statement.

Lance (37:30.49)

Yeah, yeah. So it sounds like you guys have a, your strategy is you have a profit range and then you look at the competition and you look at all the costs that are going to go into it and you decide like, well, if it's going to be, you know, on the higher end in terms of all your costs, it might only be down to like 15 % profit because that's just what the market will support in terms of what people will pay. So you kind of have that range and you adjust. But what about, I know we've talked about this before, like team fees.

Brian Irving (37:54.357)
Yeah. Yeah.

Lance (38:01.978)
versus individual fees, like how do y 'all, y 'all do team fees? Well, I guess, what's the logic behind that?

Brian Irving (38:02.005)

Brian Irving (38:08.821)
So we want to get the money and limit the headaches as much as possible of us dealing with team finances and team disputes and all that kind of stuff. You either have your own team and figure it out with who you're playing with. I don't care if you have 10 people or 25 people on your roster. The team fee is the team fee. And if you don't have your own team...

you can sign up as an individual or a free agent and then we'll group you with other people that sign up that same way. So those are the two avenues that you can go. So you know team fee is $1 ,000. It's up to you to figure out how to break that down, distribute it, decide who's paying what, how many are on your team. Cause I don't want someone coming back to me in the middle of the season and saying, oh, this person fell off. We had kind of decided it was going to be $85 a person.

and now we have one less person, how can we do that? It's a team fee, $1 ,000, get another person, figure it out, you've already paid us, that's done. And then free agent, we group you with other people that are also free agents to kind of form a team. Now we don't offer that in every single league that we do. We try to give enough options out there, but not for every single league that we offer that because...

Lance (39:06.362)

Brian Irving (39:30.709)
you just kind of become too dispersed in terms of a few free agents here, a few free agents there. There's nothing worse than when a few free agents sign up for a league, because once they sign up, you know, we register people, you know, typically six to eight weeks or so before a league starts. That's kind of what we found to be the good promotional time to kind of let people digest it, gather their friends, decide, pay, and then get their information. And there's nothing worse. If eight weeks ago, they...

Lance (39:55.898)
Mm -hmm.

Brian Irving (40:00.597)
gave you money to play for a league, they put it on their account, they're expected to playing it, and you're gonna come back to them, you know, the week before the league and say, hey, we just didn't get enough people for this league, and I have to refund you, or we have to cancel the league. So we try to limit, you know, the options. Probably, I would say, maybe 20 % of our program offerings have a free agent option or component. So that allows, you know, we found that, you know,

And we'll change that. You know, we'll add capacity to a specific league, like for another free agent team, if they're kind of funneling in pretty well for that specific league. Or if we get people asking, like, we'll kind of gather a wait list of people that are like, oh, I wish you had a free agent option in that Tuesday night league. And we'll say, okay, well, let's, we'll put you down. Do you have other friends that are also planning on signing up? Yeah, I got.

two other people, okay, now we're at three, so we're getting there and it's about eight weeks out, so let's see. If I hear from another person, we'll open up, I'll get back to you. And so those kind of things happen, those kind of communication happen, but we try to stay, we've over time been pretty traditional about the leagues that we do because we know those are the ones to fill. Because again, there's nothing worse to tell anyone, team or free agent, that we can't put you in the league that you've.

You're excited for, you've paid for, you're ready for, and we just can't deliver on that because it's just a huge bummer.

Lance (41:30.298)
Yeah, yeah.

for sure. So then last question, I know we're definitely running out of time, the sponsorship thing. So that's where you can maybe the leagues themselves sometimes break even, but you can make a little money on it. So how do you think about it? And I guess especially, you know, at your scale and as a part of the, you know, the sport and social association, there's probably some benefits that maybe not everybody has access to. So.

I guess kind of how do you do it, but also how would you advise somebody who's new and has one, two, three leagues to get a sponsor?

Brian Irving (42:04.917)
Yeah, I mean, even on the small end, I think there's some low hanging fruit in terms of sponsorship opportunities. Essentially what it is, is that whoever the sponsor is, because individual bars and restaurants, for example, they sponsor teams and that's a team of like eight or 15 people. So they see value in that amount of people. And so at the smallest level, you have 30, 60 people at a given league.

And so somebody finds value in that. And the value depends on what the value proposition is. Are you driving them back to a bar or restaurant? Are you promoting some dry cleaner in the neighborhood that's close by? All these different things that you gotta find a way to kind of examine. If they're gonna pay you sponsorship dollars, obviously you need to go above and beyond what their expectation is.

Lance (43:02.938)
Mm -hmm.

Brian Irving (43:03.157)
And people know this, if you've ever been on a team that had a bar or restaurant sponsor you, you know, they're going to give you $250 for your team fee. Well, they want you to go back to that bar and restaurant and spend more than $250 at their venue. You know, they want you to spend $800. And so finding ways to kind of deliver and show that you've delivered to those people is what's going to really matter and get them to continue to be a sponsor.

Lance (43:19.61)
Mm -hmm.

Brian Irving (43:32.661)
You know, if they throw you, you know, as a league and you say, okay, we have a hundred teams playing on two or a hundred people playing on Tuesday night for eight straight weeks in your neighborhood. Well, a hundred of those people aren't all going to show up every week, but you want to make sure that you get as many people in front of them as possible and showing them, you know, we always do kind of a sponsor deck or follow -up.

you know, with them to show them, you know, pictures of us handing out coupons, pictures of the shirt with the logo on it, pictures of our promo cards, our website with their thing on it, showing them statistics, you know, from Google Analytics of how many people went on that page. You know, the things that they necessarily won't put value on, but there's value in eyeballs and interaction. You know, some of these are, you know, is it, is...

Is it a drive, is there a transactional situation where you're saying, pay me X dollars and I'm saying that X number of people are gonna use your product or go to your website or use a coupon, whatever that may be and showing them that we're a different channel of marketing for your organization. We have the.

You know, our business is primarily 21 to 35 young urban professionals. So they live in this neighborhood, you know, so they may not go now, but we're, instead of paying for a TV commercial or Google targeted ads or Facebook ads or whatever it may be, we're another avenue for it to get face to face. And a lot of businesses and companies now post COVID, they want face to face interaction with people, you know.

There's so many ads and things like that and emails. Nobody, I mean, you open up your Gmail or whatever every day, there's just all this just trash and you're not even reading these emails, you're just clearing them out of the gap and coals and all these different companies that are just splattering you trying to hope that you'll spend with them. And so we're in a unique space having the kind of young.

Lance (45:38.97)

Brian Irving (45:55.317)
people with disposable income to kind of do whatever it is. And so whether it's a company that's got a new product, a new line of deodorant or a new energy drink or whatever it may be, they're getting hand to hand interaction, whether it's us doing the sampling for them or giving them the opportunity and space to bring out a tent or a vehicle or whatever it is to your location and promote it to the people on site. And so,

you know, don't undervalue what you have. You have an engaged audience that's the audience they want to target. And that audience is so tired of the noise on social media and email and everywhere else of advertising that the interpersonal one -on -one opportunities that you allow for a gathering of engaged adults is...

Lance (46:35.514)

Brian Irving (46:54.517)
a valuable proposition. And so just finding a brand that aligns first and foremost what you want to do. You don't want some bail bonds company like paying you sponsors a dollar to come to your league or something like that. Finding brands that align with what you do. And you'd be surprised with how many people in your leagues already work in these companies or have someone they know.

Lance (46:57.082)

Lance (47:06.522)

Brian Irving (47:23.765)
that would love and they just don't think about it. So sending around kind of your capabilities deck or creating a capabilities deck or saying what options and opportunities they are. That's what I would focus on as a new business owner saying, okay, what are the channels and what are the avenues that I can reach people? I have an app, I have a website, we do a newsletter, we post our schedules here. We...

Lance (47:26.746)

Lance (47:33.178)

Brian Irving (47:51.477)
On a weekly basis, people get so many emails and interactions with us. We have ability for signage at our leagues. We have the capability to put a tent. Some of that stuff obviously varies on park district regulations and what you're allowed to do in those regards, but find all that out and say and put together and show photos of who is in your leagues and who, paying for a photographer once to get high quality photos that show people having fun.

in the demographic they're trying to reach. It goes a long way to show people like, hey, you know what? We just rolled out a brand new energy bar and we can put up ads in the supermarket or email, but having these people actually try it, look like they're having fun and doing it, that's gonna go volumes towards loyalty and brand redemption and purpose and all that kind of stuff.

Lance (48:43.61)

That's yeah, a lot of that that's so interesting and a lot of that I didn't know so if you were just just in terms of Expectations for someone let's say you're new You've got a league that's got I don't know a hundred people and you're making I don't know what you know Let's say it's ten thousand dollars a season or something like that in terms of Registration fees for whatever the kind of league sized 200 people something like that

How much could they expect to make through sponsorships? I mean, is that a legit channel that's actually gonna give them a little bit of a boost? Or I think some people will have sponsorships where the sponsors are really just ultimately there to provide rewards for playoffs or something for teams that win.

Brian Irving (49:24.917)
Yeah, yeah, and that's an easy foot in the door. You have to look at it, are you doing trade? And when we do trade, it's gotta be something that helps our bottom line. And so are they gonna give us a bunch of soccer balls for the season? And we were already paying X dollars for soccer balls, and now we're getting these, so we're saving money in that regard. Or are they gonna...

Lance (49:38.393)

Brian Irving (49:53.077)
give us trade that now becomes pricing where we were having to pay for pricing for our champs or our tournament or whatever it can be. So now, so if they're not giving us dollars, they're giving us trade on something that's bottom line. And so you have to look at it in that regard of a financial benefit to yourself, you know, not just because once you get this stuff, let's say, you know, you have a season where Chipotle wants to sponsor you and they're going to give you free burritos for every team that wins that.

You know, now you've done that that season. There's gonna be expectation the next season for those teams looking at you like, where's the free burritos, you know, this week? Oh, that was just a one season sponsorship, you know? And so that value is not there again now, even though it wasn't guaranteed or part of their registration fee, they have an expectation now. And so being careful in kind of terms of looking at it that way. And so finding something that kind of aligns with the saving you money. And...

Lance (50:27.418)

Lance (50:40.378)


Brian Irving (50:51.669)
And you don't want to just take free money and you don't want to take just free product, you know, even though, though, um, it may be awesome to, you know, have, you have a soccer tournament and now you have Gatorade wanting to give you, you know, free Gatorade for everybody. Well, they're kind of getting off easy by giving you that product. You know, they have a certain amount of product that they can already give out to places, but they're now using you for your audience. And so.

You know, we tend to put a price of like, I don't know, it depends on what you're doing, whether it's digital or whether it's in person, but looking at the industry and trying to find what that price per head is, you know, is it 50 cents a head, is it a dollar a head for those things? Is it, you know, those impressions or those interactions? And you can find that stuff, you know, online by searching and understanding that I have a product.

You know, like I'm a mobile store more or less that plays all over the city. And so if a certain sponsorship is going to pay 75 cents a head to kind of do a mailing and a coupon to come back to your local grocery store, well, you better believe that we're the same thing. You know, they're going to, we're the people that you're handing those coupons to versus digitally.

Lance (51:57.178)
Mm -hmm.

Lance (52:16.41)
Yep. So I guess just, just for somebody who is starting out and trying to. Oh, God.

Brian Irving (52:18.869)
But there's also, yeah, I would go to a bar, first and foremost, it's in the neighborhood of your league, and say, hey, will you offer my team's specials? And then as you start doing that, and driving people to these bars, the beer reps and the seltzer reps and all these distributors are gonna see, like, whoa, what's with this boost of people coming to this bar on Tuesday nights? They know all that stuff. And they're gonna say,

Lance (52:26.618)

Brian Irving (52:48.789)
They're gonna find out about your organization pretty quick because you are a group that's delivering people buying product. And so over time, you can maybe get yourself a sponsorship. You know, we have beer sponsors and so we promote that beer at all of our bars that we promote also. So we have the sponsorship from the beer distributor and a sponsorship from the bar. So we're driving people to that bar.

Afterwards promoting them all week long to say, hey, you know, it's $20 buckets of Corona to go to this bar. And so the bar is paying us because we're on a Tuesday night. We have, you know, 16 teams at this school. We're telling every one of them about you. Maybe two of them only come in, but that's two more teams where the people they weren't expecting on that night. And then the Corona has people drinking their beer to two teams or the beer.

every week at that location. And so there's a value for you, because you're getting the money from the bar and you're getting money from the sponsor. And then there's a value to them because the people are attending, they're probably ordering food, maybe they're ordering something else. And then there becomes a kind of a brand loyalty, like, okay, we're going to keep, I like that Corona tasted so good after that win. You know, what are we doing Friday? Let's get a Corona. You know, that tastes good.

Lance (54:04.826)

Lance (54:12.634)
Yeah, yeah, yeah, exactly. So just to kind of bring that home for somebody though that's maybe swamped with running leagues and is thinking about it, but they're just, I feel like I've seen this, you know, they're not really engaging with it as much as maybe they could, because it's like, it sounds hard, they don't know what to do. Let's say back to that example, if someone's making like $10 ,000 a season, could they make an extra 500 bucks or a thousand bucks if they put in a bunch of work and like five, 10 % of their overall...

Brian Irving (54:37.365)
Oh yeah.

I don't even think it would have to be a lot of work. I mean, a lot of it depends obviously on what the makeup of your city and obviously you're in Texas, so there's all kinds of liquor laws and things like that that kind of get in the way of some of those situations and what you can say and promote and all that kind of stuff. But yeah, I mean, a little bit of effort. If you find out where you're playing, what's in the proximity or where people want to go.

Lance (55:00.41)

Brian Irving (55:09.909)
You want to make it easy. Now, if you're in a place where they all come to play and then they all leave and live in a million different places, can you get them to stay right after they play or before they play to go to one of these locations? Or do you need to find a couple of different satellite places? You know, in Chicago, Chicago is all about neighborhoods. And so people kind of live, work, play in those neighborhoods. And so it's pretty easy to, we try to find.

Lance (55:29.146)

Brian Irving (55:38.549)
a facility or a bar that's within walking distance of the field. Whereas if you're in a huge area that's got just a huge park and then around there is houses and things like that, you may not find the right venue. There may be a little neighborhood pub or something like that, but you can't fit more than 30 people in and now you got 100 people trying to get in the door. So you just have to know the landscape of...

Lance (55:44.698)
Yeah, that's not.

Brian Irving (56:06.357)
what your city has and understand one of the liquor laws and stuff like that. But a bar sponsorship is a, because a lot of them, they already do this. They sponsor a rugby team, they sponsor a soccer team. So they're already doling out money to someone because for them, they want them to come to their bar on a regular basis and spend money. And so why not?

spend it with you where you have a lot of teams that can say, hey, a percentage of these teams are gonna come. You know we play here, you know, down the street every Thursday night and we're gonna promote you over the course of a six to 10 week season and you're gonna have that constant stuff and then you show them at the end of the week or end of the season like, hey, this is how many emails went out, these are impressions, you know, these are how many coupons you passed out, all this kind of stuff. It isn't get in the way too much and add too much work.

Bar people can be tough to work with, but it doesn't add too much to kind of reap the reward to make it worthwhile. And then you just kind of build off of that.

Lance (57:09.914)
Sure. Yeah, yeah, yeah. Yep. Awesome. OK. That was a ton of super good information. And I think we went over our time. So I appreciate it, Brian. Thanks for.

Brian Irving (57:22.453)
Yeah, no problem. I gotta bounce here in a minute here.

Lance (57:25.658)
Okay, thanks Brian, take care.

Brian Irving (57:28.117)
You got it. Thanks, Lance.


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