By Don Crowe
It’s Saturday on a crisp November morning in Seattle. Rain clouds are looming, and there’s an unmistakable excitement rumbling through the arena. It’s the kick-off of the winter session of indoor Youth Soccer Leagues at Arena Sports. The company owns four (soon to be five) indoor soccer facilities in the Pacific Northwest. Each year, more than 3,000 adult and youth teams—more than 36,000 players—participate in the leagues. Over the past 20 years, the company has learned a thing or two—or six—about running successful programs.
Youth leagues at Arena Sports are for kids ages 5 (U6) through high school. Teams are organized by gender, age, and skill level—offering an experience for both recreational and competitive players.
“When we first started, we only had one facility. We knew most of our customers by name and face, so logistically it was easier to make sure we were meeting their needs and letting them know about upcoming deadlines,” says Lee Perry, league director. “Now we have multiple locations, thousands of teams, and three indoor seasons per year. Through trial and error, we had to hone our systems and processes so they could be successfully scaled as we grew. We ended up building our own all-in-one software solution since there wasn’t one on the market with everything we needed. But through the years, we learned some valuable lessons and short-cuts—as well as minefields to avoid.”
There are six fundamental items to know about running successful leagues, and they can be divided into three segments—pre-season, during the season, and post-season.
1. Know your customers.
In the early days, it was easy to know customers because we literally saw them every day. Now we rely on CRM software to keep track of them and make a “personal” connection. Important details to log include:
- Age—to know which leagues to promote
- If the player is on an outdoor team, is it rec, Select, or Premier? This helps with scheduling.
- Knowing if a participant plays for a school team
- Knowing when it’s the off-season.
Once this information is available, it’s easy to target specific messages based on the profiles.
Become familiar with the local soccer clubs in the area, and partner with them during the off-season. To generate goodwill within that community, we offer club teams free practice time as part of the annual “Fall Promo.” The 50-minute slots are based on available inventory, and teams must have at least 10 players sign up in advance.
2. Logistics matter.
Smooth, behind-the-scenes preparation will lead to happy, repeat customers. Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russel Wilson says, “The separation is in the preparation.” We think he’s on to something.
The Matrix—The first step is to map field inventory for each facility. Prior to each season, fields and times for each activity are blocked off (e.g., adult leagues, youth leagues, Lil’ Kickers, Skills Institute, parties, etc.). They are also identified as to male, female, or co-ed field times. We call this master calendar the “Matrix,” and it’s invaluable when scheduling.
Broadcast emails—Timing is everything when marketing for leagues. It starts 1 month in advance.
- 4 weeks out: Registration is open.
- 2 weeks out: Don’t miss out!
- 1 week out: It’s not too late!
When marketing to hundreds of teams and thousands of players each season, it’s important to have email software that seamlessly integrates with a CRM program. Build email templates in advance, and update details each season. It streamlines the process and ensures that messaging is always consistent.
Call list—Good, old-fashioned phone calls are also important in recruitment efforts. One month in advance, hosts and league managers make personal calls to team managers. This is highly effective since it’s the responsibility of the managers to coordinate the registration for each of their team members.
Registration and payment—Online registration is a must, and simple, reliable mobile access is expected. More than two-thirds of American adults have a smartphone, and they conduct much of their business on those devices. When opening an email, customers should be able to register and pay for their activity, renew and update their membership information, and securely access online waivers and releases—all with a few easy clicks. Not only does this provide convenience for customers, but it saves countless staff hours managing the information.
Scheduling—In the beginning, a simple Excel spreadsheet was used to schedule leagues. It was quickly determined to be more time-consuming with a potential for mistakes. Once the Matrix is completed and field availability and the number of teams have been determined, it’s helpful to have scheduling software. But regardless of how teams are scheduled, the most important element is “balance of schedule”—making sure the same teams aren’t playing each other too often, there are not too many double-headers, the most-desired game times are spread out, etc. It’s also helpful if scheduling software integrates with CRM software, so special requests can be considered during the scheduling process. For example, our Winter I session overlaps with the end of the fall outdoor season, so if a team is playing in the end-of-year tournament, we can make accommodations in the schedule.
3. The customer experience is king.
If a customer has a good experience, not only will he or she return, but will tell friends and families. To ensure this, don’t skimp on quality-control efforts. After the schedule is posted, go through the entire process—from the beginning—of registering, paying, and checking the schedule to make sure it is seamless.
- Is the schedule easily accessible and searchable online, including on mobile devices?
- Are all double-headers scheduled back-to-back at the same facility?
- Have customer requests been met to the best of your ability?
- Are the right teams scheduled on the right fields (i.e., younger players play on smaller fields, Premier and Select teams play on large fields)?
- Are payment systems running smoothly?
- Are games scheduled back-to-back to maximize operations?
During The Season
4. Smooth operations lead to smooth sailing.
Anticipating customer needs and minimizing frustration are vital.
Team communication—Encourage parents and players to choose a preferred method of communication—text or email—to receive automatic game reminders, which can be imported directly into a customer's calendar program.
Rescheduling games—It’s up to each team manager to reschedule games. There is a process on the website that allows them to check field availabilities and contact the other team manager to make arrangements. Once the information is confirmed in the system, automatic reminders are sent to team members.
Educate staff to educate customers—Staff members are in a position to make or break the customer experience. It’s important to properly train staff on how to talk with customers, properly answer their questions, and solve problems.
5. Don’t forget to say “Thank you.”
Immediately following the season, thank each player (and parent) for participating, and give them a quick survey along with information on the next season and other programming. Never miss an opportunity to engage with customers!
6. Conduct a thorough post-season review.
It’s important to take a “deep dive” to see what worked, what didn’t, and how to improve. To do this, you need to have access to the data through various reports that should be easily accessible and customizable. These are the types of reports that help the program grow and improve:
- Standings report—to ensure returning teams are paired correctly.
- Accounts receivable report—to help with retention. We determine the “average paid” player count, which helps easily identify teams that need more players and gives individual players an opportunity to join those teams.
- Marketing reports—to analyze which emails were opened and which messages resonated. We also review our “Fall Promo” numbers from the free practices to see the closure rate on signing players up for youth leagues.
- Retention report—to analyze year-to-year and season-to-season comparisons.
Don Crowe is CEO of Arena Sports in Washington and Founder of DASH Platform. For more information, visit http://www.arenasports.net/.