By Ronnie Wendt

Organizing a regional, national or even international sports event is no small feat. It requires meticulous planning, attention to detail and a deep understanding of the needs and expectations of participants and spectators alike.

Whether you are a veteran planner or a first-timer, there are a few things to keep in mind as you plan athletic events. Focusing on the essentials will ensure a team event scores big with fans and players.

1. Location, Location, Location

The first thing event planners must consider is location.

Here, site tours matter. Visiting a venue before booking ensures you pick one that is easily accessible with ample parking, and room for teams and fans, and all their needs.

“Sports directors need to see the venue to know for certain if it’s going to work for their event — every venue is unique,” says Matt Ten Haken, director of sports marketing for the Fox Cities Convention & Visitors Bureau in northeast Wisconsin.

He explains planners have a choice of venues across the Midwest, and in the cities they choose. For instance, Fox Cities has venues across the region for soccer, baseball, softball, basketball, volleyball and hockey.

Its premier facilities include the Community First Champion Center, offering eight hardwood basketball courts, 13 volleyball courts and two ice rinks with seating; the Neuroscience Group Field, home of the Timber Rattlers, a minor league baseball team, which opens its field to outdoor youth sporting events; the Fox Cities Exhibition Center; and the Scheels USA Youth Sports Complex.

Each of these locations might work well, but which one gets selected depends on the sport and the group’s unique needs, according to Ten Haken.

“Every event planner wants some- thing special for their event — they want to stand out,” he says. “The initial conversations about the facility’s specifications and community itself typically leads to a site tour so they can confirm that what they’ve been told is real and what’s in it for their events.”

The UW Health Sports Factory is lauded as a premier sports facility in Rockford, Ill. It offers eight basketball courts that can transition into 16 volleyball courts or 12 pickleball courts. The facility’s been used for everything from basketball tournaments to rugby, volleyball and cheer competitions.

Even with this flexibility, Danielle Potter, superintendent of operations for the Rockford Parks District, underscores the need for a site tour. “Walkthroughs are so important,” she says, explaining they help plan everything from where to put the player registration table to coach and referee accommodations to pedestrian flow within the building.

Kansas City has long been recognized as one of the top 10 cities for sports. The metro area offers award-winning professional sports stadiums, including premier soccer facilities, baseball and softball fields, basketball stadiums and modern, functional arenas. But even with this impressive lineup, Nathan Hermiston, senior vice president of convention sales and services for Visit KC, recommends a site visit before booking a sports event. A visit to the area and its facilities “makes sure the process starts out on the right foot,” he says. “Event planners have choices on where to go. We want to make sure teams have a good experience in the city and with the tournament, which makes it more likely they will return to in the future.”

2. Pay Attention to Parking

When families travel to attend a tournament, pre-event jitters abound. The last thing they need is to be thinking about parking, says Potter.

“I don’t care where you go, parking is always a challenge,” she says, noting the UW Health Sports Factory solves parking woes with two parking lots offering 400 stalls and a partnership to use a parking lot across the street for overflow vehicles.

With parking considerations, Ten Haken recommends asking the following questions:

  • Is there ample parking for the event?
  • Are the parking stalls paved?
  • Are the parking lots well lit?
  • Will road construction be an issue?

“We make sure we have ample parking and provide clear directions to all participants to eliminate parking concerns,” he says.

Potter stresses the need for ample signage. “Whenever one of our lots gets full, we put out a sign and direct them to where they can park,” she says. “We also explain our parking system in a FAQ we give to event directors, so they know the layout of the facility and the parking available.”

3. Plan Early

Sporting events picked up in popularity as the nation emerged from its pandemic cocoon. As that happened, planners began to schedule events earlier, according to Hermiston. Where it was once OK to plan just six months out, he stresses it’s now necessary to do so at least a year out.

“If you’re looking to host a tournament in Kansas City, you’re probably going to want to think about that at least 15 months out,” he says. “A lot of times our availability will be limited if you don’t do that, even with our large quantity and variety of venues.”

Marketing an event also must start earlier, adds Ten Haken. “In order to have a great event, you need great competition,” he explains. “Often, I see planners promote events a little too late. The best event directors are thinking about their dates for next year, right after their event is done, and start promoting those events at least nine months in advance. This affords an opportunity for as many teams and athletes to participate as possible.”

He adds that early planning also gives planners time to secure hotel rooms and possibly sponsor support. Many CVBs, he adds, will distribute event posters and promote events on social media, local radio and TV.

4. Watch for Cost Savings

Many CVBs will help defray costs for returning event customers and large tournaments.

But it depends on event size and commitment.

“How many tournaments are you going to offer? Will you be coming back year after year? Is your event very large? How many hotel rooms will you need?” asks Potter. “If repeat business and many people are possible, we might offer a discount through the CVB or even a sponsorship or marketing dollars to promote the event.

We understand the economics and how the tourism dollars will impact our communities. That far outweighs the discount.”

Potter cautions discounts are typically not available through sports venues but through CVBs or sports commissions. She explains an event venue’s job is to gain business, keep it and grow it. The CVB’s job is to attract tourism to the community. In Rockford, the CVB may provide welcome baskets and marketing dollars, and connect groups with discounts for restaurants and after-hours entertainment. She says. “We want everyone to feel like they are valued and important.”

Getting sponsorships and discounts is possible when event planners really know their group, according to Potter. She explains this includes knowing how many people are coming and where they are coming from. This information helps CVBs determine economic impact and value-added support.

Fox Cities matches each event planner with a sports marketing manager who works with them to plan out accommodations, media and vendor assistance. “We offer this at no charge and have access to grant dollars that can support big events that deliver a significant economic impact,” Ten Haken says.

Financial support is always driven by size and scale, adds Hermiston. “How many teams are coming in? Is this a national, regional or local tournament? While we love local tournaments, that impacts the multiplier effect of hotels and restaurants,” he says. “If we know there will be 20 teams coming from out of town, that changes the dynamic and we can do more to underwrite some expenses or providing some discounts.”

Visit KC also partners with hospitality groups and hotels that may offer sponsorships or discounts too. “Chicken N Pickle, for example, does an amazing job of marketing to tournaments,” he says. “They are such a group and family-friendly restaurant, and they do an amazing job of outreach and customizing offers and sponsorships to groups. Through these kinds of partnerships,

5. Contract Costs

Not every venue offers the same contract, so it’s important to pay attention to contract costs, Potter explains.

UW Health Sports Factory has a set cost per hour based on the number of courts a group requires. But another venue may charge a rental fee for athletic courts, a fee to use locker rooms or meeting rooms, and fees for cleaning.

“We embed our costs into our upfront fees,” she says. “But not everyone does that. This helps planners know all of their costs upfront, so there are no surprises later.”

UW Health Sports Factory has created a FAQ to ensure everyone knows what’s included and expected. The FAQ includes info on facility layout, parking, restaurants and concessions, a code of conduct and insurance requirements.

“Every vendor has to carry insurance to hold a tournament at our facility,” she says. “We have a FAQ that explains all of this, so nothing is unexpected.”

6. Know Your Event

Events succeed when planners know exactly what they need, adds Hermiston. Knowing the size of the group and where they are coming from helps the community deliver the best experience possible, Hermiston explains.

“We work with hotels and hospitality partners to make sure they know what’s going on and are best positioned to meet an event’s needs,” Hermiston says.

He explains every tournament has a unique schedule. Sometimes they have morning and evening sessions, sometimes games go all day and end at dinner time. “We make sure that gets communicated to our hotel and restaurant partners so they can make sure tournament attendees are taken care of,” he says. “They need to know if they must open up early or stay late and be prepared to handle the numbers of people expected. A hotel, for example, might need to be prepared for early and late check-ins, and have their complimentary breakfast start earlier than usual.”

A solid estimate for lodging also helps limit worries for travelers, who need to find a place to stay nearby, Ten Haken adds.

Fox Cities has over 3,600 hotel rooms at a variety of different price points. Like most CVBs, Fox Cities CVB works with event planners to help them reserve room blocks and compile booking information for visiting teams and families. “There is no charge for this,” he says.

The number of those expected in attendance at actual games also matters, says Potter, who explains the UW Health Sports Factory has a restaurant and concessions on site. “We need to be prepared for that and have the capacity to accommodate them,” she says. “We also work with them to provide a way-finding map of restaurants in the area because not everyone is going to eat at our facility.”

Organizing a sporting event requires careful planning, attention to detail and a deep understanding of the needs and expectations for all involved. Thinking about these key elements can help you plan a successful and memorable tournament that is a winner for all.

Ronnie Wendt is a freelance writer based in northern Wisconsin.