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Spirited games

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Executive Summary
Company. Spirit Promotions Industry. Sports marketing Key. Deliver more than your sponsors expect.

When she was business director for indoor racket sports at Wilson Sporting Goods, Terri Graham first heard of pickleball from a big retail customer.

“At first I was like, what the hell is pickleball?” Graham recalls of a conversation with a Dick's Sporting Goods executive in 2008. Her initial reaction: “I don't need another sport.”

But Graham quickly realized the importance of the game because its popularity was rising rapidly. She quickly created a business plan for Wilson and launched the company's entry into the pickleball arena.

Graham's timing was perfect. Today, 2.5 million people play pickleball at 13,000 courts around the country and some estimate as many as 8 million could be playing by 2018. “This sport is on fire,” says Graham, who has since left Wilson. “We haven't reached the prime by any means.”

Together with former Wilson Sporting Goods colleague Chris Evon, Graham formed Spirit Promotions in 2014 to develop and run sporting events throughout the country. Their first project: The US Open Pickleball Championship in Naples.

Without any track record of organizing such events, the Marco Island-based entrepreneurs landed about $50,000 in local government promotion money, they raised $200,000 from corporate sponsors and scored a national television deal with CBS Sports Network for the first US Open Pickleball Championship. They attracted 835 athletes to play on 48 courts at East Naples Community Park from April 26 to May 1 for $25,000 in prize money.

“It became bigger than we imagined,” Evon says.

All about sponsors
Evon and Graham started discussing the idea of forming Spirit Promotions in 2014 with a plan to launch the US Open Pickleball Championships. They considered other locations for the tournament, including The Villages in Central Florida, but Graham knew Naples well. “My family had been coming down here since I was a kid,” she says.

They connected with Jim Ludwig, a retired engineer who is passionate about pickleball. At the same time, Collier County was embarking on a project to upgrade East Naples Community Park, a project spearheaded by County Commissioner Donna Fiala.

With Fiala's support, the entrepreneurs turned to the Tourist Development Council and the Naples, Marco Island, Everglades Convention and Visitors Bureau for a total of about $50,000 in funding. With more than 800 competitors and thousands of spectators, Evon and Graham pledged to fill hotels with guests for three years. “Each year it goes up if we get heads in beds,” Graham says.

Spirit Promotions committed to fill 500 room nights, but Graham estimates that the actual event generated 2,000 room nights. Only 35% of the participants came from Florida with most traveling to the area from out of state. “The hotels are happy,” Graham says.

“Their enthusiasm was infectious,” says Jack Wert, executive director of the visitors' bureau. “When you do the first of anything, it's special,” he says.

The government funds helped pay for CBS Sports Network to film and broadcast an hour of the tournament on national television. The network has 50 million subscribers and the deal helped attract corporate sponsors such as homebuilder and developer Minto Communities.

“We're running a 30-second commercial spot launching our new active adult brand called Oasis by Minto,” says William Bullock, Minto's senior vice president, which is building the Isles of Collier Preserve near the park.

“Pickleball is a natural fit for us; we do a lot of active adult lifestyle communities,” says Bullock, whose company builds residential communities all over Florida.

In addition to being the lead corporate sponsor, Minto gave a $25,000 grant to Collier County to help with the improvements to the park. “Any time there's an opportunity to bring folks from all over the U.S. to spotlight everything Naples has to offer is exciting for the market,” Bullock says.

In all, Evon and Graham raised $200,000 from private corporate sponsors, ranging from $1,000 to $20,000 each. “We could double it next year,” Graham says, noting that she had to turn down last-minute sponsorship requests as word of the event's size spread.

Although it was their first event, the two women knew what they wanted from a well-organized event because of their long careers with Wilson. “We don't want to put something on that's sub-par,” Graham says.

Sponsors followed them because of their reputation. “A lot of it was relationships that we had,” says Graham. “All the paddle companies came on board.”

The entrepreneurs spared no detail for the sponsors. Corporate sponsor logos were everywhere in the park, in all the promotional literature and even printed on the press passes. Spectators couldn't reach center court without passing through the sponsor tent. Graham's rule: “Make sure the sponsors get more than they bargained for.”

Eye on the prize
Evon and Graham organized the US Open Pickleball Championships without outside investors. “We're both good savers,” says Evon.

Still, they practiced their pitches. “We did a Shark Tank drill with my brother,” Graham says, preparing them for raising sponsorship money.

While they won't know right away whether they made money, their intention was to put on a great event the first year so they can make a profit in subsequent years. “If we lose money the first year, we're prepared for that,” Graham says. “We'd like to break even,” she adds.

From their backgrounds at Wilson Sporting Goods, Evon and Graham knew it would take a significant amount of effort. “I knew it was a big commitment,” Graham says. “All in or all out.”

As for Spirit Promotions, Evon and Graham say they're going to evaluate the success of the event before they decide to expand it to other locations. “Let's see how this plays out,” Graham says. “The first year is the hardest to organize.”

But they hint at big plans in the years ahead. While the US Open Pickleball Championships' $25,000 in prize money sounds generous, it pales compared with the millions paid to tennis players. “We'd love to get this to a six-figure prize money tournament,” Graham says.

What is pickleball?
The game of pickleball originated in Washington state 50 years ago, when Congressman Joel Pritchard invented the game because he and his family couldn't find a badminton shuttlecock.

People play pickleball like tennis on a court divided by a net, but it requires less running and strain on the joints because it has the smaller dimensions of a badminton court. Players use wooden paddles that are slightly bigger than a ping-pong paddle and they use a perforated plastic ball that's like a Wiffle ball.

The smaller size of the court and lighter equipment makes it a popular sport for active older people. Although younger people are picking up the game, 68% of players are older than 60.
Pickleball is one of the fastest-growing sports in the nation. Estimates from the USA Pickleball Association pegs the number of players at 2.5 million who play on 13,000 courts across the country.


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