By David Willingham
US Sports Camps
San Rafael, Calif.
Number of camps: 480
Sports offered: Tennis, golf, soccer, basketball, lacrosse, volleyball, field hockey, softball, baseball, swimming, running, crew, ice hockey, etc.
Typical session length: Five or six days
Average cost per session: $600 resident-camp fee
Tennis anyone? That's the question a group of people, including a tennis shoe merchant, asked themselves amid the 1970s tennis boom.
It started as Tennis America, a small business that operated multi-site tennis camps, then eventually flourished into a valuable product in the summer camping market.
Consequently, investors considered the concept of children's sports camping, conveniently located on college campuses, led by college coaches.
Getting the Ball Rolling
"We started small with two or three sites in the mid-'70s, concentrated on those and grew slowly, while our emphasis was entirely tennis," says Charlie Hoeveler. "I was doing this part-time for 10 years," reflecting on his early days of distributing athletic shoes and leading camps.
After a decade of service, he became the full-time Chief Executive Operator of US Sports Camps and began to grow the organization using other sports such as golf and basketball.
Then, swooshing down in 1993, Nike established a licensing agreement with USSC that changed the look and revised its reputation. The Nike logo can be found on everything from printed materials, approved promotions, to the apparel worn at camp. The summer weeklong experience became branded as Nike Tennis Camps.
Hoeveler explains, "Nike likes the fact that we are building young athletes, and these young athletes are identified with Nike. It's grassroots marketing as it (Nike) gets close to a market segment of children who are trying to improve at camp."
Within the last decade, USSC became even bigger by merging with existing sports organizations or by acquiring other successful camps.
Many USSC camps were actually started by someone else who was unable to keep it running. In some cases, the college hosting these programs would ask USSC to take it over.
Armed with a Nike sponsorship, investment capital, and experienced and passionate leadership, USSC has expanded to become America's largest sports camp network offering over a dozen different sports in 480 camps serving 57,000 participants in 47 states.
Defining the Experience
A camp, as defined by USSC, equals one sport at one location with one head coach/director, each being discreet and independent. For instance, there are 60 tennis camps, 100 golf camps, 35 volleyball camps, 20 soccer camps -- all offered, owned and operated by USSC.
"We are primarily a resident sports camp organization," replied Hoeveler when asked about finding facilities for hundreds of camps. "We contract with mostly college campuses and some private boarding schools."
For one week the campers are able to live the university experience by staying in the college dormitories, eating in the campus cafeteria, and utilizing the school's athletic facilities. And to make the event all embracing, the college coach is the camp director.
The college coach turned summer camp director is responsible for operating the camp program as a partner of USSC and shares revenue brought in by the program. A typical coach may earn $5,000-$7,000 a week during their summer off-season.
The "secret" to maximizing profits has been to attract very good Directors and pay them very well as partners sharing the income.
Mathematically, as a general example, the average price per camp is $600. The director gets one third, $200, and has to pay his/her staff $100 per camper. So the director nets $100 per camper at an average of 50 campers per week. Thus, the total is $5,000 per week netted by the director. Not bad, considering the average coach may direct two to four weeks of camp.
Hoeveler adds, "With our partners, we try to build revenue together. They are responsible for staffing and running the camp; we are responsible for all the marketing and administrative things." This includes promotions, advertising, registration processing, insurance, camper workbooks and T shirts, tax filing and payroll.
Moreover, the camp director has the discretion of planning their particular program. And because of the true business partnership arrangement, each director has free rein when hiring and negotiating summer staff salaries.
The key to marketing success is quality and continuity as camps grow and prosper by having repeat customers and very good word-of-mouth advertising. Happy campers mean more returning campers and camper referrals.
USSC commits 8 percent of revenue or $2 million a year to advertising and marketing. This substantial amount of funds pays for high quality brochures, heavy direct mail, print advertising and a well promoted, efficient Web site.
All in all, the key is good sites and good directors staying together over many years.
First-year instructors, assistant coaches, head counselors and assistant directors all are recruited, trained and managed by the college coach. The salary profiles tend to be similar across the sports.
"The directors are very motivated because of the nature of the relationship; these are college coaches that really take their camps seriously," says Hoeveler. "We've created an open ended economic opportunity and they have a sense of ownership."
The bond between USSC and the college coach/director/partner is a quality control dream. The coaches do an amazingly good job because the camp reflects upon them and the image of their college. He adds, "They know how to organize, they know how to run camps, they know how to teach, and they are really motivated to run a good camp."
And the product, which is the overall camp experience, is evaluated by an on-line exit survey given to parents who continue to give an overwhelmingly positive response to the programs year after year.
There have been very few instances when troubleshooting was necessary and USSC staff had to take over a particular camp. After all, business is business, and from a business standpoint, each camp is a profit or loss center.
Thus, strict accounting is kept on revenue and expenses, and the partners are compensated accordingly. All financial matters are done in-house at USSC. Hoeveler states, "With the press of a button, we can get a complete up to date ledger of any one of our camps instantaneously."
How it Fits
Although there is no set curriculum from one camp to the next, USSC provides some rough guidelines to which all camps must adhere.
For example, in the tennis camps, a minimum of 30 hours of tennis instruction is required for each six-day, five-night week of camp. Another guideline is to maintain a staff ratio of 1-5, as each staffer doubles as camp counselor and sports instructor.
Also, an important imperative is to organize fun activities outside the realm of the sports program.
Well organized, after sport time, fun activities are a big part of the camp experience. Some activities include a camp dance with a DJ, talent show, Casino night, movies, a trip off campus to an amusement park, a beach, or attending a professional sporting event.
Other standards include the maximum number of kids on the playing field at one time, a certain amount of hours of instruction, time allotted on the courts, and the grouping of kids by age and/or skill levels.
"Within those guidelines, our coach/partners have quite a bit of discretion on how they teach and how they structure the teaching program," points out Hoeveler.
Due to differing staff ratios and facility costs, the price for each resident camp fluctuates from $500-$900, depending upon the sport, with golf being the highest and baseball the lowest. Team sports may require less staff, while individual sports need more staff per camper to provide the best coaching.
A typical week in the life of a USSC/Nike camper would begin on a Sunday afternoon with orientation, groupings, and evaluations, followed by five full days of camp, with each day consisting of morning fundamental drills and instructions, afternoon games and competitions, totaling five hours. While player improvement is the ultimate goal, team matches and assigned games keep the week exciting.
Fostering continuity is a critical conviction of USSC. Starting a new camp requires a committed coach and a location that would strengthen with stability and steadiness. USSC camps are not like a franchise. No financial investment is required from the coach/partners.
The coach becomes a partner by committing to build a summer sports camp program with excellence and quality. Keeping a director, a facility, and the management (USSC) together for a long period of time is important for the camp's long-term success. From there, the USSC camps grow by word of mouth and repeat business.
Even though there is turnover in the college coaching ranks, the university loves the visibility and professionalism of the program (and the revenue from renting their facilities), so it encourages new coaches to continue the Nike camp.
Administratively speaking, operating the country's largest multi-site sports camp network requires advanced skills. Located in northern California, the home office is comprised of 22 core staff members including ten sports managers and four administrators.
With the title of sports manager comes a job description that includes developing and expanding a network of camps, marketing and promoting their camps, hiring and training coaches, relating to, and coordinating and communicating with the directors in their respective sport.
With less than two dozen staff members facilitating 450 camps and directors, who hire multiple staff and recruit multitude of campers, communication structures are the keys to success.
When elaborating about his organizational communication structure, Hoeveler points to his more than adequate streamlined staff who are learning to master the technological tricks of the trade.
"The Internet has really changed our business from a marketing point of view, from a registration point of view, and from a communication point of view," he says, "In the old days, pre-Internet, there would be a zillion phone calls from people calling to register."
For instance, several years ago, with 20,000 campers, there would be nearly 80,000 phone inquiries. In 2004, because of the information available through the Web site, the number of phone calls dropped to 38,000, while registering more than twice as many campers at 43,000.
In addition, only 50 percent of registrations are taken by phone, 10 percent with a hard-copy mail or fax, and the rest are electronic, with 90 percent of the fees collected by credit card.
The computer age and e-mail has also helped the USSC staff convey updates, additions, deletions and other changes to the camp director as camp is starting.
Hundreds of important documents that used to be mailed overnight, or information that had to be exchanged over the phone can now be uploaded directly to a coach's computer through a password protected website.
The director can login and print out all the registration information only hours before camp begins.
"We continue to really push, push, push on technology to make things more efficient and easier for our directors, our customers, and us," emphasizes Hoeveler as he comments on USSC's email confirmation after people register online. "It's really been fun, and has made us much more productive. This is a fun business doing its best to build young athletes."
David Willingham, a.k.a., Willy Dee, is a freelance writer who lives in Kerrville, Texas. He has extensive experience as a youth camp director, ministry consultant, and area network coordinator.