How the Big South National Qualifier Got So Big

Big South National Qualifier|Big South National Qualifier
This week’s Big South National Qualifier in Atlanta is the country’s biggest single-weekend volleyball tournament. It’s bigger than usual this year because the event won’t occur over Easter weekend, as happens occasionally. Without the holiday in play, a record number of teams will compete. While tournament director Lauri Dagostino couldn’t say yes to every one, 1,404 of the 1,521 squads that applied were registered. In total, 15,600 girls ages 8 to 18 will fill 11 of the Georgia World Congress Center’s 12 exhibit halls. Here, we look at how a “mom-and-pop” event that started in Tampa evolved into a massive tournament in Atlanta.

Growing Up

Dagostino and her husband, Randy, launched a single club volleyball tournament 27 years ago in Tampa. Dagostino admits she didn’t think of the event as a major economic driver until much later, and long after the event became the Big South. Twelve years ago, the Dagostinos knew they’d outgrown Tampa Convention Center and were prepared to move north—to Orlando. That is, until a persistent salesperson from the Atlanta CVB wouldn’t take the hint when the tournament organizers wouldn’t take his calls. In hindsight, Dagostino is glad she finally talked to Jeremy Rubin.

Big South Moves

Among Rubin’s biggest gets as sales manager at the Atlanta CVB for more than a decade: the SEC Football Championship, the 2003 NBA All-Star Game, the 2011 WrestleMania and two Final Fours. But none of those prestigious events may have the lasting power of the annual Big South. Rubin guessed that would be the case. He saw volleyball on the rise and reasoned volleyball parents are generally affluent and likely to spend significant dollars in town. So he pooled together Atlanta’s hotels and Georgia World Congress Center to make an offer the Dagostinos couldn’t refuse.

Joining Forces

The tables were turned when Rubin decided to move on from the CVB. “We couldn’t lose him,” says Dagostino. In February 2011, Rubin went to work with the Dagostinos as the first full-time employee at Tournament Magic as vice president of business development. Now in charge of Synergies21, an events company he founded in 2014, Rubin still works with the Dagostinos on several national volleyball events. Among them: Capitol Hill Volleyball Classic in Washington, D.C., Jersey Surfside Festival in Atlantic City and Mizuno Boston Volleyball Festival.

Group Effort

Putting together 191 courts over 11 exhibit halls is a lot of work. Dagostino saw it as an opportunity to work with their home away from home. Six Atlanta-based high school football teams helped with the setup this year. Why football? “It’s not a men’s or women’s thing; it’s the amount of players,” says Dagostino. Football teams have rosters three or four times bigger than volleyball teams. The hard work is rewarded as part of the tournament’s revenue goes toward the participating schools. In addition to the fundraising aspect, it is also a good teambuilding activity.

A Huge Net

Determining the Big South’s economic impact on Atlanta is difficult. DMAI changed the formula for its event impact calculator, which Dagostino and Rubin think shortchanged their event. While they work to formulate a more accurate number, suffice it to say the tournament is massive. As proof, the tournament takes over the 1.2 million-sq.-ft. facility for a week when setup is factored in. On peak, it will generate more than 10,000 hotel room nights using 98 properties in the Greater Atlanta area. More than 60,000 people will attend over the tournament’s three days of action. Of note to the players: More than 300 college coaches are present for scouting and recruiting purposes.

Expansion Plans

Dagostino says Big South’s niche is being the biggest volleyball event held over a weekend. While other tournaments are spread out over two weekends, Dagostino is not keen on that idea. She notes the extra travel time and inconvenience for the teams—some coming from Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands—and officials. That said, Big South will make the switch for one year in 2019 when Atlanta hosts the Super Bowl. The mega-event in early February has a ripple effect throughout the city’s events calendar, Dagostino explains. In order to make room for all the teams, a second weekend will be required.

Volleyball’s Future

There is no slowing volleyball’s incredible growth on the girls’ side, Dagostino says. She notes the sport tends to pick up athletes who may burn out on soccer and gymnastics at an early age. The rise in beach volleyball will only add to the indoor game’s attraction during winter months, Dagostino says. As for Big South, because it is a qualifier for USA Volleyball’s national championship, it will always be a big draw.