Q&A: David Stephens, PrimeTime Sports

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When he started PrimeTime Sports in 2000, David Stephens left a successful 21-year law career for what he thought was the youth athletics business. But that’s not exactly the way the ball has bounced. What he really got into was event management. The company has grown from staging youth basketball tournaments in Texas to adding football, soccer and adult softball tournaments, an annual exposition and a presence in 20 states. And now it’s covering even more bases, providing event management and marketing for third parties. During 2012, PrimeTime Sports will produce about 180 events, most of which are turnkey. Here’s how CEO Stephens plans to be “the best game in town”—the company’s tagline—in every host city. Why did you start PrimeTime? I was involved with coaching and traveling to tournaments with my youngest son when he was playing high school basketball. We went to a lot of bad tournaments where the event was not on a level that it should have been. I felt there was a business opportunity to [produce events with] sound business principles such as being customer-service driven, using systems and processes to be efficient and effective, and giving value for price. It was a bit of a quantum leap to go from practicing law to being an event provider, but with the support of family and our great staff, it was the right decision, and I have never regretted it. How have you seen the market change in the last 13 years? There has been a proliferation of providers. When we first started, it was a $5 billion industry that was almost exclusively executed by weekend fundraisers or booster clubs, or a mom-and-pop event that happened once a year. Beyond that, there were a couple national governing bodies with a much different business model than ours. But now, there are a lot of people trying to do what we do. I would guess for every one event that happened back then, there are probably 100 now.   [caption id="attachment_685" align="alignleft" width="300"]fball3 PrimeTime began planning basketball events in Texas, but it has since expanded into football as well as softball and volleyball.[/caption] How has your business evolved? [Thirteen] years ago, we didn’t have a website. Three or four years into it, we had online registration, which was a big differentiator for us then. Now there’s an expectation that everyone has that. Currently, there’s the impact of social media, which we work on daily. What role does social media play in your events? Social media is one of the top three priorities on my project list. We’re on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, and we try to integrate them with our website. We have a number of social media initiatives we’re working on now to make events more interactive and immediate, whether it is posting the scores, stats or videos. Video has a big role in where we’re trying to go, whether it is produced by us, or providing a platform where teams can post videos. For the last two years, we’ve had live streaming of 150 games during our national basketball championships. I see a day when most, if not all, of the events will be live-streamed. What is the participant age range in your events? Basketball is grades 3 to 12, and football is grades 6 to 10. Soccer is a little different in that it’s ages 8 to 10 years old. And softball is for adults. What impact do you see your business making in kids’ lives? I believe that competitive athletics is a great place to learn about hard work, dedication and putting team before self. And that’s important because, for example, if I go to hire someone, I’m not as concerned with where they went to school and what their GPA was. I want to know if they’re prepared to work hard, if they’re committed, if they can make sacrifices and if they are willing to put team before self. There was a time when those lessons might have been learned at home, school or in a faith-based setting, but that’s not always the case today. I believe if you play a minute of college or high school sports, you’re going to have a competitive advantage and build a skill set that will help you be a more productive adult. As CEO, what is your day-to-day role? With 10 full-time employees, we’re an organization in which everyone does what needs to be done and takes on a lot of different responsibilities. Most of my time is focused on three areas: strategy—including products and processes—marketing decision-making and making my team more effective. A lot of my job is making sure my staff has the resources, opportunities and challenges to stay engaged and get done what we’re trying to accomplish. [caption id="attachment_682" align="alignright" width="300"]PrimeTime Sports plans many of the best basketball tournaments in the state of Texas. PrimeTime Sports plans many of the best basketball tournaments in the state of Texas.[/caption] How does a small staff manage more than 150 events on 48 weekends a year in up to 20 states? I’ve got a great team, and I’d put them up against anybody. But obviously, 10 people cannot manage 150 events by themselves. We’ve invested in custom entry-management and scheduling systems that create efficiencies for us internally. Those help us market the events, drive the participation, capture the entries, schedule the games and get everything ready for the events. We also have a big pool of seasonal and part-time contract workers. We employ coaches, officials and young people in a variety of roles depending upon the market and the event. That pool of people can fluctuate between 40 and 50 in the slow season, or approach 200 when we get busy. The challenge within is to identify people that share our organizational values, and then get them the training they need to execute the event and be able to create the experience we’re committed to providing. How do you provide consistency in so many events and regions? I have committed to the turnkey operation because it allows me to offer consistency in delivery. I want my tournaments in Austin, Texas, Bentonville, Ark., and Chicago to look alike. It’s not a franchise, but it’s kind of a franchise model. We have our systems, and we find people locally to help us execute them. If I’m doing a new event in Louisville, Ky., I’ll send one of my best on-site managers from our home base in Dallas to do that event for the first two or three times. I want that person to demonstrate our brand and how it’s different, but I also want them to find the person in Louisville who they can develop and train and who will manage that event going forward. What distinguishes your events in a crowded market? One of the fundamental values we bring is a strong on-site presence and people who can have an impact, make a decision and effect change. It’s real simple, too. All of our site directors wear a red shirt. They follow our mantra: Ask, listen, solve. If you have a problem or a question at one of our events, you know to go to the person in the red shirt. One of my favorite anecdotes is from a couple years ago. We got a call from someone saying they were at one of our events, and it was the worst ever. The officials were bad, and they couldn’t find a red shirt anywhere. They got passed to our director of basketball, and told him the same story, ending with, “And we traveled all the way to Denton for this.” To which Chris [Hoover] responded, “We don’t have a tournament in Denton.” And why that was important was that we had created an expectation that someone in a red shirt would take care of problems—not just for our tournament, but for all tournaments. What is your role on-site during events? In the early years, I was the site manager at every event, but with the business growing so much, I’m not on-site as much as I used to be. I still get to events at least a couple times a month, but it’s more of a walk-through or meet-and-greet to express my appreciation to the teams, staff and participants. I don’t actually manage the events. Where that does change, however, is at our national championships. During championships, I actually [have an] office on-site at one of the multi-court facilities so I can interact with as many teams and on-site workers as I can. During the course of the event, I try to get to as many sites as I can to make sure we’re providing the experience we want to create. How is your next national basketball championship going to be different? The national basketball championship is our signature event. Twelve years ago, we had the first one in Kansas City, Mo., with 46 teams. Last year, we had 684 teams, which is the biggest event we’ve done to date. It’s the largest youth basketball championship in the country. This year, we’ve booked enough space to have 800 teams. How it’s changing is the NCAA-certified component is much bigger than it used to be. We had almost 60 college coaches last year observing the older players in their divisions, and I expect those numbers to double this year. [caption id="attachment_684" align="alignleft" width="199"]The youth sports industry has exploded since PrimeTime Sports was founded. The youth sports industry has exploded since PrimeTime Sports was founded.[/caption] What does the Play Hard, Live Well Youth Sports Expo add to the national championship? We added the expo a year ago as a separate event, although it’s connected to the national championship in that it’s at the same time. We had more than 50 vendors with products of interest to young athletes and their parents. We had [Basketball Hall of Fame member and Olympian] Nancy Lieberman and [former NBA player and coach] John Lucas as speakers. We had the Dallas Mavericks drum line. It’s an event I planned for more than five years, and it exceeded my expectations. It was a full day of interactive fun and activities, and the young people absolutely loved it. This year, we’ve added to it, and I think it’s going to be a great event. Do you ever have time to just be a fan? I got into this because I love basketball, but I watch less than I did before. But that being said, I really do enjoy it. This has been fun for me to do, and it provides competition. I can no longer compete on the basketball floor, but I love competing with other providers and companies. We’ve talked basketball a lot, but you also manage football, soccer and softball events. What’s next? PrimeTime Sports was originally about basketball, but each of those sports is a key component. The first sport we added was seven-on-seven football. We have about 15 football events a year, and we have our tournament of champions each year in College Station, Texas, which is the largest seven-on-seven football tournament in the country. We added soccer next, which has such strong demographics. We have 217 leagues and about 25 soccer tournaments a year. The adult softball is new, and we do it as an outsourced event for the city of Farmer’s Branch, Texas. And we always are looking for other sports. I’d love to do volleyball and lacrosse. But we have to look at each sport and its different challenges. The cultures, logistics and expectations are all different. Before we go into a new market, we have to learn it and evaluate it and figure out if it is a place for us to be. In what other ways is your business growing? We can operate and execute events with the best of them, but tournaments are not going to be enough to reach the level of growth and impact on the sports world I want us to have. So while at the core we’re still an operating company, we’re also becoming a marketing platform in print, Web and social media. For sponsors, advertisers and anyone looking to market their sports-related products and services to young athletes and their parents, we offer everything from on-site execution with product giveaways and signage to being part of our newsletters to taking part in our Expo. With your third-party event management, do you do stand-alone events or incorporate them into your own events? Both. It’s on a case-by-case basis. We’ve done some PrimeTime Sports-managed events with our logo, some charitable events that we provided operational or marketing support for, some facility management and some consulting. We’ve executed parts of third-party events in some cases and done turnkey events for others. I think that’s going to be a growth area because we have developed a back room—the trained people and technology—and we can share that with people so they don’t have to go make a hefty investment in it to pull off the experience they want. What have you learned from managing other people’s events? It affirms the same basic principles we’ve applied, but when we apply our systems and processes to someone else’s events, it provides a fresh outlook. Sometimes we get into the routine with our own events because we’re so used to doing them, and sharing with others affirms why our systems are of value. [caption id="attachment_683" align="alignright" width="300"]7 on 7 football has exploded in Texas (and the nation) and PrimeTime Sports has tapped into that market. 7 on 7 football has exploded in Texas (and the nation) and PrimeTime Sports has tapped into that market.[/caption] What inspires you to do your job? I love to compete, I love my job and I’ve got 10 outstanding staff members on my team. I want them to grow, be fulfilled in their job and believe they’re working with the best game in town. How do you inspire your team? We talk every day about what we do and why we do it. We have our organizational values: CHAMPS, which is Customer-service driven, Have ability and integrity, be Active listeners, Make a difference, be Problem-solvers and Serve each other. We literally talk about those values every day. We also spend a lot of time talking as a team about decision-making and steps for success. Where do you see PrimeTime Sports in 10 years? I couldn’t have foreseen where we’re at today 10 years ago. If I gave a 10-year projection, it’s probably going to happen in two-and-a-half years. That being said, I want PrimeTime Sports to be a national organization. We are a very strong regional organization and one of the best sports event providers you can find. There is not a true national youth sports provider, other than possibly AAU (Amateur Athletics Union, a nonprofit), but that’s such a totally different model than anything else. For our model, that national presence doesn’t exist. I want that to be us. And I also want to do not only competition, but also a lot more training and camps, which is something we’ve done a couple times recently. The Stats Biggest event ever planned: 2012 National Basketball Championship Favorite destination: Dallas is our hometown, and all our partners here have been great to us. Way to relax after an event: Spend time with family Favorite planning tool/resource: My Blackberry, which is always within arm’s reach. Best advice for a fellow planner: Stay flexible and communicate well with both partners and staff. Favorite music: Classic rock Favorite book: “Sense of Urgency” by John Kotter Favorite movie: Recently, “Moneyball,” but my all-time favorites are “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and “The Graduate.” Favorite quote/inspiration: “Leap, and the net will appear” – John Burroughs Heroes: My parents