Cloudy
46°
Cloudy
Hi 50° | Lo 34°

Big Payoff From Youth Sports

Jeff Long, Founder and President, Pattison Sports Group poses for a portrait at his company complex in Thornton, Pa. (Akira Suwa/Staff Photographer/MCT)

Jeff Long, Founder and President, Pattison Sports Group poses for a portrait at his company complex in Thornton, Pa. (Akira Suwa/Staff Photographer/MCT)

Jeff Long could torture himself with “what ifs.”

Especially: What if that financial backer had come through with the $250,000 Long needed to sustain his ticket-outsourcing business for college sports events until critical mass was achieved?

But after that potential investor bailed, a fortuitous thing happened to Long. A neighbor convinced him to come watch his son play for in a high school lacrosse playoff game.

Long couldn’t believe what he saw that day in suburban Philadelphia in spring 2008: about 3,000 spectators, and nary a sponsor or vendor.

“I said, ‘There’s money to be made here,’ ” recalled Long, who was director of corporate partnerships for the Philadelphia Eagles until fall 2008 and, before that, assistant commissioner for the Atlantic Ten Conference, in charge of sponsorships. “I said to my neighbor, ‘I’m going to own this event next year.’ ”

He would do much more than that, steering his Pattison Sports Group away from the ticket business and into organizing, hosting, and marketing youth sports events across the country.

Based in a renovated carriage house, the firm has seven employees and nearly $1 million in revenue from two financially separate endeavors.

The Victory Event Series is the for-profit venture, which this year will include nine lacrosse tournaments in five states involving more than 43,000 participants, including athletes and spectators.

Healthy Kids Running Series is a nonprofit program. Started in fall 2009 with 150 runners, Healthy Kids will involve about 7,000 runners in 61 towns in 20 states this fall, with local organizers — businesses, community groups, and individuals — operating the five-week programs like franchises, though there is no franchise fee.

Demand grew too much for Long and his staff to handle alone, he said. Proceeds from registration fees and sponsorships are split between his organization and race coordinators.

“We’re now at a critical mass point to be attractive to national partners,” he said, citing New Balance among them.

Giant Food Stores sponsored races in 19 locations in Pennsylvania and Virginia in the spring, said the company’s marketing manager, Serena Corrigan.

But it’s the lacrosse tournaments that have the real earnings potential and are the cornerstone of Pattison Sports Group, said Long.

As he vowed at that 2008 lacrosse championship, Pattison Sports Group would organize the Inter-Ac Invitational lacrosse tournament the next year. It attracted such high-profile sponsors as Toyota and the Air Force, plus local businesses, paying $500 to $5,000 for visibility at an event with high-income audiences.

“When we were bringing those kind of sponsors into the lacrosse space, that was opening people’s eyes,” Long said. Soon, other tournaments were asking for help in securing sponsors.

“That’s when we said, ‘Why are we doing this for everybody else? Why don’t we do this for ourselves?’ ”

In addition to lining up sponsors, Pattison Sports Group now also handles registration, merchandising, and food concessions. The goal is to make attending a tournament the best experience it can be.

No disrespect to booster clubs and other volunteers, said Scott Ely, Pattison’s vice president of operations, but “in youth sports, people are willing to pay for a service that’s professional in attitude.”

That’s because the returns can be tremendous, said Ed Voss, athletic superintendent for the city of Plano, Texas. Pattison’s Victory Event Series included the Texas Draw lacrosse tournament there in June the last three years, which had an economic impact just in 2014 of $3.4 million, according to Plano Convention and Visitors Bureau. Pattison will add the Cowboy Cup in Plano in November.

“We do these things for a couple of reasons: One is business vitality within our community — the impact of people traveling here, staying in our hotels, eating in our restaurants,” Voss said. “Plano is kind of getting a name out there for doing those events and doing them well, and Pattison is a big part of it.”

The challenge now for Pattison is keeping ahead of new competitors — and keeping costs in check amid rising facilities fees.

“In a perfect world, I’d love to see us own our own facility,” Long said. “Then you can control your destiny.”

In the meantime, Pattison will explore growth by expanding into other sports — basketball, for starters.

As for that ticket business?

“I’m glad it didn’t work out,” Long said, “but I often think back and think what it could have been.”