Sean Saadeh, Jason Clement, Mercedes Miller, Kelli Yeloushan, Roy Englebrecht.
Dominos, amateur boxing, cheerleading, slap fighting and, of course, the suddenly ubiquitous Pickleball were all non-traditional events invoked during the VenuesNow Conference’s panel titled “Beyond The Big Four: Alt Sports As A Premium.”
The dynamic and informative session featured a diverse slate of venue operators and promoters who discussed various non-traditional events that can provide revenue streams for buildings outside of traditional sporting events and concerts—especially for smaller cap buildings, but not at all exclusively.
“As a booker, I’m excited about this panel because what excites me about booking is creating new events,” said the panel’s moderator Sean Saadeh EVP, Entertainment, at Newark, NJ’s Prudential Center. His building, which has a 16,755 cap and operates under the Harris Blitzer Sports and Ent., has hosted PBC and Top Rank Boxing, eSports, collegiate sports and 3ICE, all of which Saadeh said helps to diversify programming, build the venue brand and bring something new to the community.
Roy Englebrecht, CEO of SOCA Fights, who promotes boxing and mixed martial arts and has been called “The King of Minor League Fighting,” was wildly energetic and evoked an old school boxing promoter’s hyped-up disposition. During his own introduction, which he gae while walking in the front of the stage, he explained how he first brought fighting to larger buildings when he addressed the International Associating of Venue Managers (IAVM) conference in 1999 at the Staples Center.
“I said, ‘This template will work for arenas. Guys, Thursday nights, every other month, local fighters only sell the floor, maybe the center section in the loge.
You already own a team, have the production for the fight to make it big time. And you’ll own 100% of ticket sales, 100% of suite sales, 100% of season seat sales, 100% of F&B, 100% of parking, and 100% of sponsorships.’ I finished and Steve Kirsner, who some of you know best booker in the business, came up to me and said, ‘Roy, I want to do it.” We launched Fight Night at The Tank. They were doing $120,000 gates. This is 22 years ago. Unheard of on a Thursday night for a club show on top of their sponsorships, F&B and parking. And that’s one of the alternative sports that you can do. It’s not Saturday night. It’s not a big show. It’s your own show Thursday night.”
Other panelists included Mercedes Miller, Executive Director, Georgia International Convention Center and Gateway Center Arena, a 5K-cap building in College Park Georgia; Kelli Yeloushan, Senior Director of Event Management, Vinik Sports Group, which oversees booking for Tampa’s Amalie Arena (21.5K-cap) and the Yuengling Center (10.4K cap); and Jason Clement CEO, The Sports Facilities Companies, which operates more than 40 properties in 17 states and PBX Pickleball, which was formed in June and puts on events for what some call the “hottest new sport.”
Clement, whose company also puts on events like volleyball, cheering and dance, and is both a facility manager and an event promoter, noted that Pickleball is accessible to all and can be a participatory event or a ticketed event. His PBX Pickleball has been putting on tournaments with well-known athletes.
“So we’ve built this roster of these athletes that are playing pickleball, and they want to get together and play against each other,” Clement said. “And what we’re doing from an experiential standpoint is we’re allowing fans in some of the events to play with them. We also have a Dream Fantasy Weekend product, and then we have a tour weekend or tour event as well in which these athletes play against each other. So based on the show of hands, I would imagine most of us cannot name one professional pickleball player. But you know who John Smoltz is. You know who Ken Griffey Jr. is. You know who these guys are who are playing pickleball. And the opportunity to play with and against them is something that’s very interesting….So in Philadelphia, when we run an event there, we’ll be able to pull from Flyers, Eagles, Phillies, Sixers, players that are on the roster. And even in the collegiate markets, we run complexes in the greater Birmingham area, Alabama players, Auburn players that may not have had a big professional career, may not be known across the country, but they’re sure well known in Birmingham. We’re able to pull that together in one of those types of events based on the roster that we accumulate.”
For Miller, alternative events is a way for her, to distinguish her buildings from a crowded Atlanta market that includes State Farm Arena and Mercedes-Benz Stadium. “You have to find your niche in your area. For us, we do the WNBA, that’s in the summer, and then we have the G League that’s in the fall. So we have gaps to fill. So taking an esport game with the technology that we have, with the bandwidth that we have, eSport makes sense for us. They have an audience that follows them. They sold out in no time at all. They had about 4,500 people. Believe it or not, the first day I sold $100,000 just in food and beverage because they don’t move. All they do is chew and play. As long as they were chewing, you were going to let them play.”
Several panelists spoke on the importance of social media, both as a marketing tool and as a tool for market research.
“So we hosted one of the Jake Paul events in Tampa and it was very successful. And we learned a lot from that,” Yeloushan said. “Coming out of that, we were able to connect with a group that had an influencer event for boxers to fight that were these old school YouTubers with 4 million followers on Twitter. I didn’t know much about the event or really the influencers at the time, but I know a lot about them now. So I wasn’t sure what this event could do, right? But they had a real passion about it. They had a following. They brought the right people in. They brought the right production people in, and we went to work with it. And so the first time we put in our small arena, which is just under 10,000 cap and it sold really well after one tweet from iDubbbz, the influencer. And the night was not only a success, I think we sold over 8,000 tickets, but it was so entertaining.”
Yeloushan said the following year they moved the event was larger and move to Amalie Arena and they’re working on this year’s now. “We’re currently working on the third one. There’s a market out there for this. And I’m still learning who these consumers are. Most of them were wearing shirts that said “I Paused My Game To Be Here,” and they did, and they were out. And the per caps and merch and the per caps for F&B were great. Just working with a group that’s passionate and they put the work in, it’s been really fulfilling to watch this grow.”
“We have in this room lot of different levels of venues: we have stadiums. We have ballparks, arenas, clubs, theaters,” Prudential Center’s Saadeh said towards the discussion’s end succinctly summarizing the panel. “The good news is there’s something for everybody here.”