On-Field Fantasy

January 29, 2015
Athletic departments looking to bring in new money and deepen connections with fans are turning to a fun new idea: fantasy camps.
By Dr. Robert Zullo

Robert Zullo, PhD, is an Associate Professor and Program Director of the Sports Management Program at Seton Hill University. He has also served as an Assistant Professor at Mississippi State University and James Madison University and previously worked in the athletic departments at the University of Virginia, Virginia Military Institute, University of North Carolina, Virginia Tech, and the University of Georgia. He can be reached at: zullo@setonhill.edu.

If you are a typical athletic director working in 2011, you are continuously looking to identify new revenue streams. Maybe your ticket sales and sponsorship dollars are maximized, and you are in search of additional funds to balance the budget. You have ardent fans, and you wonder how you can tap into such a resource further.

One solution is fantasy camps. There is nothing more exciting for a fan than to get the chance to participate in the sport they are passionate about. Taking the fans' affinity for their school and affording them a real-life participatory opportunity is an idea that's taking off across the country.

Some of the top NCAA Division I schools have very strong, established fantasy camps. For example, Penn State University hosted its fifth annual football fantasy camp this summer and the K Academy, for Duke University basketball diehards, has been in place for eight years. The University of Southern California hosts the Trojan Flashback camp each year and West Virginia University held its third Bob Huggins Fantasy Camp this past summer, which was successful even before the Mountaineers' 2010 Final Four run.

However, you do not need to be a marquee program to implement this idea. Smaller colleges and even high schools can set up fantasy camps, focusing on their fans' passion and the everyday resources they have. Imagine providing alumni of your high school the opportunity to spend one more day wearing the uniform of their alma mater.

The idea behind any fantasy camp is to provide fans with an opportunity to be an athlete in the program. It is a chance for someone to feel the passion of being part of their favorite team--learning from coaches they revere, being in the locker room, and competing on their team's field or court.

How you provide this opportunity can vary greatly depending on your resources. You can develop a camp with a lot of bells and whistles and a high fee or you can host a fairly simple camp at a very reasonable price.

For example, the University of Oklahoma Head Men's Basketball Coach Jeff Capel fantasy camp includes former NBA players as staffers, and campers receive many take-home memorabilia, including an autographed basketball, OU apparel, a framed team picture, and a highlight video. Housing accommodations are at a local hotel that offers luxury suites. Registration for the 2010 camp was $2,500.

On the other end of the spectrum, Clemson University Head Football Coach Dabo Swinney hosted a one-day camp for women at the conclusion of his first season. Registration was only $60, and $15 of that was matched by Coach Swinney and donated to fight breast cancer.

The key is to figure out what your audience would be most interested in and meet those needs. Would potential attendees like the luxuries of staying in a five-star hotel with fantastic food, and be willing to pay for it? Or would they prefer to sleep in a dorm and eat at the campus cafeteria, which is closer to the life of a typical college student-athlete--but might include no air conditioning and shared bathrooms.

For your market, is it important to include amenities like prizes and gifts, or not? Speakers are a great idea, but they can be expensive. How many coaches should you have? Do you want to bring in guest coaches or former players?

Another key consideration is length. Some schools have embraced the single-day fantasy sports camp while others host their camps over a weekend. Another format is the four-day, three-night version.

Finally, there are many different types of camps. The most established is the all-male football camp. But women's football camps are gaining popularity. Basketball camps are on the rise. There is no reason the idea cannot be developed in any sport, as baseball fantasy camps are done on the professional level and could be effectively implemented at the high school and college level. You can also consider father-son, father-daughter, mother-son, and mother-daughter camps.

Determining what type of camp will appeal to your fans goes hand in hand with ensuring revenue from the endeavor. The major fixed costs to consider include: lodging, meals, transportation, insurance, gifts, and personnel, including coaches, officials, sports medicine professionals, and organizers. From those costs, you can decide what to charge participants in order to produce a profit.

Sample prices run the gamut. The 2010 Notre Dame football fantasy camp, which lasted four days, charged $4,950. The Clemson men's football fantasy camp, which runs three days, costs participants $2,000. The two-day Penn State Fantasy Ladies X's & O's Camp is priced at $490. At Southern Cal, pricing ranges from $2,000 to $4,000 depending upon access to the head coach.

It is also important to know that some coaches want to run their own fantasy camps, with no profits going to the university, which would be stated in their coaching contracts. This can be an important point of negotiation and athletic administrators should try to keep this camp's revenue tied to the athletic department.

One great way to increase revenue is to bring sponsors on board. Potential inventory options include signage and product placement. For example, sponsors can be noted in the playbook, media guide, and scrimmage program. If YouTube videos or DVDs are used for highlights, you might incorporate product placement, tags, or signage into those. Hospitality rooms provide additional openings for sponsorships.

In-kind sponsorships can also work. This might include sporting good stores, trophy suppliers, massage and spa shops, and local establishments that can assist with food and beverages. Consider partnering with a local hotel that agrees to host participants. Before securing any sponsors, make sure there are no concerns with existing contracts in place.

Regardless of what format and pricing strategy you choose, the key to success is finding the right balance between hospitality and reality. You want to ensure the activities are as real as possible so the participants feel they are receiving the team experience. But you also want campers to be comfortable and feel they are being treated well by the school.

For example, coaches who normally run intensely disciplined practices might need to relax their model. They should understand that participants want to engage in activities that facilitate active discussion and personal memories. If dorm rooms at your school are not comfortable, you may want to opt for a hotel instead.

The best way to make sure the experience feels "real" is to place a premium on touch point opportunities. Participants in the camps are not usually interested in learning the fundamentals of the sport. They want experiences not afforded to others that are worth remembering.

This entails things like time with the coaches and the opportunity to put on an official game-day uniform and run out of the locker room with the school fight song playing. It also includes gestures, interactions, and amenities that cue the senses to produce lasting memories.

For example, when participants first arrive and check in, have coaches on hand to welcome them and even help them unload their belongings. Surprise campers by decorating their rooms with streamers in your school colors and placing a welcome bag or basket filled with treats on their beds. Depending on your budget, you might substitute a keepsake football helmet and fill it with such souvenirs as a water bottle, wrist bands, eye black, sports drinks, and even a personal welcome note from the head coach.

After campers have checked in, take them on a private tour of your facilities and introduce your coaches and staff. The tour can include the locker room, weightroom, film room, equipment room, and sports medicine facility. Be sure to provide campers, coaches, and other personnel with nametags to maximize interaction.

In the locker room, assign each camper a locker to use for the duration of camp. The equipment manager can review the equipment everyone will be wearing and the athletic trainer can discuss safety. The film room provides coaches the occasion to issue playbooks for the week as another keepsake. Wrist play holders could also be distributed if financially feasible.

Touch points should continue throughout camp, both at practices and during downtimes. These can include contests between coaches and campers, naming plays after campers, and constant interaction among staff and participants. Off the field, consider providing training tables with a sports nutritionist, film sessions, and a hospitality suite with snacks, drinks, and sports-themed movies.

There should always be an end-of-camp game, and this is a critical time to "make it real." If feasible, ask the cheerleaders, mascot, and pep band to attend. It is also a nice touch to use a smoke machine or video board. Families and friends of the campers should definitely be invited to watch the contest.

In addition, the game should include uniformed officials, a public address announcer to introduce the players and call the game as if it were an officially sanctioned event, and sports medicine staff on the sidelines. At the conclusion of the scrimmage, provide a cooler filled with confetti for campers to dump on their respective coaches.

Keepsakes are also important. Many camps put together a game program as well as a media guide that includes camper bios and pictures from the camp sessions. A closing ceremony provides opportunities for a group photo, team photo, photo with family, and photo with the head coach, which can either be included in the registration or sold for additional revenue. For the camper seeking more, a videographer can provide videos of individual highlights and the full broadcast of the closing scrimmage. Highlight videos can also be posted on YouTube for everyone to enjoy.

Afterwards, have campers and their families participate in a barbecue and include traditional tailgating games such as ladder ball or corn hole. This is also a good time to hand out prizes or trophies to campers. Frameable certificates of completion can also be awarded to each participant.

The itinerary of any camp will vary greatly depending on its length and focus. But the main activities are practices and workouts, training table meals, speakers and activities, and a final event.

At a typical football fantasy camp, after the initial tour, the first activity can be a visit to the weightroom where campers are measured for height and weight and tested in the 40-yard dash, bench press, vertical and broad jumps, and three-cone drill. Next is often a light practice in shorts, which includes a warm-up session and an introduction to offensive and defensive strategies.

Afterwards, the campers' first meal together should be instructive and engaging. For example, there could be a presentation on sports psychology and the importance of a strong mental make-up. The meal should include all coaches and personnel to foster more interaction. When the meal is over, campers can take part in an evening film session with coaches before returning to their rooms to review their playbooks.

The second day begins with another training table meal. The morning meals provide a great opportunity to start the day with a raffle to enhance the energy and excitement for the morning session. For those wanting to build spirit in their camp, ask campers to sing for a daily prize! After breakfast concludes, campers can head to the chalk talk session where they learn details about anything from coaching strategies to scheduling games. Other sessions can explore safety issues, recruiting, refereeing, media training, sports psychology, motivation, governance, rivalries, great memories and history, professional league issues, globalization, and other current events relative to the sport.

Following the chalk talk segment can be another light practice, followed by lunch, another educational session, and then a trip to the weightroom. There, strength and conditioning coaches can give instruction on the proper way to work out, as well as new strategies for camp participants to implement when camp is over. A really nice touch is for the strength coaches to hand out a post-camp workout plan, with a few blank pages where they offer personalized suggestions to help campers achieve their desired exercise goals (lose weight, max out, become more toned).

Before heading to the evening training table, campers should engage in a fun, competitive game like a field goal kicking contest. The key is to lighten the mood of the campers and coaches, while also giving everyone a chance to go head-to-head in competition.

The evening training table provides a window for a guest speaker or it can be kept open to facilitate high-quality personal interaction between the coaches and campers. After dinner, campers can engage in another film session before enjoying time in the pool or with a massage therapist. Conclude the evening with an informal social gathering or a question-and-answer session with former players.

The third day of camp can begin with the breakfast training table, including the daily prize, a chalk talk session, and then a light practice before lunch. Utilize this meal to have coaches conduct a draft that will lead to teams competing in a scrimmage at the conclusion of camp.

After lunch, coaches can take their respective teams to start working on their team strategies. The playbook that was originally distributed should be utilized, but coaches can also implement trick plays and personalize them with the campers' names for fun. While players and coaches partake in the evening training table and some film session, staff members should create a printed game program for the scrimmage that breaks down the rosters for the teams, and includes the campers' physical measurements taken earlier in the camp.

The final day of camp should be focused on preparing for the big game. Allow plenty of time for campers to enjoy putting on their authentic uniforms. The coach can give a locker room pep talk and bulletin boards should include made-up statements by the opposing coach as motivational fodder. When the team runs onto the playing field, encourage family members to make a tunnel for them.

The actual game should be as real as possible. However, consider modified rules in some sports, such as playing flag football to provide a safe, level playing field. Basketball and baseball camps may want to implement rules to foster more competitive balance in the games so that the experiences are truly memorable.

For outdoor sports, it is important to have back-up plans in case of inclement weather at any point in the camp. Examples might include football coaches playing basketball with their campers or baseball coaches hosting an indoor whiffle ball game. Campers might also watch and review past games or take part in a mock press conference--campers act as the media and grill the coaches, then the tables are reversed for a fun twist.

When thinking about guest speakers, consider win-win situations. For those wanting to reach out to the academic side of campus, invite faculty to speak about their passion for sports management, sports psychology, or exercise science. Or maybe invite the engineering faculty to discuss sports facilities. For those looking to connect to alumni, asking past letter winners to speak can help foster stronger relationships.

How do you attract fans to your camp, and how do you encourage repeat customers? Since many of your participants will be fans, it is effective to use PA announcements and ads in game programs or on your Web site. These can be supplemented by direct mail pieces sent to season ticket holders, donors, and alumni. You can also publicize the event to secondary audiences, such as faculty and school officials. Print advertisements can be strategically placed with local and regional sponsors, especially fitness facilities and retail, grocery, or sporting goods stores.

In your advertising efforts, stress that the camp helps the school and is also an amazing experience. Be sure to include all the assets of the camp in your marketing materials. For one fan, it may be the strength and conditioning sessions that piques their interest in attending.

Another angle to utilize in publicizing the camp is to tie in a charitable theme. For example, partnering with a local cancer awareness group can work well. Portions of the proceeds benefit the group, while the camp also generates awareness for a worthy cause.

In addition to sending press releases, a great way to garner media attention is to host a modified in-season media day, where coaches demonstrate what will take place at the camp. Providing quality video, audio, and photos to media outlets can yield additional exposure for your camp. Be sure to invite media members back to participate in the actual camp itself.

Fostering repeat customers is critical and there are a lot of fun ways to ensure campers come back next year. One idea is a "signing day" ceremony at the end of camp, similar to when high school student-athletes announce what college they plan to attend. At the camp signing day, participants can declare their intentions to attend again next year. You can also offer special rewards for those pledging to return such as a chance to stand on the sidelines during an upcoming game. Reduced rates for those pledging to return can also be offered.

Another idea to encourage repeat customers is to issue evaluation stars. Sports fans frequently examine recruiting Web sites to see if a high school athlete is ranked a five-star, four-star, three-star, or two-star recruit. Assuming that participating in one fantasy camp earns them a one-star rating, ask them to become a two-star recruit.

For those not wanting to utilize the recruiting method, first-time participants can be called freshmen with coaches encouraging them to return to next year's camp as "sophomores," then "juniors," and so on. Additional incentives can be given to attendees who provide referrals.

While the camp is in progress, administrators should continually ask those partaking in the camp for their feedback. These video testimonials can be mixed with action footage and promoted online via a Web site or even through YouTube.

Finally, coaches need to remind participants that their efforts are helping a worthy cause, and as camp attendees, they are part of the bigger team. After camp has concluded, send out monthly e-mails and newsletters exclusively to the attendees to foster after-marketing. Make participants feel that they are truly a part of the program. Many of the participants then become donor candidates for the booster club or development office to approach.

The key to a great fantasy camp is that all participants leave with an increased sense of loyalty and passion for the team. Fantasy sports camps are a way to bring in more revenue, but they also provide a remarkable opportunity for athletic departments at all levels to build a tremendous affinity with their most die-hard fans.

The author wishes to thank Michael Stough, a former Mississippi State University graduate student, for his assistance in providing research support for this article.

Sidebar: Safe at Camp
In administering fantasy camps, there must be a focus on safety, even if the game itself is modified to accommodate campers. Risks associated with the fantasy sports camp need to be evaluated, camps will need an insurance policy and participants should sign medical waivers. Ask your school's legal counsel to help draft the waiver and suggest ways to minimize injuries.

One vital expense that should not be ignored is the utilization of a sports medicine staff. In some cases, the limited athletic ability of your participants may require that they spend more time hydrating, recovering from workouts, and attending to injuries than actively participating. An injury or accident can ruin the experience for a camper--which is the last thing you want to happen.
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