What began as supplemental income to a minor-league soccer salary through offseason coaching and camp instruction has in recent years evolved into one of the premier child health and fitness franchises in the country.
In just seven years of selling its clinic-based program, Lower Swatara Township-based
Soccer Shots Franchising LLC has amassed 100 territories in more than 30 states, serving more than 50,000 children ages 3 to 8 annually.
Entrepreneur magazine recently named Soccer Shots the top children’s fitness franchise for 2012.
“When we started coaching little kids, I didn’t know it could become my livelihood,” said Jason Webb, who co-founded the for-profit program aimed at teaching basic soccer skills and promoting character development in a noncompetitive environment.
After drumming up interest among local schools and day care centers in the Charlotte, N.C., and Harrisburg markets in the late 1990s, Webb and partner Jeremy Sorzano decided in 2000 to turn their youth soccer businesses into a joint venture that could keep them active in the sport well beyond their playing days.
“I realized there was a niche of taking soccer to schools,” said Sorzano, who found opportunities at a time when elective youth programs were not as prevalent.
Webb duplicated the success in the Harrisburg area.
The two played soccer together and graduated from Messiah College, along with partner Justin Bredeman, who came on as a franchise owner in the Lancaster market when the company began selling territories in 2005.
Sorzano, 38, and Webb, 36, played professionally after college, while Bredeman, 37, went on to work in national franchise support for Lancaster-based soft pretzel giant Auntie Anne’s. He became a partner in Soccer Shots in 2009.
Sorzano and Webb played for the Charlotte Eagles. Webb also played for the Harrisburg Heat, a now-defunct indoor soccer team.
With the partnership in place and the business model established, word spread to a few friends who took the program’s structured curriculum into Delaware, Florida and Ohio. Bredeman’s franchise was the company’s fourth.
The Soccer Shots program includes a series of lessons that teach the fundamentals of soccer and character traits through words of the day.
“There is a sense of accomplishment and it doesn’t need to be hypercompetitive,” Bredeman said about the age-appropriate curriculum.
There are four seasons per year of eight- to 10-week clinics that meet once a week, depending on the franchise location. Costs vary by market, but the average season is about $80, the partners said.
The company aimed to be comparably priced with the YMCA and other organizations offering youth sports, Sorzano said.
Sessions are built around warm-ups, teaching a skill of the day, reinforcement of that skill and brief scrimmaging. Sorzano said he views Soccer Shots as a complementary program to the recreation or club leagues.
“Neither one of us had the idea (of franchising). Franchising was the furthest thing from our mind,” Sorzano said.
Soccer Shots primarily has grown through word of mouth. In the first three years of franchising, there were less than 10. By 2009, referrals and interest from budding entrepreneurs pushed that number to about 40 franchises. In 2010, the company added another 24, its biggest year to date, Bredeman said.
Several franchisees also have expanded territories.
With a proven business model that includes several current and former professional players, the goal is 20 new franchises in 2012 and continued expansion into major metropolitan areas, Bredeman said. Soccer Shots is actively recruiting through social media and more traditional means of advertising.
The company has franchises in Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles, Miami and Washington, D.C., to name a few. The model also has worked well in secondary markets, Bredeman said, including Birmingham, Ala.; Binghamton, N.Y.; and State College. In addition, Soccer Shots is eyeing opportunities in Canada.
“We’ve had the opportunity to become unfocused,” Webb said. “(But) we’ve been pretty intentional about remaining focused on soccer and the young age (group).”
Rather than branch out into other sports or age groups, Soccer Shots has committed to being the best at what it originally set out to do, he said.
“There are lots of groups working with older kids,” Webb said. “Soccer works well at this age group.”
The partners still own their original territories, but do not operate those franchises. Each has been able to add directors and expand their paid coaching staffs to serve their respective territories. A Soccer Shots franchise serves a population base of about 500,000 people.
The three provide franchise support and business coaches and counselors, with each serving a different region of the country. The company provides full-service training on everything from recruiting and retaining coaches to business management.
Along with the franchise growth, the Dauphin County company has added its own personnel and six company-owned units in the Baltimore, northern Virginia and Washington, D.C., markets. An executive director and five company directors oversee those units.
The company as a whole employs 14, including the three partners.
By franchise, the average territory has eight people, including the owner, directors and coaching staff, Sorzano said.
“It really becomes a small business,” he said. “There are lots of moving parts.”
In the Charlotte area, there are about 1,700 kids in 90 locations.
The company charges a franchise fee of $12,500. With insurance and other start-up expenses, the average cost for a new franchise is about $15,000, he said. Franchise owners pay an annual 7 percent royalty fee on gross income.
With the success of the early franchises and growing name recognition, most territory owners operate on a full-time basis and Soccer Shots has become their livelihood, Webb said, declining to provide annual revenue or sales figures.
The return is high enough that most successful owners should be able to recoup their initial investment within the first year, Bredeman said. A healthy franchise will serve up to 1,000 participants, he said.
The 30-year-old, who played five years in Harrisburg, got involved with Soccer Shots in late 2008 as an instructor and moved up to the role of director for Webb before buying his own franchise in 2011.
He bought the Pittsburgh territory and already has expanded his business in the region to set himself up with a steady income when he retires from the game.
“It’s definitely worth it and I’ve chosen to make it a career,” he said, adding that he had thoughts of putting his education degree to use prior to the opportunity with Soccer Shots. “I think there is a pretty good need for this age level.”
Calvano said he is hoping for more than 600 kids in his program this spring. In the near future, he plans to hire a full-time director, he said.
“I know there is more opportunity in this territory,” he said. “I think it’s pretty exciting to be involved with them now. They have grown so much already.”
Right now there isn’t a ceiling for a program like this, he added.
“We could be the Wal-Mart or McDonald’s of kids’ soccer programs,” he said.
Competition from other sports and youth programs will continue to be a challenge, the partners said. But continued investment in marketing and technology, and finding ways to improve on the curriculum, along with the popularity of the sport, should provide for ongoing growth, they said.
The partners hope increased exposure to other national franchises also will bolster the Soccer Shots brand.
Participation in Soccer Shots grew 40 percent in 2011, Webb said. The program has experienced growth every year, he said.
“It’s because we’re doing a better job at what we’re doing,” he said, also crediting the growth in Major League Soccer. “We’re doing this at a great time.”
“Almost everybody gets involved because they have passion for kids, soccer and then the business,” Bredeman said. “It’s fun to be working with people who are interested in impacting kids in a positive way.”