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Keystone State Games CEO talks challenges, evolution of statewide events

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Owen Costello is CEO of Keystone State Games Inc. The nonprofit corporation formed in 1983 to produce the commonwealth’s amateur athletic festivals. Photo/Submitted
Owen Costello is CEO of Keystone State Games Inc. The nonprofit corporation formed in 1983 to produce the commonwealth’s amateur athletic festivals. Photo/Submitted

Talk about running lean and mean.

The 2007-08 state budget included $220,000 in operating subsidy for Keystone State Games Inc., the nonprofit corporation formed in 1983 to produce the commonwealth’s amateur athletic festivals.

Today, there is no line item for the nonprofit, and the staff is just one: CEO Owen Costello.

The 67-year-old Luzerne County resident was hired by the state when the nonprofit was formed. Former Gov. Richard Thornburgh aided that effort so the Keystone State Games would not be solely dependent on government funding.

The organization’s state subsidy was scaled back beginning in 2008-09. The last year it received funding was 2010-11, when it received $50,000, according to the Office of the Budget. The budget was zeroed out in the last fiscal year and not put back in for the current 2012-13 year.

“I’ve seen the good days and the bad,” said Costello, who once had a paid staff of seven.

With a $500,000 budget to put on the annual Keystone State Summer Games and biennial Pennsylvania Senior Games, the nonprofit relies on a large contingent of volunteers and partners such as the Hershey Harrisburg Regional Visitors Bureau to offset a major portion of the production costs through bid fees.

Costello’s two sons are a major part of the volunteer efforts that keep the games running.

Keystone State Games contracted with the bureau to bring the summer games to this region for three years, beginning last year. The bureau also bid to bring the senior games to the Hershey Harrisburg region in 2012 (see “Athletic assets,” page 1).

The senior games wrap up Sunday. The summer games start July 31 and run through Aug. 5.

The Business Journal caught up with Costello last week by phone to discuss the evolution of the festivals and how they are marketed, the challenges of sports production, bringing the State Games of America to this region next year and what proposed multisport complexes might mean for future large-scale events in Central Pennsylvania.


Q: How have the games changed through the years in terms of sports offerings and participation? How has marketing changed?

A: The (Pennsylvania) Senior Games is a program we took over about 23 years ago. Basically, it’s a combination of social and athletic opportunities. A lot of seniors involved come to make friends. There is another contingent of elite athletics.

Every other year is a national senior games (event). This year is the qualifying year to go to that program. Right now, we have close to 675 senior athletes, age 50 and over, that will qualify to move on.

With the economy, I wasn’t quite sure how (these events) would turn out.

As far as marketing, we market through the district aging offices, as well as through a database (of past participants). We direct market to them.

When I took over in 1983, the major concern was that a lot of the sports people involved wanted (the summer games) for elite athletes. They felt it should be designed that way. Gov. Thornburgh opened it up for all Pennsylvanians and all ages. That’s what our philosophy has been. The mission is to promote physical fitness and amateur sports as a disease preventative measure.

Over the years, we’ve held pretty good with our numbers. Pennsylvania has more athletic programs than any state I know that are well organized. Field hockey and ice hockey are still outstanding. Basketball, soccer and softball are difficult to run (because of travel teams), but we run almost 30 events. Martial arts and wrestling are still strong.

We are expecting close to 5,000 athletes, plus 675 for the senior games. We will bring in, between all staff support and coaches, close to 6,000. That is not including parents (and other family members).


What are the biggest factors that determine location for the games? What’s the biggest difference between organizing the senior games and summer games?

I would say No. 1 is cooperation. They have to really want us to come there.

No. 2 is they have to have the majority of the venues we will need to run our programs. Not all areas across the state have the facilities. We need a pool of volunteers as well.

One of the big challenges is with the seniors. Everything now is computerized. We still have a lot of seniors who don’t have computers.

They like to all be in one location because of the social factor. We try to put as many events in one site. (However,) it’s not as overwhelming as the summer games.


What are the organization’s biggest challenges, and how do you stay relevant? What concepts are being explored to enhance the games?

We have looked at lacrosse. It has taken off in the last five years in Pennsylvania. We’re looking at expanding in martial arts. We feel there is opportunity for growth.

Everybody is playing pickleball, so we added that.

I just had a call about rugby. Years ago, we had it. I guess now there is a major movement to have rugby. Once the games are over, we’ll look at it.

We look at just about every sport that is of interest. We got to have a group that is going to work on this, because we’re volunteer-oriented.

We looked at skateboarding, but there was just not enough interest or we didn’t think we could put it together.


The State Games of America is coming to this region next year. Talk about that event and how it measures up to others KSG puts on. What is your role?

The State Games of America is owned by the National Congress of State Games, which all state games belong to. In order to bring that to an area, you need a group to bid. The (Hershey Harrisburg Regional) Visitors Bureau bid on it.

Since we’re already there with the state games, we said we’ll operate it. We expect 3,000 to 4,000 visitors from other states coming into our program.

For my part, it’s basically running a similar event. For (the bureau), they have to do more marketing. That’s the key. It’s just a larger and bigger operation than I’m used to.


There has been a fair amount of coverage recently on new multisport complexes proposed or coming to our area. What could new venues mean to event producers and this area’s ability to attract business?

I think that’s a real key. They are going to have to lease (those facilities) to make them work. It will open up a tremendous amount of opportunity for event producers, including us. We’re looking to break out and do more individual events.

If you have facilities that have five or six venues in one location, that’s going to make it so much easier for event planners.

What is pickleball?

Pickleball is a sport played with wooden paddles and a small, plastic ball similar to a Wiffle ball. It’s a cross between pingpong and tennis and is played on a regulation badminton court with the net placed lower to the ground. It can be played as a singles or doubles match.

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Jason Scott

Jason Scott

Jason Scott covers state government, real estate and construction, media and marketing, and Dauphin County. Have a tip or question for him? Email him at Follow him on Twitter, @JScottJournal. Circle Jason Scott on .

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