Business of Sports: Indoor athletic facilities keep customers during recession

Weather protection and scholarship potential help these businesses succeed

Joe Sassman climbs a bouldering wall at the Climbnasium Inc., an indoor rock climbing facility in Cumberland County. Photo/Amy Spangler

People are still paying to come indoors and play at area sports complexes despite the weak economy.

Contributing factors include the facilities providing protection from weather and parents’ hopes that their children can better compete for scholarships by taking advantage of year-round practice.

Lancaster County-based Lanco Fieldhouse has had to turn away teams for lack of field space, said Jennifer Smith, general manager of the 11-year-old East Petersburg-area business.

The mostly turf sports facility offers four fields of varying sizes for boys and girls soccer and lacrosse, field hockey and some baseball and football, Smith said.

Dodgeball also is part of the business and has taken off in the past couple years, she said.

Although she was worried going into the recession, business has increased significantly in the past few years. Lanco also has made a conscious effort not to raise prices.

It costs league teams nearly $900 to participate in eight 55-minute matches for which Lanco provides officials. With about 10 players on a team roster for soccer or field hockey, for example, it costs about $10 per player per game, she said.

The amount is comparable to a movie ticket — especially if you include popcorn and other costs, Smith said.

Weather has a lot to do with business staying up. People don’t want to play outside when it gets cold, and Lanco gives them the option to play on turf in a warm environment, Smith said.

Also part of Lanco’s business is training programs for young athletes, Smith said. Many parents want their children to become better at their respective sports in hopes of them getting college scholarships, she said.

Parents have said their children received scholarships after attending activities at Lanco, Smith said.

“That is a great feeling,” she said.

There have been tweaks over the years, Smith said. The original facility had a larger food court, but staff realized people were not coming for sit-down meals, she said. So they converted the space to a smaller concession area and installed batting cages.

The biggest challenge is the flipside of Lanco’s weather advantage; warmer months can be slow, so the business has to get creative at staying busy then, Smith said.

Foot traffic at Cumberland County-based Climbnasium Inc. also has appeared to stay up despite the down economy, employee Micah Borger said.

The facility offers indoor climbing with some opportunities to climb outside during warmer times around the area, he said. The indoor facility is busiest in the winter, Borger said.

Clients primarily are avid climbers or absolute beginners, said Borger, who began working at the business in 2006.

Hosting birthday parties is a big part of the business, especially on weekends, he said. The staff offers about two and a half hours of climbing for such parties, Borger said.

Part of what attracts young people is the uniqueness of the offerings, he said.

Climbnasium also offers a winter competition that draws in people from around the region and beyond to practice and show off their skills, Borger said.

“This building usually gets pretty packed,” Borger said.

There are between 900 and 1,000 indoor sports complexes in the United States, as identified by the Virginia-based United States Indoor Sports Association, though the number does not include college facilities, YMCAs and several other types of operations, President Don Shapero said.

Shapero, who founded the group in 1998 as an indoor soccer association, said the organization does not compile statistics on the industry. But the number of indoor sports facilities does seem to be increasing, based on the group’s membership rolls, he said.

It is human nature to make experiences more comfortable and convenient, and that is what indoor sports facilities do for people who are seeking activity, Shapero said.

Taking weather-related unpredictability out of putting fitness activities into a person’s schedule makes lifestyle decisions easier, he said.

Also, facilities that focused on just a few offerings 10 years ago now are considering new ways to attract customers and use space, Shapero said.

Although a majority of the business done by the group’s more than 300 members still is attributed to soccer, there are relatively few who are focused solely on the activity, he said.

“We’ve evolved just like our members have,” Shapero said.

Getting into the business of running an indoor sports complex can require a significant financial investment, including purchasing land, building a facility and hiring employees, he said.

So part of the association’s offerings are educational services, such as a national conference and programs for owners, managers and others to stay up on best practices in the industry.

“It is important to know to get the expertise that is lacking and know where strengths and weaknesses are,” Shapero said.

Brent Burkey

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