Whether you are starting out in the volume business or are a seasoned professional, if you are not focusing on the travel team market and don’t have a plan to market to this segment of customers, you’re missing out. Statistics show typical youth sports leagues in the US are declining in number of participants. In our area, the total number of kids in the league on photo day is declining year after year. Or, some of our leagues are merging with others or folding all together. While the rec leagues are declining, they are making way for more and more travel and elite programs with the number of athletes participating in these programs skyrocketing.
My son started playing travel baseball at 8 years old. Not because he was a great player, but because that is what “above average players” in our area did. I’m not here to discuss if it is right or wrong, it just is. Travel sports is a big business and is continuing to grow. If you have been in the volume sports photography world for a long time you have probably seen this shift. In fact, where we live there is a “league” that helps to facilitate travel baseball teams playing one another and keeps track of all the teams. When my son started playing five years ago at 8 years old, there were over eighty 8U travel teams in our surrounding communities. That was just 8U. Add in all the other age groups and it is easy to see if you are only focusing on your rec leagues, you are missing out on a lot of business.
In travel ball, our coach is responsible for uniforms, scheduling, deciding what tournaments we will be in, finding fields, finding umpires, etc. The coaches are the ones running the show. Unlike a recreational league where the league does most of the heavy lifting and the “coaches” are usually some parents that got roped into helping, travel coaches call all the shots. With a full plate and no one telling the travel coach what day and time their pictures are and handing them order forms to pass out to the kids like a typical recreation league, travel teams typically forget about pictures unless a parent on the team happens to have a camera or someone knows a photographer. The last thing on travel coach’s mind is setting up pictures for their team.
It was this gap in the market that led me to start Game 7 Sports Photography five years ago. My career has always been in sales, but I do have a background in art and design and knew Photoshop well. I was really just that dad on the sideline with a camera taking action shots of the team. When I built a few composited collages and parents saw them, several said I should look into starting a business. Knowing that we would be at the ball fields for the next several years to come and learning what I had about travel sports, I saw an opportunity where I could capitalize. At the time, I didn’t have the knowledge to take on the large leagues of 500-1000 kids like we do now, nor did I really even know how to break into that segment and market myself to those larger leagues. However, travel teams were low hanging fruit. No one was really pitching their services to them and I didn’t have to compete against someone with considerable skill and knowledge in volume sports. Plus, there were plenty of them and they were mainly one-off team photo shoots so I wasn’t dealing with the logistical challenges that I would quickly learn as our company grew and took on larger and larger leagues. As I stated earlier, I’m a sales guy, and when I saw this huge opportunity, I jumped on it. It has taken us a few years to really perfect what we are doing (and we still make yearly tweaks!), but if you are looking to break into the travel market, here are my three key take-aways to help you succeed.
First, have a marketing plan to directly sell to the coaches. Some teams are independent, and some are run through an entire organization, but even those in our area that are run through an organization are typically autonomous in most of their decision making. While the organization has teams all that span from 8 years old to 17 years old, typically you won’t get an entire organization to set up a picture day for all of their teams. You are better off focusing on individual teams.
We put together flyers and packets and scouted out all of the tournaments in our area. We had samples made showing our latest work and would spend time walking around and talking to coaches and parents at tournaments. We found several early bird tournaments in our area and made sure we scheduled a few hours on the weekend to be there to sell to the coached and even more importantly, the team mom. These coaches are taking care of everything, and while we did make sure they had our info, we focused our sales efforts on all of the moms on the team as well. We also scoured the internet for travel organizations and teams in our area and made sure to send professional emails with links to our work to any and all email addresses we could find. Additionally, we found local travel baseball/softball Facebook groups for our area and made sure we posted our information there. Lastly, from a marketing perspective, we worked with some local indoor baseball facilities. Since we are in Ohio, these teams are using indoor facilities for practices starting in January until they can get outside sometime in March. Having our information available there and working with the facility to share some of our images for their walls of the teams they are working with grabs the attention of other teams using the space.
The second key to our success was providing the teams the ability to supply value to their sponsors by offering team banners. Travel ball is expensive and most of the teams in our area have many sponsors. If they don’t have a banner or some other way to provide exposure to their sponsors, what are the sponsors really getting for their money? We started working with travel teams in our area in 2014 and very few teams had team banners. We built our first that year, and then in 2015 made it a huge priority. We sold our teams on the value they were giving their sponsors by having a banner they could proudly display on the fence with all of the sponsors across the bottom. What better gift could you provide those sponsors for their support than having a fantastic team picture? The teams could purchase a print or poster and frame. Our banner program has taken us a few years to develop into one we love, but we now feel we have one that our coaches and teams really like that also helps with our overall bottom line on picture day. We started offering a banner discount program which gives a $10 credit towards the banner for every player that purchases a package + team picture. Our team pics are not included in our packages and are purchased a-la-carte for this reason. So, if 10 kids on the team had qualifying orders, we would take $100 off the banner price. This has driven our overall T&I higher for the team while bringing the banner cost down to a level that coaches can swallow. Additionally, this program really gets our coaches involved in getting order forms out to the team and sharing with the parents how they can help save the team money by purchasing certain items.
The final aspect that has made our travel program successful is creating banners that our teams are extremely excited to show off. Travel ball parents are all proud of their players and love sharing on social media. Creating a banner or team picture that they can’t get anywhere else only fuels the fire. I have spent hundreds of hours honing my photography and design skills. All so we can provide banners unlike anything else in our area. It isn’t uncommon for us to get calls from leagues or other teams looking for our services because they have seen our work shared on social media by ‘XYZ travel team’. It’s also fun to walk into a tournament and see your banners everywhere. It makes for an easy sell to the team sitting there without a banner that hasn’t done pictures yet. You can just walk up, hand them your info and point to the five teams on various fields surrounding them that have your banner on display on the fence. Take the time to hone your skills. Invest in your craft and take some classes or go to conferences and learn. I can’t stress this enough. If you put in the time, you will reap the benefits.
It’s funny—that is the same thing my son’s travel ball coaches tell him!