When people walk into a recreation center to go for a swim or take a yoga class, they’re probably not thinking about how the facility is managed.
But Clearwater-based the Sports Facilities Companies does. In fact, that’s their job — in a way: to create management and operations so seamless and successful that people are drawn to enter the recreation facility whether they know it or not.
“We’ve built this team of subject-matter experts with the very best systems, processes, programming and vendor partners that allow for all of these individual complexes to plug into our platform,” said CEO and co-founder Jason Clement. “They can get the very best in class so that they can be the highest performing complex, not just financially, but with guest experience, economic impact and mixed use development.”
The Sports Facilities Companies works with sports and recreation centers at almost every step of the process, whether it’s a strategic vision or helping with management on a facility that has been open for years. When Clement talks about the business plan, he refers to the popular line from “Field of Dreams” with a slight adjustment: It’s not enough to build it and simply assume they’ll come. You need to build it and know they’re coming. That means having in place staffing, training, a brand, pre-sales, risk management and insurance, among other things.
“Once all of those things are set up, when you hit the ground on opening day, you’re opening up with the sophistication of a three-year operation versus a three-day operation,” Clement said.
The company now stands at roughly 1,500 employees nationwide, but it had humble beginnings. Clement and co-founder Dev Pathik started the organization in 2003 with little more than themselves. He and Pathik recognized that the sports facilities industry was “fragmented” and “unsophisticated” — in essence, it was ripe for disruption, a quality most start-ups look for before they infiltrate a space.
“Nobody really knew what true north was and what was going well,” Clement said. “The market woke up to the fact that there is a higher level of performance. We can expect more out of these operations.”
Initially, they got off the ground through word of mouth and, eventually, speaking engagements. Over time, the Sports Facilities Companies grew to its now mammoth size, having worked on projects in more than 2,000 communities across the nation. What unites all of them is the mission, Clement said: “to improve the health and economic vitality of the communities” they serve.
“Typically, most of the communities developing these complexes have some iteration of that mission in mind,” Clement said. “The trigger is the recognition to do better within their community than what they’re doing.”
Follow trends affecting the local economy
Subscribe to our free Business by the Bay newsletter
You’re all signed up!
Want more of our free, weekly newsletters in your inbox? Let’s get started.Explore all your options
For the employees who have come aboard as the Sports Facilities Companies has charted its exponential growth, it’s been a whirlwind of activity and opportunity. Account executive Lori Moore first worked as a marketing manager at Rocky Top Sports World in Gatlinburg, Tenn., which was “one of the first facilities SFC managed in a sports tourism destination market,” she said.
For Moore, the job was a once-in-a-lifetime experience to really combine all of her passions.
“Never ever did I think I would have the opportunity to combine my love of working with municipal government with that of youth and fitness,” she said. “Getting to combine those three things that I absolutely love into one makes it not so much a job.”
As an account executive overseeing roughly seven facilities, the day-to-day of her job is always a little different. She might need to consult on a management issue, a legal question or a marketing quandary.
In the almost nine years that she’s been with the company, she’s worked her way up from Rocky Top marketing manager to general manager and eventually her current role as account executive. That trajectory has been a surprise even to her.
“I never expected to have the opportunity to be doing what I’m doing today,” Moore said. “They saw potential and have given me the opportunity. It really is a place where there is opportunity for young individuals who want to move up in this industry.”
Ashley Whittaker, the vice president of marketing and a recently named partner, echoes Moore’s experience. Her move to the company was informed in part by a conversation she had with one of their executives at a conference. “I would really like to work with those guys,” she thought after only their second conversation.
It didn’t take long for that to materialize. Roughly six months later, a marketing position opened up. Whittaker asked her husband if he’d be willing to move across the country for the job. As she says, now it’s six years later and they’re still here. Much like Moore, she had a steady track of promotion from marketing director to vice president of marketing to now, roughly two weeks ago, a partner in the business.
“I wanted to come to an organization where they embraced ideas, where if you had an opportunity and reached out, they would let you run with that,” she said.
But like in any job, there are good days and bad days. The start of COVID-19 was more than a bad day for the team at the Sports Facilities Companies. At that time, they were working with properties in 16 states, all of which had their own eventual reopening procedures. Some states reopened athletic facilities as soon as possible and others waited as long as nine months, Clement said.
“We were busier shutting down venues than we were operating venues,” he said.
But there was a silver lining: When each location did re-open, they generally did so with great success.
“There was a surge of families and society wanting to get back to being active,” Clement said. “We’ve seen this comeback rebound that’s just exponentially higher in terms of youth and sport participation than what they were going into the pandemic.”
As the market increases, that likely only portends more employee growth. For people like Moore, who estimates that she was the 10th employee overall, that’s a big change from when they started. When Whittaker came on board, there were about 25 people in the corporate office. Now, they’re near 70.
“We expect to keep growing,” Whittaker said. “We’re hoping that people who see this are attracted to what we’re doing and the culture that we’re creating and want to take a look at a career in youth sports.”
But maybe the less important part is where they’re going. What matters is where they came from.
“When you start a company with two people in an apartment in Dunedin, and you now have 1,500 team members, 25 million guests around the country and $500 million in economic impact,” Clement said. “It’s just humbling.”
Sports Facilities Companies
Manages recreational and sporting centers acro
Employees: 56 in Tampa Bay, 1,048 nationwide
Employee comments: “I am challenged each day to perform at the highest level.”
“I feel my ideas are heard and considered. We work as a team not against each other.”
“I get to impact the mental, physical, social and spiritual health of communities through my part in the development and management of sports complexes. I get to do this work with people I enjoy, great clients, and we are regularly innovating and working to get better.”