An Interview With i9 Sports Franchise CEO Brian Sanders - i9 Sports Franchise
Growing youth sports franchise business helps entrepreneurs build fulfilling careers
i9 Sports, the nation’s first and largest youth sports league franchise, is in the midst of an aggressive growth plan to add dozens of new franchise locations each year over the next several years. The number of locations and system-wide revenue have been rapidly growing, and many entrepreneurs have found that the low cost of opening a youth sports franchise opens the door to a fun and potentially lucrative business that many communities need.
“As a society, we’ve lost the idea that youth sports are intended to be games,” i9 Sports President and CEO Brian Sanders says. “The number one reason kids play sports is to have fun. It is not surprising then that the number one reason kids stop playing sports is because they stop having fun. Overly competitive adults and a focus on winning have driven the fun out of most sports programs. At i9 Sports, we are reclaiming youth sports for the kids, and we’ve found there is an enormous market for what we offer in every community we’ve entered.”
From its mission to help kids succeed in life through sports to its proven franchise business system, i9 Sports is reinventing the youth sports experience for millions of American kids and their families, while also enabling entrepreneurs to find meaning in their careers and enjoy the benefits of successful business ownership.
Last year the company achieved a new all-time high level of network revenue, marking 12 consecutive years of record revenue. As the company expands its domestic leagues and targets growth across the globe, now is a great time for entrepreneurs to join the i9 Sports family as franchisees.
Recently, Brian spoke about the i9 Sports franchise opportunity for entrepreneurs, its unique position in the youth sports market and where the company is headed.
How is i9 Sports different from typical community youth sports leagues?
Community recreational youth sports have been around since the mid 1800s. The problem with typical recreational sports leagues today is that they have become adult sports played by kids. The political nature of parental involvement often means that parents decide who plays, how often, or whether someone is good enough to play at all. It’s conceivable that a child may sign up for a league and rarely get off the bench.
At i9 Sports, we support healthy competition and believe that every child should be both encouraged and given the opportunity to make the most of his or her abilities. From a child’s perspective in our leagues, you’re going to get to play regardless of your skill level. There are no tryouts or drafts. You’re going to learn the fundamentals of the game because we rotate kids through the various positions so you can have fun experiencing the game through different vantage points. You’re going to have fun with your friends because unlike most leagues, we accept buddy requests when building teams. And lastly, you’re going to learn the value of good sportsmanship — that how you play the game is as important as the score.
How does i9 Sports teach good sportsmanship?
At i9 Sports, we don’t just teach kids how to be athletes, we teach them how to be better people. We teach the importance of good sportsmanship on the field and in life by demonstrating how to win with humility and lose with grace.
We accomplish this by teaching a sportsmanship value each week and then awarding an “Excellence in Good Sportsmanship” medal to the child on each team who best illustrates that week’s value. The weekly sportsmanship value includes topics like honesty, respect, courtesy, and enthusiasm. Another way we teach good sportsmanship is through parents. Since parents, as fans, are the largest group at any youth sports program, they have the biggest potential to have a positive or negative influence on the experience of the players. We were the first national youth sports organization to ask parents to sign a “Parental Pledge” that prohibits sideline negativity and promotes a fun and enjoyable environment. We even go a step further. All i9 Sports coaches sign a “Coaches Pledge” committing to place the importance of fun and teaching good sportsmanship above the game score or their coaching record.
Is the i9 Sports Experience more than just learning a sport?
Absolutely. Beyond learning the value of good sportsmanship as we have already discussed, the benefits of participating in i9 Sports are many. The most fundamental is athletic participation itself. We live in a society where the virtual world has become so dominant, parents are having a hard time getting kids to put down their electronic devices, get off the couch and go outside.
We know that active kids become active adults, so the habits that are set at a young age are those habits that tend to stay with us as we get older. The Centers for Disease Control says that a third of the kids in our country are obese, and the level of obesity is climbing because the level of physical activity has fallen dramatically.
There are also the psychological benefits. There is the benefit of being part of something bigger than you. Being involved with a team sport teaches that by cooperating with others you can get a bigger, better result than you would have been able to achieve on your own. The concept of putting the needs of others or the team ahead of yourself is a vital part of growing up. There is also the benefit of increased self-confidence.
How does participating in a youth sports league improve a child’s self-esteem?
First, participating in a youth sports league teaches a child that what they do as part of the team has a bearing on their teammates and it matters. So there is this sense of connection and belonging, which builds a feeling of self-worth. Second, in a team environment, kids can see the range of ability among their teammates. They see that some kids are naturally more gifted, but quickly learn that attitude and effort can outshine raw talent. The realization that effort, attitude and results are within their control is empowering and has a halo effect on virtually every other aspect of the child’s life. Numerous studies have shown that students who participate in youth sports have higher grade point averages, attendance rates, and educational aspirations. They also tend to have a lower incidence of drug and alcohol abuse and other problems kids tend to veer into if they don’t have a healthy activity like sports to anchor them. Youth sports are formative for children, and in my opinion, there isn’t a child in America who should go without the experience.
There isn’t another sports league out there that offers what we do the way we do it. This creates an amazing opportunity for an entrepreneur who is passionate about building a local business that makes an indelible impression on the lives of kids. When our franchise owners get up in the morning, they know they can earn a living by making a positive impact on the lives of kids. Profit with a purpose — how cool is that?
Why is i9 Sports attractive for busy parents?
It’s definitely the convenience we provide. Today, most families are dual-income. That means that a family’s approach to extracurricular activities is much different than it was 15 or 20 years ago. Parents have to be very choosy about what activities they sign their kids up for because of their limited time. Our format is unique in that we don’t have mid-week practices; we have our practices on game day. So moms and dads know that they are only committing to a once-a-week type of format. The family can show up on a Saturday, go to the practice, go to the game, have a great time, go home and it’s done. There is no reason that a child’s recreational sport activity should consume a family’s life.
Another convenience for busy parents is the fact that we don’t have fundraisers or mandatory volunteering like some other leagues.
What is the scope of sports i9 Sports offers?
When we started, flag football was the only sport we offered. Based on the immediate success of the model in flag football, we realized that our format could be applied to multiple sports and quickly expanded to others. Each of our franchise owners can now offer flag football, soccer, basketball, baseball, lacrosse and cheerleading.
In terms of our overall mix, the majority of our business falls into what we call the four core sports: flag football, soccer, basketball and baseball. Flag football is still the largest of our sport offerings. It provides a great alternative to tackle football because it’s non-contact. You get all the great benefits of playing football without the same risk of injury. The growing awareness of concussions caused by tackle football makes flag football a very popular sport for us. i9 Sports is a leader in raising national awareness about safety in youth sports and specifically, concussion safety. We were the first national youth sports league to implement a “when in doubt, sit them out” concussion safety policy and education for parents and coaches system-wide.
What’s your vision for the future of i9 Sports?
As successful as i9 Sports has been since we started, we’ve only scratched the surface of what is possible. Most of our franchisees today have less than a 2.5% share of the potential children signed up in their market. Think about that. When you realize how many children there are in each market and how much perpetual demand there is for youth sports, the opportunity is exponential. Not only do we have a massive opportunity to increase our share within existing territories by providing a better customer experience, but we also have a huge opportunity to expand our footprint by continuing to extend into more locations. In the United States, I believe we will easily triple the size of our system. At this rate, however, it won’t take long to fill out the U.S. as the remaining territories are selling out quickly.
Our long-term vision is to become the undisputed leader in recreational youth activities worldwide by delivering a superior and extraordinary customer experience. When we get close to completing our expansion in the U.S., we anticipate expanding internationally. Virtually everything we do will translate easily in other countries. Youth sports are a universal concept and although the sport might differ, the way our system works should be the same anywhere.
Why is the technology behind i9 Sports so important to your franchisees?
One of the biggest surprises about our business model is how big a role technology plays in what we do. When you think of youth sports, one typically thinks about pen and paper on clip boards, signing up by standing in long lines in a gymnasium, or communicating to team members through tedious, unreliable phone trees. At i9 Sports, we started with the customer’s perspective and looked at all the areas that make participating in a youth sports league a challenge. We then developed solutions to those issues using web-based technology to provide a better overall customer experience. Almost everything a customer needs to know or prepare to participate in our programs can be done online. We’ve developed a proprietary software tool that makes it easy for our franchise owners to keep parents completely up to date on team assignments, schedules and the all important weather hotline.
We’ve named this proprietary software, Franchise Manager, and it is hands down the most sophisticated league management software available today. Beyond what it does for the customer experience, it helps our franchisees manage their entire business from taking league registrations and building rosters to scheduling games and venue management.
Running any business can be a complex and challenging endeavor. One of the reasons franchises often perform much better than mom-and-pop businesses is simply because franchise systems develop better tools, training and infrastructure. There is no way an independent sports league owner could replicate what we do through our technology.
How exactly does Franchise Manager work for i9 Sports franchise owners?
Franchise Manager puts virtually every aspect of running an i9 Sports franchise business at a franchisee’s fingertips online. Its breadth is pretty amazing. Within Franchise Manager, a franchisee can create and track marketing plans, take registrations, build rosters, schedule games, communicate with customers, manage game day operational checklists, and track results. It’s really the backbone of a franchisee’s business. All of the scheduling and much of the communications with customers are sent out automatically from our Franchise Manager software. Franchise owners can notify parents about where and when they are playing, weather updates and who is bringing snacks. An example of its flexibility is the way it helps us honor buddy requests. If parents indicate at registration that their child wants to be on the same team with a friend, our software allows us to accommodate the request. Franchise Manager even has a daily, step-by-step guide for managing an i9 Sports franchise called “Count Down to Game Time” that tells our owners what needs to be done leading up to each season.
Beyond that, Franchise Manager provides owners with their own dashboard so they can easily see all their key performance indicators at a glance. For example, as customers register on our website or through our customer service center, franchisees can see in real-time the number of registrations and how those registrations break down by location by sport. The dashboard shows other valuable information like customer satisfaction scores, customer renewal rates, and the franchisee’s ranking within the network on various metrics. I’m a bit of a data geek and believe the more information we can provide our franchise owners, the better decisions they will make.
Our technology really makes it easy for franchise owners to provide an exceptional experience for our customers and to get a predictable result across multiple locations.
Why is now a good time to become an i9 Sports franchise owner?
If I were buying a business, I would ask myself three questions: 1) Is this business something I’m passionate about; 2) Does this business have a record of success; and 3) Are the market and this business likely to grow so my investment will appreciate? The time couldn’t be better to buy an i9 Sports franchise because we have created the rare business opportunity for which someone could answer a definitive “yes” to all three questions. We have a proven formula for operating a successful business with a tremendous pre-existing market need. It works. We now have more than a decade of results from owners who are meeting and exceeding their dreams of what owning their own business could be. Last year was the largest year we’ve ever had in terms of overall network revenue; we were up double digits. Everyone wants to be part of a winning team, and frankly, we’re a winning team.
The youth sports market is a multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry encompassing 42 million kids annually. Guess what? Every year there is a new bunch of kids turning age 3. While there’s this inexhaustible supply of customers to serve, the territories we have available are limited. We sell protected territories; that means that once all the territories are sold within a market, we cannot sell more. We’re rapidly filling in the available territories across the country, so if you’re passionate about sports, love working with kids and want to own a great business, there couldn’t be a better time to jump in.
What would you tell someone who is considering purchasing an i9 Sports franchise?
We all know that people make purchase decisions on both rational and emotional levels. From a strictly rational standpoint, it’s a pretty handsome economic opportunity. I don’t know of any other business that has an initial investment as low as $49,900 yet has the average owner’s discretionary profit margin like ours.
With convenient, flexible hours, which translate into an enviable work/life balance, and no real estate or large upfront inventory requirements, i9 Sports is a compelling low-investment, home-based franchise opportunity with an attractive profit potential.
From an emotional perspective, it’s far more than just making money. Franchisees tell me they see i9 Sports as a vehicle for achieving their dream of making a living by doing something that makes a real difference in the lives of others. If you really care about kids, love sports and want to do something worthwhile that changes people’s lives, I’d say i9 Sports is the right decision for you.
Learn more about i9 Sports franchise ownership
We are now seeking qualified candidates to become franchisees, help us reinvent youth sports, and position i9 Sports as the most recognized youth sports league in the country.
Want to learn more about becoming an i9 Sports franchise owner? Download our free report to learn more and start a conversation with us about opening the newest i9 Sports franchise!