Innovative. Imaginative. Impassioned. Inspirational. Interactive. Insightful. Inclusive. Instructional. Integrity-driven. Here’s what those words mean in practice.
When i9 Sports founder Frank Fiume decided to create a youth sports business, he knew that he wanted to create a better sports experience for kids — an experience that focused on teamwork, sportsmanship, and play rather than hyper-competitiveness. He wanted to put the fun back into youth sports.
He made a list of all the characteristics he wanted the business to embody, and he quickly noticed a pattern: Many of the values he wanted to instill into the business started with the same letter: Innovative, Imaginative, Impassioned, Inspirational, Interactive, Insightful, Inclusive, Instructional, Integrity-driven.
Those nine words are how i9 Sports got its name. This is what they mean to Frank:
Frank described youth sports as “an industry that had been run the same way for 30 years. There was zero innovation.” By 1998, technology had already transformed many industries, but recreational sports leagues were stagnant. “I felt we needed to embrace technology as part of our core business model,” he says. Two decades later, some of the early innovations may seem quaint. For instance, i9 Sports quickly offered online registrations to allow parents to sign up their kids for leagues and accepted online payment. But at the time, other youth leagues still required parents to show up at specified times and locations, and bring cash or check, in order to register. It was terribly inconvenient.
i9 Sports set out to improve convenience and efficiency for both parents and franchisees. Instead of running the leagues using pen, paper, and Excel spreadsheets, i9 Sports built proprietary software to manage the business. The software assigned children to appropriate rosters. When teams submitted game scores, the software updated league standings. A lot of paper-shuffling was replaced by algorithms that removed the tedium from running the business and allowed franchisees to focus on providing a great experience and growing their sports programs.
This value is all about vision, and providing an experience that is bigger than any one sport. i9 Sports could have been just a flag football league — but Frank knew it was important for kids to experience variety in their play. By offering flag football, soccer, baseball, basketball, volleyball, and lacrosse, we’re able to offer more to our communities and our customers.
Frank recalls that after graduating from St. John’s University with a business management degree, he went into medical sales. “I called on open heart surgeons, and I made good money, but I had no passion for it. But whenever I talked about creating a sports league, I was full of passion. I wanted people joining i9 Sports to have the same contagious enthusiasm. When you have enthusiasm, it’s clear to customers and they know your heart is in the right place. For me, it was all about fulfilling a mission and a purpose in my life.”
“When I was a kid playing sports, the most inspirational people to me were the coaches,” Frank says. “The coaches and staff at the field play the most critical role in our business. I’ve had some great coaches that I know made a difference in my life because they believed in me, gave me feedback to be a better team player, gave me feedback to let me know where they saw me improving, gave feedback on where I needed to get better. Coaches play a critical role in making sure the kids have a great experience, and it comes down to the coaches adhering to ethical, moral standards. Kids look up to us.”
Think about all the interactions customers have with your business — every touch point from the time they first learn about you, to how they become a customer, to the customer experience. i9 Sports set out to make these customer touch points smooth and clear. That means having a good website, answering phones, and making registrations easy. It also means providing schedules and instructions to parents about where the games will be played. And when parents arrive, making sure they know what to do.
“You send an email that says, ‘Hey, go to the red i9 Sports canopy and you’ll be directed on where to go by our field coordinator. Then they tell you ‘Go to Field A,’ and Field A has a nice big sign. It is labeled. ‘Get to the field and find the coach in the bright red shirt.’”
It may sound simple, but having consistent processes in place makes a huge difference for your customers.
For Frank, being insightful means anticipating needs. “If you think about companies that have been cutting edge — that have been game-changers — it is because they anticipated the future. You know where the future of the business is going and you get there before anyone else.”
For i9 Sports, that not only meant offering multiple sports — but also meant adapting to the needs of younger kids. For instance, offering T-ball as well as baseball. It also meant paying attention to childhood development studies, and adapting instruction for each sport so it was age appropriate. And spotting trends. For instance, i9 Sports President Brian Sanders saw that lacrosse was becoming more popular, so i9 developed a no-contact version that is great for younger kids. He also noted the growing popularity of volleyball and that sport was added to the offerings.
Kids have different skill levels, and they all deserve a chance to play. “I was a hard-nosed player who didn’t mind getting dirty, and I gave 110%, but I wasn’t the most athletic and didn’t get a lot of playing time,” Frank says of his youth sports experience. “Regardless of skill level, we were going to be inclusive.”
Boys and girls play on the same teams, “and often a girl is the most athletic one out there,” he says.
But it also means welcoming kids who normally would be left out of sports altogether, including those with health challenges. This very inclusive approach has given i9 Sports an incredible culture. Whereas many sports leagues are permeated with stress and anxiety about competition — which can make sports feel like work — i9 fields are permeated with joy. It makes amazing things possible. “I have had several parents over 20 years send me an email saying ‘My child suffers from autism, and I was afraid of putting him or her in the league. I talked to the franchisee about it, and he was welcomed and got equal playing time, and was treated like any other kid. And it gave him confidence.’”
We want kids to have fun, but we want them to learn and grow, too. That means providing great instruction and letting kids put lessons and new skills to immediate use. We practice and play games on the same day, at the same fields. Parents love that practice and games are both on one day because it makes it much easier to fit youth sports into their busy lives. But there’s a science behind the schedule, too: The best way for kids to learn a new skill is for them to be taught it, then immediately put it to use. A lot of sports leagues will teach kids new skills during a Monday afternoon practice, then not play until Saturday. That’s too long a wait.
“Without integrity, you have nothing,” Frank says. “Integrity runs through the brand from start to finish.” It is about doing the right thing for franchisees, for customers, for coach volunteers, and for your employees. With a big organization, you won’t always make everyone happy. Not everything you do will be popular, but you should always be doing what you think is right for the organization. “If you do the right thing by people, a lot of problems seem to solve themselves.”
Ready to transform youth sports in your community?
The approach Frank pioneered has been wildly successful. Since i9 Sports began franchising in 2003, our youth sports leagues have sprouted up throughout the United States, including 17 locations opened in 2021.
To learn about starting an i9 Sports franchise, download our “How the Business Works” eBook, which offers details about the business model, startup costs, financial performance, and more.