When Carmella and Mark Gelgor started Sportball in 1995, they wanted to use play as a vehicle to teach skills that would be useful, not just on the playing field, but in all areas of life. As the name implies, the multi-sport program engages children in active play through ball sports. Ball hockey, soccer, football, baseball, basketball, volleyball, golf, tennis, and volleyball provide opportunities to run, jump, throw, catch, kick – as well as to learn to focus, follow instruction, share, take turns, problem solve, apply rules and strategies, along with other important personal skills.
“Sportball programs incorporate developmentally appropriate skills and activities that are in line with evidence-based milestones,” says Mark Gelgor. Sportball takes physical literacy seriously, and focuses on the progressive development of motor, social, and sport skills. The company has partnered with the University of Toronto’s Occupational Science and Occupational Therapy Department and the Children’s Hospital of Eastern Ontario on projects that support the research and development of Sportball’s methodology, and has also supported the adaptation of programming for children and adults with special needs.
“We have successfully adapted our programs for children who are pre-verbal, non-verbal, or have limited physical abilities,” says Jason D’Rocha, Sportball’s Director of Training and Development. Gelgor says these programs are increasingly in demand by institutions and organizations that work with persons with disabilities of all ages. “They run great therapeutic programs, but don’t always have the methodology for participation in mainstream, community-based programs. We bridge that gap.”
Programs are offered for children from 16 months to 12 years of age. Parent and child programs are for the youngest participants, up to age three. For older children, there are a range of different classes, games, camps, and sport-specific programs. There are also “Girls Only” programs for girls six to 12 years of age – another area that is seeing growing demand. Sportball offers holiday and summer camps, birthday and backyard parties, school special-event activities, and in some cities, delivers inter-curricular programs for private schools.
Franchisees rent space to run programs in their local schools, churches, and community centres. They may also partner with local recreation departments, daycare centres, and before- and after-school programs, which will handle all of the registrations and fee payments by participants, or they may pay directly for Sportball services. Gelgor says that since there is no need to lease or build a dedicated Sportball facility, this franchise is very accessible in terms of required working capital. Most franchisees will start with a home-based office to further minimize overhead costs.
Expanding the Sportball brand
Sportball franchisee Justine Levenberg ran her business from home for the first eight years, but now rents office space in a commercial plaza in Burnaby, British Columbia. As the owner of multiple franchises, with a staff of 30, she needs the space for her five full-time employees and for the weekly training workshops she holds for her 25 part-time coaches. “Most of my coaches are students, usually in kinesiology,” she notes.
Levenberg has worked with Sportball for her entire adult life, starting with the company when she was a student in Toronto. “I started coaching part-time at the age of 17, and two years later, I made the move to the west coast to bring Sportball programs to Vancouver.” Initially, the Vancouver location was corporately owned, but over time, she has become a franchisee. “I wasn’t the very first Sportball franchisee, but I was the first one outside of the GTA,” she says.
“The biggest challenge I’ve faced was moving to a new city at the age of 19, not knowing anyone in the city, and having to create awareness about Sportball and the benefits of its programming. I’m very passionate about the brand, and I’m a big believer in organic growth,” adds Levenberg. Fourteen years after she arrived, Sportball is now a known name, with 33 program locations in Vancouver.
The Sportball brand has also seen significant growth in the GTA, where it experienced rapid expansion in all directions after the Gelgors started franchising in 2005. Today, Sportball delivers programs from more than 700 locations – 592 in Canada, 132 in the United States, and 15 in other countries. “We are in all major markets across Canada except Winnipeg, and have started moving into secondary markets like Hamilton and London, Ontario,” says Gelgor. “We are also focusing on international expansion.”
Franchisees come from a variety of backgrounds, says Gelgor. “It’s an eclectic group, but they are all about living healthy, active lives, and have a genuine passion for making a difference in the lives of children and parents.” The business is very scalable, he adds, allowing franchisees to start with programming they can deliver on their own, and to hire staff incrementally as the business grows.
Levenberg, for example, now has programs running seven days a week, between 8:30 a.m. and 8 p.m. Although she now has staff who deliver programs, manage her social media, and provide administrative support, she initially did all of that work herself, and remains very hands-on. “Everyone who comes in contact with Sportball in my markets comes in contact with me,” she says.
Most franchisees will make Sportball their full-time job, “If not initially, then the goal is that it happens fairly quickly. It really depends on the individual and whether they have an alternative source of income. We recommend that a franchisee reinvest profits into training and business development during the first year. Because program planning is set up one season ahead, and you need to seed the market, there is about three months lead time before you’re up and running,” says Gelgor. The franchise fee is $20,000 in a major market, $15,000 in a secondary market, and Gelgor says Sportball recommends that a new franchisee have access to a minimum of about $20,000 in working capital during the start-up year.
Comprehensive training comes first
As one person will be wearing many hats, Gelgor says that Sportball provides two weeks of initial training that covers all areas, from administration, business development, and marketing to HR, financial, and legal matters. The coach certification training is also fast-tracked so that franchisees can complete the required 50 hours of in-class practical training in two weeks, spending 10 hours with each age range.
The training and support doesn’t end there. “We go to each new territory during start-up to support their business development, and our head trainers continue to visit regularly. In addition to market visits and group training workshops, we provide online training materials, videos, and webinars that help to reinforce best practices,” explains Gelgor. Advertising and all forms of the most current creative content are made available through the internal website, and creative relevant to the most current and upcoming seasons is delivered directly to Sportball’s franchise partners once each season.
Sportball also sources supplies and equipment that are the correct size for each age range, and any new pieces are tried and tested by head office before being used in the field.
“Support is always there when I need it, and it’s beneficial to be part of a brand that is recognized as a leader in the field of sports instruction for children,” says Levenberg. “Although each market is different, it’s also helpful to hear what other franchise owners are trying – what has worked for them, and what has not.”
All franchisees and coaches are required to complete Sportball’s Mentorship Program and Coach Certification process, which provide comprehensive training in Sportball methodology, class management techniques, and best practices when coaching children between the ages of 16 months and 12 years.
But before they get to that training, coaches have to pass the litmus test for being part of the Sportball system: a passion for introducing children to sports in a positive way. “We look for professionalism, maturity, and leadership qualities in our coaches,” says D’Rocha. “Even with all of these things, if we don’t see that spark that comes into the eyes of our best coaches when they talk about making a difference in the lives of kids, then they don’t make the cut.”
Levenberg echoes the importance of that passion for franchisees. “Make sure that owning a Sportball franchise is something you are really passionate about, and that you’re not just interested in it as a business. That’s what Sportball is all about – creating memorable and positive experiences in the lives of children.”
To sum up: “There are so many ways to earn a living, but so few where you can feel you really make a difference in a child’s life. Really, at the end of the day, we’re teaching success,” says Gelgor.
By Kym Wolfe