Fritz: Recession leads to refocusing for Middleton's KEVA Sports Center
3/26/2010

By Brian E. Clark
For WisBusiness.com

Like many companies, the KEVA Sports Center has suffered some during the recession.

But Eric Fritz, president of the decade-old business, says the economic downturn has benefitted his recreation company, forcing it to do a better job of planning for the future.

“I hate to say this, but the recession has been a blessing,” said Fritz, who estimates that between 250,000 and 300,000 people use KEVA annually for soccer, volleyball and basketball leagues, as well as children’s classes and corporate events. The sports center also sponsors SOBER Saturdays for teens.

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In addition, with KEVA drawing thousands of athletes to its Forsythia Street location in Middleton, several spinoff recreation businesses have located nearby.   

Fritz said the slowdown made his company “refocus and stop taking the five to 10 percent growth we were getting annually for granted. It has taught us to think harder about our spending and our priorities."

He said KEVA did not feel much impact during the early part of the recession.

“In 2008, we kept hearing a lot of people say they were starting to feel it,” he recalled. “But we were the opposite. We were having the best year we’d ever had.”  

Then, with the crash of market in September of 2008, KEVA was hit and business declined, especially in youth programs and corporate events. Adult leagues, always a bulwark of the company, stayed strong.   

“In the past, parents were signing kids up for two or three classes during an eight-to-10 week period. Now it’s just one because there has been a lot of economic uncertainty," he said. “However, grownups wanted to keep on with their teams. I think even in tough times, we need a recreational outlet. And we were providing it. Now we are in a growth period with adult leagues.”

Fortunately, he said, KEVA did not have to lay off any employees due to the recession. It has five full-time workers and between 20 and 60 part-timers, depending on the season. Instead of cutting staff, he looked to cut expenditures.

“We looked at every area, everything was on the table," he said. "I found ways to cut insurance, and our staff pays for half of their health insurance.  We reviewed the way we purchased items finding ways to get discounts.” 

Fritz said he believe business will expand – slowly – as the economy improves.  That will depend, in part, if lending increases.

“I think it would be great if we could loosen up the dollars for small businesses,” he said.  “Just trying to get money for this expansion, we’ve had to jump through a lot more hoops than before."

He said he is using savings, a bank loan and working with vendors to finance KEVA's outdoor improvements. 

In most areas, he said the business is exceeding the targets laid out in a plan developed in the wake of the slowdown. The one area, however, that needs more work is corporate activities, he said. He said companies sometimes come in for an event and end up sponsoring a basketball, volleyball or soccer team for their employees.

“That’s a great way to build camaraderie,” he said. “We’d like to facilitate that.”

An improving economy will the bottom line, but Fritz said he wants to do more to get more firms to hold activities at the sports center.

Which is why he’s committed to spending between $250,000 and $300,000 to improve the 1.5-acre outdoor soccer, picnic, corporate event and volleyball area.

The area that is being upgraded is just to the east of the 70,000-square foot KEVA building, which houses two large soccer fields for teams of seven adults each, a children’s playground area, two basketball courts that can convert into volleyball courts, a smaller soccer field that can be changed into a basketball court and a food-and-beverage area.

The bulk of the outdoor expenditure will go towards the purchase of the recycled New Orleans Superdome Astro Turf, he said.

“Every few years they change it out and we were able to get it,” said Fritz, who grew up in a family of athletes. He played soccer at Monona Grove High School and UW-Whitewater.  

Not only will teams of la crosse, soccer, Ultimate Frisbee and other players get an improved, spring-through-fall field at KEVA, but weekend warriors will get to play on the same turf where the Saints’ Reggie Bush and Drew Brees regularly sweated and sometimes bled on their way to winning this year’s Super Bowl.

KEVA also will be adding decks and making other, staged improvements to make the area more amenable to events, said Fritz, who noted that the Saints’ logo is still in the Astro Turf.

“Sports will always be the core of what occurs back there. But one of our main goals here is to really get our customer not only in sports but also in a social setting," he said.

As for the future, Fritz said he also wants to expand recreational programs for children, adults and families.

“Some 74 percent of all kids who start sports will quit before they get to 14,” he said. “We want to get kids enjoying sports early. This really is a lifetime activity. We also keep on getting older and older people who want to play.”

He said KEVA is also may expand what he calls “social memberships,” which could include bus trips to see pro sporting events or hosting parties to watch major games on television.

“This summer, we’ll have a number of events centered around the World Cup, which starts June 11 when the U.S. plays England,” said Fritz, who is now working on getting the Milwaukee Wave soccer team to come to KEVA for a game against the Madison 56ers semi-pro team in early June.

For more information on KEVA and its programs, go to www.kevasports.com.


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