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Skyhawks Sports Academy’s growth is rooted in support for kids

Sun., March 3, 2013

Company CEO Dave Berto left, and President Chris Stiles head the Skyhawks Sports Academy. (Tyler Tjomsland)
Company CEO Dave Berto left, and President Chris Stiles head the Skyhawks Sports Academy. (Tyler Tjomsland)

Skyhawks Sports Academy has become the big daddy of organized sports camps for kids. Based in Mead, the company has been offering weeklong indoor and outdoor sports camps for 30-plus years, starting with soccer and now offering 14 choices, including skateboarding and lacrosse.

Chris Stiles, president of the company, became a partner with co-founders Dave Berto and Jeff Heimbigner in 1997. He’s one of eight staff workers based at the company office, next to Mount Spokane High School.

S-R: What is the big success story behind Skyhawks Sports Academy?

Stiles: I believe Skyhawks has been fortunate enough to grow over the past 30 years because it’s always stayed true to its philosophy of teaching kids life skills through sports. That happens in our sports camps in a safe, fun, positive environment. Unlike many other sports camps, the focus isn’t on the coaches. It’s on the kids.

S-R: How did it change from a Spokane-only operation to a broader, multi-state business?

Stiles: We began offering camps in Montana in the early 1980’s. But the real growth started in the late 1980s when we expanded into Western Washington and Oregon.

Jeff and Dave recognized our Spokane model could probably work in the Seattle and Portland markets. The next big expansion was into California in the early ‘90’s. I was finishing college at Santa Clara University and recognized our business model that was working in the Northwest would probably work in California. Dave and I hit the road selling Skyhawks services in Northern California and we fine-tuned our process for expanding into more distant markets.

S-R: How big has it become?

Stiles: We are definitely one of the largest multi-sport camp companies in the country. Our corporate-run markets and franchisee-run markets will offer over 4,000 summer camps and hundreds of year-round programs throughout 22 states. We expect more than 50,000 kids will take part in our summer camps and several thousand more will participate in our year-round programs.

S-R: How long do the camps run?

Stiles: Most of them are weeklong, Monday through Friday. Typically it’s either 9 to noon or 9 to 3.

S-R: What’s your own sports background?

Stiles: I was a multi-sport athlete through high school at Mead, and then continued playing soccer at Santa Clara University where we played in a couple of national championships. We were national champions in 1989 and runners-up in 1991.

S-R: How many people do you need to offer all those camps?

Stiles: We’ll employ about 1,300 part-time people. And 50 of them are based in Spokane.

S-R: How do you find people to be coaches for your camps?

Stiles: A personal reference is the best vehicle for getting quality staff people. We talk to people we trust. We have a lot of teachers who’ve worked for us in the past. They’ll recommend someone. Then we also conduct a personal interview for every person we hire.

S-R: How would you describe those coaches? Who are they, generally?

Stiles: Typically, they are or were at some point a varsity-level athlete and typically a successful student and someone who wants to work with kids.

S-R: Which camps are the most popular?

Stiles: Soccer, basketball and our Mini-Hawk camp are our most attended camps.

S-R: How many of the camps are in the summer, and how many the rest of the year?

Stiles: About 90 percent are in the summer, the other 10 percent are after school.

S-R: Who are your business competitors?

Stiles: There are some private companies who are typically soccer camp companies. But there are lots of others, including just about anyone who wants to run a sports camp. Our advantage is offering multiple sports instead of just one or two.

S-R: Why are you offering Skyhawks franchises?

Stiles: It made sense as the economy went south in 2007 and 2008. We found the return on new markets was too slow to justify our expansion plans. Franchising made sense because it requires less capital than other growth methods.

We also found that our most successful markets were run either by owners, or employees that behaved like owners. As owners, franchisees are much more inclined to over-deliver on our services.

S-R: How many franchises have the Skyhawks created?

Stiles: Our separate company, Skyhawks Franchise Group, have awarded nine franchises in six different states. Our goal is to offer Skyhawks camps in every state within five years and internationally within three years.

S-R: What is the cost to become a franchisee?

Stiles: The initial investment is between $24,000 and $42,000. Then, the franchisees pay the Skyhawks $12 per participant with a minimum guarantee of 600 participants in the first year.

S-R: And what do you provide the franchise operators?

Stiles: We give them training at the home office and at their location. We also give administrative, marketing, sales, call center and technology support, training for the coaches and access to all of our sports manuals, coaching manuals, training videos and registration software.

S-R: How big are the coaching manuals?

Stiles: It’s important that the curriculum is the same across the whole organization. That way, a camp in Spokane is the same as a camp in Seattle or in Denver.

We have manuals for every sport and that show a minute-by-minute, hour-by-hour outline for how the day should unfold.

Each manual is around 30 pages. Then we have a general coaching manual, that’s another 40 pages. And for the onsite directors (who oversee the sports camps), that’s another 30-page manual.

S-R: How do you pay the people who put on the camps?

Stiles: It depends on what they do. It’s also different state-to-state. In Washington, a new camp coach will get paid $9.20 per hour. If you’re a returning (previously hired) site director, it goes up to $14 per hour.

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