Forging Partnerships: National Travel Basketball Association is Finding New Solutions in the wake of COVID-19

NTBA National Championship

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John Whitley NTBA

Since mid-March when the COVID-19 shelter in place brought the youth and amateur sports industry to a screeching halt, facilities and event owners have been wondering what the new normal will be and when sports will return. Now in mid-May, many states are loosening their safety guidelines and sports, recreation, and fitness facilities are preparing to re-open.

We caught up with SFM Network Advisory board member, John Whitley, from the National Travel Basketball Association (NTBA) to talk about his plans for the remainder of the year and how he is innovating his business in response to COVID-19.

NTBA is a highly respected basketball organization that hosts tournaments across the U.S. for athletes in 3rd-12th grades. NTBA is sanctioned to host events in 10 states predominantly in the Southeast region during spring and summer with more than 2,000 teams. Their annual National Championship closes out the season in late June and early July in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina.

John Whitley serves as NTBA’s president and has been with the organization since 2013. He has 15+ years working in the travel basketball industry. John was a head high school boys basketball coach for 11 years where his teams won one state championship and had one final-four appearance along with five elite-eights.

Now that you know more about NTBA and John Whitley, let’s dive in.

SFM: What does the next 6 months look like for NTBA?

John Whitley: We are experiencing changes daily. Our number one concern is making sure facilities are safe and clean. Staying in constant communication so we can let the parents and coaches know what’s happening at all times. We are working on the safety side of things, so everything is good to go when we’re ready to start hosting events again.

SFM: How are you communicating these safety practices?

JW: We have relied heavily on our social media channels to get the word out. Parents follow and interact with us mostly on social media and we use it to constantly update our database with new plans and updates. Once we get the green light to host events again, we will release a full safety protocol. We use email to communicate safety procedures and the new rules and guidelines from the facilities we host events in, so it’s really important to stay up to date on what the facilities are releasing.

SFM: Events across the country have been cancelled, booked, and re-booked. How are you adjusting NTBA’s schedule?

JW: We are now pivoting to do more year-round events. We are putting together a Winter National Championship at the end of this year in Rock Hill, SC. We’re not sure how many teams are going to travel, but we’re excited to offer something different. We’re also looking to do more fall and winter events in the future. We know they won’t be as big or popular as our traditional spring and summer events, but we’re able to give some teams more opportunities to spread out their events and training.

SFM: How are you working with facilities to bring your events back online?

JW: The facilities we are in contact with are going to be our number one partner in getting our events back online. Facilities are the ones mostly responsible for ensuring safety guidelines are in place and enforced. The staff at the facility needs to stay in constant contact with our team so they can be aligned on safety procedures that are put in place in the future.

SFM: How has COVID-19 changed how you interact with your teams and players?

JW: COVID has completely changed the way everyone is thinking. We have been passing along online training tools and documents and videos to the teams in our database to offer resources for down time. We have received great feedback and plan to continue to do that in the future, especially in the off season. Our season is mostly in spring and summer, so this is helping us find a new way to engage our audience in the off season as well.

Something new from NTBA – we’ve been posting a lot of different drills and plays for teams on social media. Coaches have been receiving the tips and tricks well. We’ve been able to engage by offering new content to our contacts that didn’t receive this before because we’re able to focus on this more with the downtime we’ve had.

SFM: What have you heard or seen about your teams returning to play? Are they eager to get going?

JW: This situation is very similar to 2008/2009 [when the economy took a nosedive from the housing crisis]. I am predicting that we’re going to come back and hit the ground running strong. Daily emails and calls come in from parents and coaches ready to go NOW. The demand is strong right now…but, where the questions still lie are surrounding what kind of participation we will receive. We’re anticipating about 80% range for the next year.

SFM: Do you think we will experience a budget crunch?

JW: There have definitely been some short-term effects – no doubt about it. The economy was booming and COVID brought everything to a stop. However, I believe the effects will be short term. Large youth organizations that have stability are going to come back and remain strong.

SFM: Do you think there will be a comeback of national events? Or more local/regional?

JW: Event owners have to be very strategic in the locations to host their larger tournaments. The bigger the city the better to be able to pull more local teams – cities like Louisville, KY and Charlotte, NC have more to offer to teams. For us, it’s very important to pick large cities so teams don’t have to travel overnight to participate. National Championships will still be held in family-friendly travel destinations to draw the numbers we want and give them the opportunity for the tourna-cation. Our National Championships are hosted at the Myrtle Beach Sports Center every year because it’s a great facility and perfect destination for vacationing families.

SFM: How will technology play a role in the future? Do you think you’ll use a livestream service?

JW: It’s going to be very important for every facility to have that technology in place. In the past we have offered that at National Championships – and the fans loved it. You know grandma and grandpa can tune in to watch the big game…. Now it’s going to be even more important to offer that. There is a tremendous amount of business strategy that goes into it as well. How will that affect gate/ticket sales? In the end it’s about putting the best product out there. In my organization, we believe if we’re 100% focused on putting on quality events, the rest will take care of itself.

SFM: Are there any organizations you have partnered with during this time?

JW: We are in constant contact with other national organizations to share notes and tips. We have partnered with other organizations with several events to start new events by creating hybrid events with other operators. Because there is not one true national governing body over basketball because there are so many variations on rules and eligibility regulations, we don’t have a set of rules that we abide by, so we all have different formats and ways of doing things that we can compare and even combine to create the best experience.

As former coaches and players – we know how to be nimble and adjust strategy. We’re always going to produce new strategies and events to keep it going.

SFM: What advice to you have for other event owners and/or rights holders?

JW: Stay positive. We’re going to come back. It’s hard to know about [future] safety guidelines, consumer preferences, and how our travel sports culture will change, but if we’re nimble and adapt, we’ll come through this better than ever. My number one piece of advice is to stay strong and we WILL be back.

We couldn’t agree with John more. The truth is, no matter how uncertain the future looks now, sports will return. The industry will bounce back as we have before and we’ll be stronger, safer, and ready when the time comes.

Now more than ever, it’s important reach out and find partnerships that are meaningful for the road ahead. Like NTBA, we are pivoting daily and finding solitude in the partnerships we have with organizations like John’s to bounce back better than ever. This has been in the form of offering resources and webinars, exploring event creation, and bringing in experts to maximize the inevitable rebound of our industry.

Take John’s advice and stay strong!