June 10, 2010
The Life and Times of Basketball Camps
-Gene Steinmeyer, Northwest Head Women's Basketball Coach
Twenty-six years ago, I took the women's basketball coaching job at Doane College in Crete, Neb. Doane did not have girls' basketball camps at the time. I was a young coach with visions of great riches with the growth of the Doane Basketball Camp. My vision was about 50 percent correct. We did have amazing growth over the next 15 years. Unfortunately, I had to sacrifice the great riches to build the camp.
That first summer, I thought I would run an ordinary, individual basketball camp where we turned terrible-talented young ladies into great players. One look at the vast individual improvement would lead to quick, huge growth in camp numbers. This time I was wrong on all points. Camps are a very small sample of what dedicated players must do to accomplish great basketball feats. Less than one percent of campers leave that camp and succeed in basketball greatness. At best, the girls that attended camp find a few tools that help them improve just enough to make a varsity team. That's hardly a sales point to increase attendance.
It soon became clear I needed a gimmick. My career in the marketing field began as I tried to sell the Doane College Basketball Camp to the public. The first gimmick was a sleep-in. To cut the cost of camps, I charged only for the instruction. For housing, the players would bring a sleeping bag and sack out in the gym. They would bring their own food and snacks. The coaches would work the players so hard and for so long, that the young basketball players would collapse from exhaustion, awake refreshed, and finish the final day of camp with a flurry.
Again, my vision of this camp was very flawed. I have seldom seen a player work herself to exhaustion. The camper's reaction was resentment for working them too hard and too long. Instead of collapsing, they rejoiced in their freedom from basketball with a giant slumber party where no one slumbered. Even if they wanted to sleep, the 90 degree temperatures inside the non-air conditioned gym did not allow for a restful night. The worn out, tired players accomplished very little the next day. The cheap basketball camp that featured a slumber party never got off the ground. It ended with a thud after one year.
Despite my early failures with gimmicks, I pulled a rabbit out of the hat. I felt the college was charging too much for meals and housing. The snack-filled slumber party wasn't going to fly, so I proposed a deal to Doane's vice president of financial affairs. I asked for reduction of prices after camp attendance reached 500. The reduction would grow after every 100 campers over 500. Since my first attempt at marketing had failed miserably, he agreed thinking I had no chance at 500 campers. This time I stuck gold. During my best year, we reached almost 1,000 basketball campers at Doane College. Those last 100 campers almost stayed free according to our deal.
The gimmick that led to the huge growth was the birth of team camps. The first team camps had modest numbers of 8 to 16 teams. Then I took the advice of the Sutton girls' basketball coach and the expansion was on. John Schoneburg, the coach, suggested we only play games at the team camp. At that time, every camp had a session or two of fundamentals each day of team camp. The camp usually ran five days. We decided to reduce the time of the camp to three days. The camp guaranteed five games each day per team. That cut the cost. Then, we moved the camps to Friday, Saturday and Sunday and changed the name of the camp to "The Weekend Advantage at Doane College." Camps increased in size to 30 or more teams or about 250 players per camp. At the height, we ran seven camps at Doane College during the month of June. The problem was we had to cut the cost of the camp. The number went up, but profits remained modest. About this time, I had a friend request to come to a high school to conduct a basketball camp. I invited two of my college players to help run the camp. The two days were a huge success and we made a decent amount of money. Right then, I decided to add road camps to our summer schedule.
The next year, we advertised to do two- or three-day camps at any high school. We charged $15 per kid and asked them to house our college players. It was like stealing money and the adventure was terrific. We traveled all over the state of Nebraska. I'd stay at motels, most of them not AAA approved, while the player lived with the host high school players. It led to some real adventures. The first road camp we ever put together was in Central Nebraska. We fought a terrible thunder storm on the way and barely made it on time. As I walked in, the players noticed there were no rims on any of the baskets. With 30 campers signed up, we had a problem.
The road camps took us to every part of Nebraska. The players stayed at a working ranch in the Nebraska Sandhills. That was a great experience especially for a city-slicker from Chicago. We ate the world's largest hamburger in Harrisonville (or was it Harrisonburg?). We won $500 in a Keno game at Ollie's Big Game Bar in Paxton. Our camp posse even attended a Royals game when we worked a camp in extreme Southeast Nebraska. We saw the remote trout stream near Lone Elm that is rumored to be a favorite fishing hole for Nebraska's athletic director, Tom Osborn. It helped our exposure, gave three players a great summer job where they made money and improved their game, while I could tag along and pay meal money for the group. One summer we went to 17 different high schools on the road during the months of June and July.
Now I was getting a lot of campers. I was making money, although not wheelbarrels full of profit that I had dreamed about. There still was a major flaw in the Weekend Advantage. We got a lot of campers, but none with great talent. I had to find a way to attract college-level players to my camps. The solution came in the mail one day. A camp in Louisiana offered an expense-free trip to Europe for the top 12 players at its basketball camp. I couldn't offer a great deal like that, but after few conversations with a sports travel group, we offered an All-Star trip to Mexico. Here's how it worked; anyone interested in making the All-Star camp team that traveled to Mexico in August simply had to mark a box on the camp registration form. It wasn't a free trip, but for a reasonable price, the high school basketball player could travel for a week in Mexico, playing Mexican All-Star teams. I hired two high school coaches to direct the group, while I sat on the sidelines, keeping statistics and gently recruiting the players.
It was a great week of travel and basketball. Many parents traveled with us. We flew into Mexico City on a Monday. Our hotel was on the edge of the Zona Rosa (the Pink Zone) - one of the safest areas of the city of 20 million people. During the day, we would be visitors to famous Mexican tourist sites. We visited the Pyramids of the Sun and Moon, the Cathedral of Guadalupe where we saw the famous painting, Our Lady of Guadalupe, a remote gold mining village, and the sights and sounds of the one of the largest cities in the world. On Saturday, we'd fly to Acapulco, the world-famous Mexican resort, for a couple of days on the beach. The 16 players, two coaches, the parents and I made this trip 10 consecutive years. I averaged four recruits from each trip and the Doane team won more than 20 games for 12 consecutive years. It's too bad the whole arrangement is not allowed by the NCAA. Northwest is an NCAA school, while Doane is an NAIA school. The NAIA allowed the summer camps and trips.
Then in summer of 1999, I took the job at Northwest. My summer camps at Northwest began in 2000. I had to revise all the marketing strategy, but I think we have finally found our gimmick at Northwest. The gimmick begins and ends with team camps. At Doane College, we held two or three individual camps that regularly drew more than 100 campers. The individual camps at Northwest usually draw around 60 to 80 campers. Now we hold just one individual camp the first week of June. However, team camps have flourished in Maryville. The key was stripping the expenses down to the bare bones.
I noticed that I lost a lot of business to a number of high school Shoot Outs. High schools would invite teams for a day of team camp for a very low cost. To counter this, I cut the price to $35 per camper for one day or $60 for two days. All the campers get four games, referees and air conditioned facilities. They also get competition from a four-state area.
Next week, we host our first team camp. I have 32 teams enrolled for the June 16 and 17 camp, many of them big schools from the Kansas City area. I also draw teams from Nebraska, Iowa, Kansas and all parts of Missouri. It's a great two days of camps and many great recruits find their way to Maryville. Several state champs have paved their way to March successes through the Northwest team camps. We'll draw between 500 and 600 campers this summer. The increase in camp attendance sits at about 1,000 percent more than the attendance in 1999. Unfortunately, one thing has stayed the same. I still can't find those camp riches.
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