KEVA Sports & the Art of Business Fitness

During the very earliest days of his business, Eric Fritz, the president of KEVA Sports Center, pivoted faster than most entrepreneurs would dare. The Middleton-based multi-sports facility began in 1999 as an adult-only center for physically active people needing a basketball, volleyball, or other athletic fix, but it wasn't long – three months, in fact – before that fledging business model was chucked for something more expansive, something that would accommodate athletes of all ages.


Small in size only

KEVA is one of 10 winners of the 29th annual Dane County Small Business Awards. Winning companies are evaluated based on (1) business success in terms of bottom- and top-line performance, (2) the extent to which owners recognize that all employees are integral to business advancement, and (3) how active nominees are in giving back to the community (see June's Van Lines).

The 2011 award winners represent businesses from a variety of industries, including information technology, biotechnology, construction, retail, solar energy, restaurants, dentistry, manufacturing, and psychological services. Where KEVA is concerned, they represent sports and recreation. In catering to robustly active people of all ages, the year-round center now serves people as young as 18 months old with core sports of soccer, volleyball, and basketball, plus classes and camps and events that are designed to constantly put the facility in contact with customers.

With one notable exception, being aggressive is a common theme for Fritz, a licensed soccer coach who strives to offer a measure of fitness diversity to each one of the 300,000 people who walk through

KEVA's doors each year.

Recalling those early days, Fritz tells people that he threw his first business plan in the trash, and was left openly wondering how to get more people in the door. KEVA was trying to offer popular sports programming like basketball and volleyball, which had never been done – at least at this scale – by a private entity.

Those first three months were an education, as were the first three years. What was the biggest lesson? "It's important to plan, but it's equally important to be able to adapt," Fritz said, "and it's important to have your people understand why you're adapting."

More importantly from a top-line standpoint, KEVA's annual revenue has grown to $2 million, with every annual sales jump linked to internal initiatives such as hiring a dedicated sales manager or making key programming decisions.

While it has managed to regain business momentum, the center was not immune to the Great Recession's economic shocks, which began in the housing market and eventually prompted consumers to focus spending on their most essential needs. As important as physical fitness happens to be, it's more of a want than a need when times are tough, and that resulted in painful programming cuts at KEVA.

By the second quarter of 2009, its revenue was down 30% from the previous year, threatening a planned 100,000-sq.-ft. expansion of its outdoor facility that some, citing the economy, wanted to put off.

Fritz, however, viewed expansion as a "now or never" moment. The new turf fields, primarily used for soccer, and new volleyball courts provide what Fritz called "a tremendous shot in the arm" in what had been a seasonable business. Summers had been the "down time," and the outdoor improvements helped make KEVA more of a warm-weather option. For the prime time slots for events and private functions, the outdoor facility is almost sold out for the summer of 2011. "I'll praise my staff on this one," Fritz stated. "They were right on board with me. They were helping to create spreadsheets and reviewing things over and over in terms of what the game plan was and what we would do in revenue with this outdoor area. It has made a big statement that we're serious about what we do, and in a down economy, we saw opportunity and took advantage of it."

Aggressiveness also paid off in other efforts, including an initiative to create and build another local youth soccer alternative (KEVA will launch more than 50 soccer leagues this summer alone). There were, however, other times when Fritz felt that discretion was the better part of valor. Other than the decision to go "all ages," Fritz was fairly cautious during those first three years, something he now regrets and something that played a role in his full-steam-ahead approach to the outdoor facility expansion.

"I look back now and, boy, I could have been much more aggressive in working with other vendors, other similar companies," he acknowledged. "We could have been aggressive right from the start with other family activities, family functions, and the corporate functions. We could have been more aggressive in going after some of that core business that we've really focused on during the past eight years."

Fritz's approach earns plaudits from his business associations. Karen Hitchcock, owner of Creative Gun Consulting, has worked with Fritz on various marketing initiatives, and said he's been well served by an openness to new ideas and a willingness to innovate. "I often use KEVA as an example of a sustainable business model in which people and environment take priority, with profit being important but not the only driver to success," she said. "It's refreshing."

KEVA Sports Center functions with just five full-time employees, and its roster of 75 part-timers varies according to seasonal sport opportunities. It doesn't hurt that sports-crazy Madison is populated with people who crave active lifestyles, a characteristic that drove the initial development of the business. Fritz not only coaches soccer, he played soccer throughout high school and three years into college at Division III UW-Whitewater. He hails from a family whose members were involved in athletics from an early age. One of his brothers played Division I soccer; another played Division I football.

Fritz views soccer as an ideal sport for young children because of all the running and conditioning involved, and noted the facility focuses on bringing in kids at a young age to get them interested in pursuing a lifetime of fitness. He also benefits from serving a highly educated community, mostly through what he called a phenomenal workforce.

"Being able to draw from the university and Edgewood College, we just have some great part-time people that understand what KEVA is and where we want to go," Fritz said.

"It's great to be active and educated."

KEVA is a Native American word from the Navajo Tribe. The KEVA was the meeting hut for the community where any significant activities within the tribe occurred. A variety of things are under consideration to keep this sports-related KEVA growing, including another facility on the east side or the southwest side of town. Prior to the recession, the center started satellite locations in Verona and Waunakee with varying degrees of success, "so it's getting to be time to put that back on the table," Fritz said.

Revamping existing programs also has paid dividends. KEVA's 11-on-11 soccer structure morphed into 7-on-7 soccer; as a result, it has gone from 125 teams overall to 185 teams.

In giving back to the community, KEVA has created programs for children and adults with developmental disabilities, earning it recognition from The ARC of Dane County. The center also has contributed to endeavors like the Madison Children's Museum capital campaign, it holds events like a soccer "Marrowthon" to raise awareness of the need for marrow donations, and it recently helped collect almost 20 tons of food for the Middleton Outreach Ministry.

"I feel that giving back to the community is a personal responsibility and a corporate responsibility," Fritz said. "KEVA is all about families. They are giving to us, and in turn we need to help support schools and churches."

30 years of business excellence

Neil Lerner, director of the Small Business Development Center at the UW-Madison's School of Business, said each year the committee presents small business awards to 10 companies in Dane County. The sponsoring committee members and organizers of the 29th annual program hail from the SBDC, In Business magazine, Wisconsin Business Development Finance Corp., Madison Gas & Electric, MidWest Family Broadcasting, and Chase.

"Important to the awards process is that we recognize the entire company, not just the owners," Lerner noted. "We want to give awards to companies where the owners recognize that all of the employees are integral to the success of the firm and create a rewarding place to work."

Winning a small business award brings its own rewards for the president of KEVA Sports Center. "You never really think about those things when you are getting into the business," Fritz said. "You're thinking of the day-to-day or the big picture, and then you begin to see some of these accolades, and it's a great feeling."

Sign up for the free IB Update – your weekly resource for local business news, analysis, voices, and the names you need to know. Click here.