ALBERTA’S GAME CHANGER:  How the Calgary National Bank Challenger Grew Tennis in Alberta

I heard that voice from Field of Dreams in my head “If you build it, they will come”. That was my thought process when I agreed to host the Calgary National Bank Challenger. In 2017, I executed an agreement with Tennis Canada to host the ATP Challenger at our brand new OSTEN & VICTOR Alberta Tennis Centre (ATC), during the Canada vs. India Davis Cup tie in Edmonton. We hosted the first edition of the Calgary National Bank Challenger in 2018, and a subsequent edition took place in 2020. 

The vision was easy… I thought you must “go big or go home”.  I just came off a 5-year stint as Executive Director of Squash Canada and ran the 2014 Women’s World Team Squash Championship (WWT) at my old club, White Oaks Conference Resort & Spa. At that time, the WWT was the largest women’s squash event ever held. It was a fabulous event and one of the proudest moments of my career. As good as the WWT event was, I felt I could make the Calgary National Bank Challenger even bigger and better.  I had developed a template that could be replicated but understanding the Calgary market was key to driving the success of our Challenger event. 

KEY SUCCESS MEASURES: 2020 event

  • Week-long sold-out event with 8,600 spectators (35% increase in ticket sales over year 1)
  • Sponsorship renewal of over 90% and event partners grew by 39% over year 1
  • Event visibility grew by 1,000% through our various marketing initiatives
  • 100% increase in our live-streaming coverage – over 1 million page views on the ATP app and 822,000 minutes of coverage

Most fans don’t fully appreciate the work that goes on behind the scenes at professional sporting events. You will often hear players thank the tournament organizers, ball kids and event personnel for organizing a great event. But what makes a great event? 

… IT STARTS WITH HAVING GREAT PEOPLE

I have learned from, and worked with, some of the best tennis leaders in Canada. My mentors have included: Hatem McDadi, Tennis Canada’s Sr. VP of High Performance; Karl Hale, Tournament Director of Rogers Cup; Derrick Rowe, past-chair of Tennis Canada’s Board of Directors and now, Ron Ghitter, Chair of the ATC. Each of these individuals has played an instrumental role in my life as a tennis professional and sport executive. These four have given me the tools to succeed and the wisdom to lead others. 

From afar, I have always admired the likes of Gary Caron, Wayne Elderton, Jeff McCarrol and Pierre Lamarche, among others. They are some of Canada’s top tennis leaders and coaches. Their passion, dedication to the game of tennis and professionalism have made them some of Canada’s top tennis leaders. Like them, I am internally driven to succeed, and I want to help the next generation of tennis pros grow and succeed. 

As CEO of the ATC since our inception, I have been given the responsibility of building our team and establishing our culture of excellence. We have a wonderful team at the ATC but what makes our team special is that we all collectively live out the ATC’s vision and mission daily. We are empowered to work together as a team, and we are given the opportunity to grow and develop. 

Our Calgary National Bank Challenger involves an organizing committee of 25 people and over 230 volunteers, contributing over 2,600 hours of volunteer work. Many of our volunteers come from our membership. They are program participants and high-performance junior players. As Tournament Director my job is to manage our team, relationships with our partners and ensure the overall success of the event. Everyone on our team is directly involved in the running of this event. While the event is great, it’s the people behind it that make the event what it is.

There is a saying “It takes a village to raise a child”, and this applies to our business as well. This “village” concept applies to building a business because starting a business is like raising a child. The decisions we make as leaders early on will help determine if our business grows or fails. 

Through two years of running the Challenger, I have learned that it is important to involve your team in every step of the planning, execution, and delivery of the event. By giving our team event responsibilities, we are furthering the development of our staff and giving them the tools to succeed. 

BE BOLD:  RUN THE EVENT YOU WANT TO ATTEND

The Calgary National Bank Challenger is a ‘mini’ Rogers Cup. It has all the bells-and-whistles of a world-class ATP Tour event. Some players have even commented that the event operates more like an ATP 250 event than a Challenger Tour event. I aspire to make the Challenger the best in the world. There was no motivation to run a bare-bones event, we wanted to compete with the best sporting events in the province. After-all we are competing for marketing dollars and media attention. 

Tennis players are always taught to compete. Running this event is like a 5-set battle. You must be patient, but you also must take your chances at the key moments. I always envisioned running this event in a way that would “exceed the expectations of our members and fans”. 

The Calgary National Bank Challenger looks and feels like a pro-event. From the Porsche and Audi cars shuttling the players, to the world-class restaurants participating in our event, we wanted to provide value for our players and fans. 

One of the unique features of our event is our partnership with the Concorde Entertainment Group. They are one of Canada’s top restaurant groups and they bring 3 of Canada’s top 100 restaurants to our event. Every night we provide a different culinary experience for our sponsors and box holders.  By engaging the Concorde Group, we have made the event the place to be seen. Our partnership has been wildly successful, and it has become the benchmark for other events in the city for event hosting and networking. 

Our event has also attracted some of the most recognizable names in tennis: Ivo Karlovic, Tommy Robredo, Casper Ruud, and Jordan Thompson. After Canada reached the 2019 Davis Cup final in Madrid, I asked Daniel Nestor, our Honorary Tournament Director, to approach Vasek Pospisil to play our event. Vasek was on fire, playing some of the best tennis of his career. Undeterred, we sold Vasek on our event. We took our shot and won. Once I announced Vasek’s participation, he helped sell out our event in a matter of days.  

THE ENGINE THAT DRIVES OUR SPORT

Our Challenger event has developed a reputation as a premier sporting event in the province. The success of the event has translated into more members, more players playing and more court bookings. The event has become the engine that drives the ATC, but I am most proud of how the event supports the community and tennis development in the province. 

Take for instance our event partners. We partner with over 100 Alberta based companies which includes 46 event sponsors (38 of them are based in Alberta). The Challenger has become a big economic driver for the city and province, generating $3 to $5 million dollars in economic impact. The Challenger has improved the ATC brand throughout the province. It has led to new business development opportunities and partnerships which have further grown our business. By creating value and visibility for the event, we were able to grow sponsorship, ticket sales and corporate box sales but, most importantly, we are growing the visibility of our tennis centre and improving our brand. 

THINK OUT OF THE BOX: BE DIFFERENT

Every day we are presented with two choices: Evolve or Repeat. I consider myself to be an “out-of-the-box” thinker. I pursue excellence daily.  In business, if you are not growing, you are dying.  In addition to running a professional tennis event, my job is to grow tennis in our club and the province.  Securing sponsorship is difficult and time consuming. It can be disheartening as well. I have written to hundreds of companies in Calgary, most of them either do not respond or reject you. I am determined to make our event the best. Rejection does not faze me, it drives me

Rather than focus on traditional brands or companies who sponsor tennis, I decided to be different. I go after brands that I support and enjoy. I partnered with a leading shopping mall in Calgary to host a mall tennis presentation to promote the event. The mall promotion was one of the most unconventional partnerships for our event, but it yields 24,000 participants annually. It draws tremendous media attention, with a giant tennis court in the mall, and tennis pros playing mini-tennis each day during the busy lunch hour. It has helped sell tickets and grow our programs. However, the mall wasn’t my target, it was the anchor tenant. Holt Renfrew, a luxury premium retailer with no history of sponsoring sporting events, was my target. Our partnership with Holt Renfrew grew from providing the event with gift cards to eventually sponsoring the Scoreboard and it has paid off for both parties. 

I have learned a lot about marketing and sponsorship from hosting events, but by targeting Holt Renfrew to the event, I was able to attract other sponsors like Audi and Porsche. The lesson here is don’t be afraid to be different.  

GET THE WORD OUT

The Calgary National Bank Challenger’s greatest success is its marketing and visibility. The first edition in 2018 was very successful, but the lessons I learned from the first edition really propelled the event in 2020. 

Our 2018 event took place in October which is right at the start of the NHL season and CFL playoffs.  Knowing that we could not compete for media attention, I decided to engage the Calgary Flames and Calgary Stampeders to advertise and partner with them directly. These partnerships provided maximum coverage at their games and specifically targeted their fan bases. 

In 2020, I partnered with Pattison Outdoor signs to advertise on bus routes, the airport and at key intersections. The deal paid them $10,000 in advertising and, in exchange, they provided $60,000 in sponsorship. We received blanket coverage from Pattison, with 55 million marketing impressions throughout the city. This partnership, along with announcing Vasek Pospisil’s participation, helped legitimize the event. 

It is not easy to get the media’s attention in a big market, you need a premium product to sell with compelling storylines. Sometimes you must “build it and they will come”.  By securing some big names we were able to get the media excited about the event and, in turn, they were more than willing to cover it. 

IN CONCLUSION

Hosting a world-class event has been exciting for our tennis community. It has supported the development of our tennis centre. The success of our event has led the ATC to unveil plans to further expand our tennis facility. Our expansion will further transform our centre into a world-class venue and will allow us to grow the event and our facilities programs in the future. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has created some uncertainty, but we are confident the event can come back bigger and stronger than ever. Our team at the ATC has done a tremendous job of growing the event, but the public-private partnership created from this event by ATC and Tennis Canada ensures the event’s success in the future. With limited resources, we must form more of these partnerships to grow the game of tennis in Canada. 

By: DANNY DA COSTA

CEO, OSTEN & VICTOR Alberta Tennis Centre

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