Could your club survive after losing access to 12 courts during the club volleyball season? Somehow, in the winter of 2013 Husky Volleyball Club managed to survive. Our club had grown to 45 teams and was using over 120 weekly court hours during our winter/spring club season.

It began when we lost four courts just before the season started because the roller hockey rink was sold and then turned into a rock climbing gym. Shortly after we lost two courts for most of the season due to floor damage from a broken sprinkler head. Not long after we lost six courts in our main facility (a bubble) that collapsed under an unusually heavy snow load. Just to add insult to injury, most of our volleyballs were trapped under the collapsed bubble for several weeks.

We had been looking at warehouse space for years prior to the 2012-2013 season, but it gained a new sense of urgency as that season wrapped up. Fast forward a few months to the fall of 2013, we were able to move into our own dedicated 6 court facility.

Here’s the story of how we were able to find a building in August, have the town approve it’s use in October and be fully open to hold our first tryouts in November.

Let’s start with the basics. If you want to open your own facility you’ll need to find an existing structure that can meet some minimum requirements in regards to ceiling height, column spacing, parking and bathrooms. Here’s a quick summary of what we considered to be acceptable minimum requirements.

  • Ceiling Height. USA Volleyball specifies a minimum ceiling height of 23′ for nationally sanctioned competition. Real life experience told me that our regional clubs and high schools play in gyms with lower heights than that. Ceiling height requirements that were determined by me buying a laser measuring tool and visiting a lot of gyms at the local high schools that I considered to be “low” and measuring their heights to support beams, lighting fixtures and the bottom of the roof deck. I found that heights of 20′ were considered to be a little low and that 21′-23′ was “reasonable” for junior girls and would be “tolerable” for boys and adults.

  • Column Spacing. Square footage and building dimensions dictate how many courts you can fit in, however throw a row of support columns down the middle of the building and it can destroy the most efficient designs. Although a free span (no columns) building would have been great, we couldn’t find any in our area that were available.
  • Parking. Flex buildings (the most common kind found in warehouse/industrial areas nowadays) are not built with much parking relative to their square footage. After counting cars in small 2 court tournaments, I think you need to have at minimum 8 spaces for each team attending. More teams within a short distance (30 minutes) mean more cars though! That’s a minimum and you need to have a way to handle some overflow parking. That means at least 32 spaces per court for a 4 court tournament (128 spaces).
  • Bathrooms. Making moms wait in line to use overcrowded bathrooms will give your facility a bad name. I did a lot of research on building codes in regards to bathroom capacity. You can get by with less than you need by code (the plumbing codes assume a 50/50 split between men and women and require 1 toilet per 75 attendees) however you won’t have that mix of players at an all girls tournament so the building inspector will allow you to open with less bathrooms than you really need. You’ll also need a “plan B” if you are running an all boys tournament. We solved this by having a bathroom that we assign to the gender that we’ll have more of that day.

Don’t give up if you can’t initially find the right building.

We had a few near misses before moving into the building we are in. First, we were looking at subleasing a building at a bargain rate but that landlord said “no” and didn’t approve of our use. Really? Volleyball players are too hazardous or risky compared to chemicals and forklifts? Next, we almost bought a bank owned building, but it had some prior chemical spills on the land and the bank wouldn’t remediate prior to sale. After that sale fell apart (in July of 2013) I went driving around the area (again!) and saw this nearly empty building. I looked up the landlord and gave him a call.

After getting another cool reception from our landlord’s real estate agent they asked me to come in and tell them what we were proposing. With a hurried layout, some computer generated floor plans and historical and projected financial statements I met with representatives from the company that owned the building (they actually owned almost 30 buildings and 1M square feet of space in our town). Within a day or two of that meeting we had a deal.

The building we ended up moving into was a 28,000 square foot building. It had 25,500 square feet of warehouse space with 2,500 square feet of office space.

Here’s a brief timeline of what happened from August, 2013 until we opened in November, 2013:

  • August, apply to get on town planning commission agenda to request a special use permit to allow for a sport facility in an industrial zone
  • September, begin renovations to building (add 2 bathrooms, improve the lighting, remove steel structure/cranes inside the building). Apply to town for special use permit.
  • 10/9/13, town approves special use permit (pending a 2 week public comment period for review). Order Sport Court on 10/10 and keep fingers crossed that nobody objects!)
  • Thursday, 11/7/13, courts arrive from Utah. Sunday, 11/10 we have an open house with a few hundred people showing up (not all courts down yet).
  • Tuesday, 11/12 and Wednesday, 11/13 we have the holes drilled in the floor (requires 3 days to cure!).
  • Thursday, 11/14 we have the lines painted (2 days to cure!). Saturday, 11/16 we “test” the courts with some coaches open play and hold our first tryout on Sunday, 11/17!

Here are some specifics about what we have:

The Courts
We don’t have an ideal setup but it’s an efficient use of space. Our court area is 255′ long by 100′ wide with columns down the middle of the 255′. That means we have 3 courts that are end to end to end on each side of the columns. We considered netting on the endlines and initially deferred on the decision not to install them. We have not put them in yet and haven’t really had a big problem with balls interfering on adjacent courts. On tournament days we have plenty of fans on the baseline stopping balls from going into the next court. The netting would have cut into the ability of spectators to set up between courts (and we need that room). We provide minimal seating for spectators and remind the spectators to bring their own folding chairs.

We have 3 walls that are masonry block and are fairly indestructible. We do have a fourth wall (at the end of two courts) that have taken a little beating. We repair as needed and try to make them “damage resistant” with hard board covering much of it. One wall (a long one) has 16 windows down the length and an initial concern was whether they’d be broken by volleyballs. We initially considered some sort of cover but decided to see if they would hold up before taking on another expense in advance. We haven’t had any broken windows so far.

The Ceiling
Our building has a little pitch to it so the ceiling is a few feet higher on one side than the other. That’s not really a problem, but the roof does have a lot of nails sticking down into our area. Not a problem for a warehouse but a big problem for volleyballs. We lose a lot of them to punctures. We did a quick calculation however and the cost of replacing them is much less than renting a lift and getting the materials and labor to somehow cover them all of them (a wild guess is approximately 250 nails per court). We attempt to manage the problem by stressing to the players that balls are only permissible off the ceiling if it is a direct rebound off of the players face. Aside from that we threaten them with a physical consequence for lack of control on the ball (yes, we know that we shouldn’t do that and it’s an empty threat… don’t tell them that).

Our retrofit of the building had us adding 50 new lighting fixtures (and relamping all of the existing). Each new fixture has six high output T5 fluorescent bulbs and the fixtures are outfitted with sensors that have them shut off if the area is unused. If I were starting from scratch I would have arranged the lighting to be able to control the lights on each court individually but that’s not the way we are wired (it would have been too expensive to rewire the building). Quite honestly we are over lit and only turn on all the lights on tournament days. We found that the reflectivity of the Sport Court we used made the building a lot brighter than anticipated (when calculating the light levels we were taking measurements with dark gray floors).

We are in a cold weather climate here and have had some near record cold winters in our few years here. We have to account for the cost of heating the building when scheduling some of our programs. For example, a coach coming in to do a private lesson or two on an otherwise empty day means that we have to heat 25,500 feet. That’s money losing proposition when it’s 10 degrees out. Our building has two natural gas roof units that both were replaced when we came in. They heat up the court area quickly, however my landlord did point out that sometimes they may feel like they use $20 bills for fuel and we need to be smart about their use.

The second question we are most frequently asked is “what’s the wifi password?” (first being “where are the bathrooms?) Prior to moving in I went to our cable company’s website to confirm that service was available there. We moved in and when I called for installation they said that their website was wrong and that there was no service to our office park! They’d be glad to install it and it was only going to cost us about $14,000! We went the first winter season with no public wifi (we had dsl with 1.5m just so we could get email). Working with our neighbors I sold the idea of cable internet and we were finally able to get the cable company to install about a year later. We now have 75/15 internet (the next tier up is 150/20).

The cable company gave us a business router for wifi but we then found out that it can handle roughly 40-50 simultaneous connections before starting behaving badly (kicking people off, refusing new connections, stop working in general). Practice days it was fine, but tournament days our whole network would come down. We ended up getting a wireless access point (Ruckus Zoneflex 7982 for less than $200 used on ebay). It allows hundreds to connect at once and covered the whole building well. We now have to restrict their bandwidth on each connection but we really don’t get complaints. The next tier level up offered a little more upload speed (the limiting factor in an application like ours), but not enough to justify the cost (remember, you’re paying the higher cost for 12 months). We usually have guest users limited to 1m/.5m (download/upload) to keep our network functioning (sorry to all of the grandparents that might want to watch livestreams of matches).

Something that we never considered was the humidity inside the building when you have 24 teams playing. Our building has no air conditioning or humidity control in the court area. The first year we quickly found out where our cold water pipe was (on the sealing and dripping condensation the entire 255′ length over 3 of our courts). We brought in a lift and wrapped that pipe in insulation part way through the season. The warmer it is inside the building, the more the players sweat. We learned to keep the morning temperature at 62 degrees during the winter and that once it got to the upper 60’s the humidity was going to go up very quickly and the courts would become slippery. Generally on tournament days (and even if the temperature was well below freezing) the heat would stop coming on and the building temperature would continue to go up to the point that we need to crack some windows and loading dock doors to let cool dry winter air in.

Tournament days give us a pretty heavy parking load. We are in an industrial park with 4 buildings and our building doesn’t have enough parking available for busy days. When we first moved in we also had our landlord paint quite a few additional spaces in our loading dock area as well. We do have a written agreement allowing for us to park at adjacent buildings on busy days but in the interest of being good neighbors we don’t run any large turnout events on weekdays. If you are in a cold weather climate, it’s important to recognize that you are going to lose a portion of your parking to snowbanks. Our landlord handles the snow removal and is aware that our needs are the opposite of all of his other tenants (we need our building plowed first on Sunday mornings!).

Concessions and Pro Shop
Before opening our facility we heeded the advice of others and elected not to serve any prepared food here. The costs of compliance and equipment were more than we wanted to risk for a limited number of tournament days. We only serve prepackaged snacks and drinks on tournament days. We don’t operate a pro shop for the same reason, unsold inventory and labor makes it hardly profitable. We do have seasonal pre-order sales to our club players for sweatshirts.

For clubs looking into their own facility I’d give this advice:

  • Be efficient for space. Remember that you are paying 12 months per year for any extra space that you have (rent, taxes, heat). We were very fortunate to be able to get 6 courts into 25,500 square feet. Our additional 2,500 square feet fits 6 offices, a lobby and our bathrooms.
  • Make your first priority to have practice and camp space, tournament space should be a secondary concern. Our space is tight for spectators (but we squeeze them in) on tournament days but every square foot bigger that you make your gym means that you have to pay more in rent for 12 months a year for that area.
  • Be very cautious about any “overhead”. We are very cautious about spending money on anything that doesn’t make us a better volleyball club.
  • My biggest warning is to those that are looking to open a facility and don’t have a large built-in customer base. The math doesn’t work easily if you are looking to rent courts on an hourly rate. People renting your courts will need to make a profit too and will leave your courts for cheaper courts if available.

There’s a 12 month need to generate revenue for the facility and it’s turned a sideline/hobby into another seasonal full-time job (we still have a few “slow” months). We try to contribute to coaching education in the state and region by hosting Gold Medal Squared coaching clinics, USA Volleyball IMPACT training and organize regular high school preseason coaches clinics with presenters from local collegiate programs (which have been a big success). Our facility has allowed us to expand our offerings and provide more training opportunities for aspiring volleyball stars. We don’t have to worry about double bookings, changes in managers/ownership and have been able to take control of long-term strategies to “Grow the Game” in our part of the country!

For more information on building, owning and operating a volleyball facility click here.

About the Author

Pat Ryan is the Club Director of Husky Volleyball Club for girls, boys and youngsters based out of The Den located in Windsor, CT.  Husky Volleyball now has more NERVA junior players than any other club in New England. Pat has been a JVA Club Director since the JVA was first establishedin 2006.