[ Photos & video by Jim Pitt Harris ]
It all started on the gridiron. Football initially lured Greenville Sports Leagues (GSL) president and owner Joe Wilson to Greenville, where he played offensive line while attending Furman University; though the Upstate – and for a while, even sports – weren’t always the end zone.
A “big sports guru growing up,” he played several sports since age 5, but got serious about football. After high school and college careers, Wilson said he “tried to play in the pros, but it didn’t quite happen.” Instead, Wilson left the Upstate after graduation and pursued a career in medical sales.
But as fate (and fun) would have it, Wilson found himself back in the area seven years ago, where he soon after met his current business partner, John Sharkey, through mutual friends. “We just started hanging out, became best friends, became roommates and ultimately became business partners,” Wilson said.
They started playing and organizing pick-up games. “It started growing and growing and growing,” he recalls. “It was 50, 60 then 75 people.”
So the two guys started to wonder. “I was like, hey, I love sports, there could be a business here, and let’s see what happens.,” Wilson said. Sharkey reached out to his buddy Philip Steen in Nashville, who had experience launching and running some sports leagues there. Steen and Sharkey had met when they used to run restaurants and bars for Boulevard Nightlife Group (BNG), one of the largest nightclub companies in the country.
The three guys formed a team, and GSL kicked off. Now, four years later, the local, competitive adult recreation league offers an impressive menu of sporting options during all four seasons. Participants have swelled to 10,000 annually and the league has official partnerships with multiple Upstate municipalities. GSL has also expanded into the private corporate league and tournament verticals; tournaments such as bubble soccer and dodgeball are held periodically throughout the year.
Read on as Wilson breaks down the GSL business strategy – and explains to UBJ how they’re just warming up.
How long had Nashville Sports Leagues been established before you decided to replicate that model here, and how did that work?
NSL has been in business for about 10 years. [Philip Steen] started it there. GSL is going into its fourth year. We originally went to Phil for some help. We were like, “Hey, we want to do a sports league. Since you have the expertise, we would like to bring you in,” and that’s when Phil became my and Sharkey’s partner in the whole endeavor.
We’ve branched out as a company, and so Sharkey and I also own Augusta Sports League [ASL], and we are going into some other markets. Probably in the next six months, we’re going into two markets other than Greenville and Augusta. They’re in Alabama and Louisiana.
How did you identify these opportunities to expand into new markets?
ASL has been in business for two years. It was going along, but kind of needed a little bit of a face-lift, and so we came in as GSL and worked out a deal with the current owner down there to where we’re partners now. We’re able to help and guide to allow ASL to grow into the market, because Augusta is just like Greenville – the population down there is great. The downtown seems a little bit different in Augusta, but the population is the same as Greenville. It just made sense for us to partner up and try to build something.
Let’s talk numbers. How many people participate?
Between NSL and GSL, you’re probably looking at 30,000 total participants. NSL is about 20,000 and Greenville 10,000.
How have you tracked or seen growth?
[It’s been] crazy! First year, we had about 75-100 teams altogether with kickball, volleyball, flag football – that’s what we started with.
Now we do basketball, sand volleyball, grass volleyball, indoor volleyball, soccer, kickball, softball, flag football, corn hole … As special tournaments, we run a state flag football tournament, bubble soccer – we ran the first-ever bubble soccer tournament hosted in Greenville, which was a huge success.
So we went from 100 teams, to the next year 300 teams, and the following year we jumped up to around 700. Now our goal for our fourth year is 1,000 teams. That’s crazy.
How would you explain your core strategy for such successful and consistent growth?
We’re not adding a ton of sports. Instead, we just open up the sports we know people love to play, and we offer them multiple nights. What we do best is provide options because there’s a ton of young professionals, but there’s also a ton of folks with families and work obligations who need to have those options.
What other organizations are you working with?
We have a very, very large partnership with the City of Greenville Parks and Recreation Department. That has allowed us to be able to come into the market and offer adult sports. It’s been huge for both of us. Working with those guys is awesome.
We have a partnership with the Kroc Center – which has been very vital for several of our leagues – Greenville County, the City of Mauldin, and the City of Simpsonville. We have three softball leagues in Mauldin. We just started working with the City of Simpsonville, so this is the very first softball league we’re bringing there.
How did GSL get the opportunity to host kickball and softball championships on Fluor Field?
Greenville Drive is a partner, too. They’ve put in teams with us as Drive employees. They saw a great opportunity, and so did we as an organization – to partner up, to be able to push and sell tickets for them, to reach our database and our players. In turn, they could host and we’d be able to play our championship games there. It’s pretty simple. And it’s been absolutely awesome. We’re talking 200-300 people there to watch a championship kickball game. It’s pretty wild.
We also work closely with K&W beverage – the Budweiser house here – and St. Francis Sports Medicine. They provide athletic trainers out at our fields for if a player has an injury, needs a Band-Aid or a taping, things like that.
Where do see you see yourself and GSL in five years?
Obviously I hope we continue our growth and success in Greenville. I would like to have someone as a market manager for Greenville – so that person would take the face of the company. I would like to see my role as more of a regional director more than the daily operations of GSL. I’ll be honest with you; I can’t believe GSL is where it is now. We’ve been crazy blessed. It’s just kind of a whirlwind.
How do you market yourself to registrants?
Here’s the thing with sports leagues: It’s not rocket science. The big thing for us is communication, and we feel that nobody does that better than we do.
We’re mainly grass roots marketing. A lot of it is word-of-mouth. We do a lot of social media stuff, but we really don’t spend a ton of money; we feel the best marketing for us is making our current customers really happy.
In our culture now, everybody shares everything. Especially with the age groups we have – 25 to 40 years old – if they like something, they’re going to tell everybody about it. That’s kind of how we’ve grown.
What factors have most contributed to GSL’s success? What specifically has made this endeavor a rewarding one for you?
Greenville overall has the growth, and the opportunities here are crazy. GSL just brings a sense of community to Greenville. Twenty-one to whatever age – 50, 55, 60 years old – we have a lot of those folks in the league. It’s a sense of community, sense of camaraderie, a chance for young adults to live out their youth dreams again and have a good time – and most of all, meet new people in Greenville, which there are a lot of.
I see the teams’ progress from season to season. I’ll come out and maybe be like, “Well, these guys aren’t very good.” And the next season, “Oooh! They’ve been practicing!” Then next they’re competing in the playoffs; then next, winning the championship. It’s fun to see the players, and really, what we promote is fun.