For Tom Falcone, co-founder of Pioneer Sports, everything came to a screeching halt when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March 2020.
With schools shuttered and cities across the country ordering everyone to shelter in place, Falcone and co-founder Andrew Cutrone could no longer offer in-person, after-school programs for local youth. They quickly pivoted to virtual classes, teaching everything from karate to cheerleading. But with unemployment hitting record levels and cash tight among households, that petered out a couple of months into the pandemic.
But they didn't give up. Pioneer Sports had come a long way from the days when they started the business in Falcone's basement. Now 12 years in, they had created something that was successful and growing, and they wanted to keep it that way.
"We stayed in contact with our clients (which include police athletic leagues and parent-teacher associations) through COVID via phones calls and Zooms," Falcone told business.com. "We knew things weren't running, but we wanted to make sure they knew that as the world was changing, we were as well."
Nearly six months later, Pioneer Sports is growing again. Revenue in the fall is up year over year, the company is inking new partnerships, and Pioneer Sports remains solidly in the black. Falcone credits the return to growth with the company's willingness to pivot with the pandemic, identify opportunities, and maintain its staff of teachers and sports instructors.
Safety syllabus sets Pioneer Sports apart
For a company that offers after-school sports programs, the pandemic could have easily been a death knell. But instead of bemoaning stringent shelter-in-place orders or threatening to sue local leaders, Pioneer Sports created a pandemic-safe way to keep kids busy and moving once some of the restrictions lifted. Located in Bellmore and Bethpage, New York, Pioneer Sports was able to bounce back a little sooner than small businesses in other towns and cities across the country. New York was hit hard by the pandemic during the early days but now has some of the lowest infection rates in the country.
Once Pioneer Sports got the green light to create sport programs for its clients, it had to convince them that it could be done safely. Drawing on guidance from federal, state and local government agencies, Pioneer Sports created a series of safety protocols that enabled it to gain confidence and grow. Its safety "syllabus" serves as a differentiator and sets Pioneer Sports apart from rivals trying to stay relevant during the pandemic, said Falcone.
All of Pioneer Sports' programs are held outside, masks are required for parents and children, temperatures are taken, and hand sanitizing happens throughout the class. No outside equipment is allowed, and social distancing is enforced at all times. Classes have been reworked to focus on skills rather than games and scrimmages.
Those were big changes for a company used to teaching contact sports, but it demonstrates Pioneer Sports' willingness to adapt and thus continue to grow. Outside of stocking up on hand sanitizers, wipes, thermometers and employee masks, Pioneer Sports didn't incur extra costs from adapting to the new environment. The changes it made boosted clients' confidence in the company, resulting in more business.
Sports programs have established talent base for coaches
Convincing communities that its after-school activities were safe was part of Pioneer Sports' pandemic strategy. Getting instructors to feel comfortable teaching was the other piece of the puzzle.
Instructors are on the front lines during the pandemic. They are the ones teaching the children and coming into contact with them. Getting employees back to work may have been difficult – one only has to look at the teacher strikes happening across the country to see examples of this challenge – but for Pioneer Sports, that wasn't a problem. Falcone credits that to the company's COVID-19 safety protocols and the fact that many of the instructors are teachers or coaches in the communities the programs serve.
"A lot of the coaches were looking for employment and were already certified and background-checked," said Falcone. "That made it a lot easier to find people looking to work extra hours who have experience with children."
Loyal staff makes Pioneer Sports nimble
Employee loyalty is huge for Pioneer Sports. It saves the company the time and money of training, certifying, and running background checks on new and potential employees. That in turn enables Pioneer Sports to be nimble. Once towns give the nod, it can create programs nearly overnight.
Falcone said Pioneer Sports can even deliver on new class requests fielded on the sideline. Since he has a team of instructors at the ready, the company can quickly respond to these opportunities. That flexibility is a big reason Pioneer Sports is defying the odds and keeps on growing.
Winter brings challenges but also opportunities
Pioneer Sports' growth is possible because of safety protocols and the ability to hold classes outside. But as we head into the winter months, which are cold and long in New York, Falcone knows challenges lay ahead. If COVID-19 cases increase, there could be more shutdowns. Cities and towns may be forced to reinstate stringent rules, banning all indoor sport activities – which would put a dent in Pioneer Sports' business during the winter months.
As it stands, Pioneer Sports is still in limbo. The company is awaiting guidance from state and local officials in New York. If activities can take place indoors, Pioneer Sports will be ready, said Falcone. If not, it will shift back to virtual classes.
While Pioneer Sports waits to see how the pandemic plays out, Falcone isn't sitting idly by. The company is expanding existing partnerships with professional sports leagues, chasing new deals and exploring growth opportunities.
As an example, Pioneer Sports is working with a professional hockey team, the New York Islanders, to bring the sport to a younger age group. The efforts coincide with the construction of a new stadium for the team. This presents a big opportunity for Pioneer Sports to offer a new set of classes and continue to expand the business. It also showcases how Pioneer Sports continues to look for opportunities even while the future remains uncertain.
"You have to change with the times," Falcone said. "COVID is very real, it's very serious. [But] the majority of people we speak to don't want to stop living. We are making parents and children feel comfortable. That allows us to grow."