With British sporting achievements virtually a monthly occurrence, the rapid growth of A-Star Sports couldn’t be timelier
It’s safe to say that things have never looked brighter for British sport. The last year has brought us success on a seemingly unprecedented level, from Bradley Wiggins’ Tour de France triumph – occurring just before the prosperous London Olympics – through to Andy Murray’s historic Wimbledon victory last month. Something to tell the grandchildren about, you might say. More than this though, one would hope that the events of the past 12 months have served to inspire young sports enthusiasts the country over, as well as those for whom sport had previously been a minor interest. Regardless, the existence of A-Star Sports, the fast-growing children’s sports coaching franchise, is as welcome now as it was when launched by three determined couples just over 18 months ago.
Indeed, it comes as no surprise to learn that co-founder and MD Gary Bassett grew up with a passion for sport and an eye for business to boot. “As a youngster I was actually quite a shy kid, but I did loads of sport and that is what brought me out of myself,” Bassett fondly recalls. “I was a director in a Lego company by the time I was 26 and I don’t think that would have ever happened without sport.”
He adds that the time he spent working with Lego helped inform the A-Star Sports approach, and opened his eyes to the frustrations evident among the UK’s sport-hungry youth. “Lego is about learning through play and making learning fun, and a lot of those same principles underpin where we are coming from,” he explains. “While I was doing the career thing, it was actually difficult to try and find the right opportunities to volunteer, get involved and make sport happen. I could also see that a lot kids were getting put off, not getting the opportunity to try loads of different sports, or they were doing one sport and it was just getting too serious.”
For Bassett, A-Star Spots is “about looking for ways to give kids that same view on sport and opportunity that I had as a youngster”. And it is certainly doing a pretty decent job of it so far, with three more franchises set to open in September, taking the total number to 15, a mere year and half after launch. Bassett explains that the growth rate is largely down to the relatively low start-up costs and the equally efficient franchising route through which he opted to grow the business. He says, “Franchising is an easier way to grow quickly, particularly in our type of industry, because you can get people on board who actually want to be a master of their own destiny, but who are also passionate about what we are trying to achieve.”
Bassett also cites the logistical benefits of franchising, especially when taking the nature of the A-Star Sports offering into account. “I think it would be difficult to reach out across the country, doing it from one head office structure, and managing all the coaches and things like that,” he explains. “I think there are plenty of examples of schemes that have tried to launch nationally, being run centrally, that have not necessarily done what they would have hoped from a sport perspective.”
Purely on a strategic level, it is quite telling that the company’s three co-founding couples – Bassett’s wife Sharon is a fellow director – hail from north Wales, Glasgow and Edinburgh. This has allowed A-Star Sports to get things well and truly off the ground, especially in the more northern reaches of the UK. However, it is very much a national project and Bassett has identified the precise number of franchise regions he hopes to incorporate in order for his dream to become a reality. “Everything we have built and structured was based on the fact that we know ultimately there are 240 territories, so we have tried to systemise everything and process everything so that we know it is scalable,” he says. And these 240 territories were devised in conjunction with a mapping company, which Bassett explains helped him pinpoint those areas with a high density of 0-11-year-olds, and sufficient levels of disposable income.
Pre-school and school age children are very much the target market for A-Star Sports then, but Bassett is quick to distance his venture from being one that is targeted at schools, per se. Indeed, it is this very distinction that he believes gives A-Star Sports the competitive advantage when it comes to the children’s sport coaching arena. “Most of the similar-type competition – those that work across a number of sports – all tend to try and sell to schools,” he explains.
“So that is very much our point of difference: we focus on long-term relationships direct with the families. It is nothing to do with the schools, or selling to schools, or any funding that schools have got, and we can be far more a part of the community as well.”
The A-Star Sports ‘office’, therefore, changes on a daily basis from a local village hall to a leisure centre – venues which Bassett says are inexpensive to hire, meaning franchisees can set the prices for sports classes and training courses at a fairly accessible level for parents. Moreover, the transparency and openness of the A-Star Sports offer is a further game-changer for its target demographic. “Whereas if you were going into schools, it would be a bit more removed and you are following the school curriculum; we can work far more closely with governing bodies and other parties to help develop our programme,” comments Bassett. “We will have the parents sit and watch so they can actually see what we do. While it puts pressure on our coaches, it is actually the best marketing for us, and also probably helps parents play with their kids more.”
Naturally, it takes a certain type of person to teach sport to children on a daily basis, and Bassett admits that the process that prospective franchisees go through before becoming an accepted A-Star Sports coach can often be quite gruelling. At the end of the day though, it is essential that each person is built in the same mould, and shares the same vision as the company’s founders. “It is important that our customers, the children, like them, and it is pretty brutal,” says Bassett. “It doesn’t matter if they are the best sports coach in the world – if they can’t captivate the kids, it won’t work.”
One can’t help but admire the lofty aims of A-Star Sports – aims that are only matched by the hunger and passion with which its founders conduct the operation. Suffice to say, the success that the Bassetts have achieved thus far has been recognised by the powers that be in both the worlds of sport and small business, as well as the parenting community.
As reported last month, A-Star Sports has struck up a partnership with Support Through Sport UK, a charity geared towards promoting positive sporting experiences and making sport accessible to lower participation groups. This is in addition to being named a founding member of Accelerate 250, the new business community backed by Lord Young and Sir Terry Leahy, and made up of the country’s fastest-growing firms – the so-called ‘vital 6%’ of companies currently responsible for creating half of the UK’s jobs.
There are accolades to go with the achievements then, and Bassett identifies this credibility as the key to a successful franchise. “I would say for anyone considering franchising, it is about how to make sure you will be seen as a credible, ethical and correct franchisor so you don’t get dragged down with the one or two out there that aren’t,” Bennett says. “But having said that, it is not a negative story – all the statistics show that there is more chance of success in setting up a franchise business, or less chance of failure, than setting up on your own.” The A-Star Sports story thus far is certainly testament to that.