Many entering the youth sports business scene may think it’s all fun and games.
Matt Kanne, founder and chief executive of Anaheim’s Open Gym Premier, a provider of camps, club teams, leagues, tournaments and training for youth basketball and volleyball players says: think again.
“There’s a seriousness, intensity and commitment to our mission of helping young athletes,” Kanne told the Business Journal.
“There’s so much attention on school, [yet] sports are pretty transformative and impactful in the way kids are raised,” he said. “It almost doesn’t get enough attention.
The seriousness of Open Gym’s work is evident at the company’s sprawling basketball and volleyball sports facility just off the Santa Ana (5) Freeway, next to the new Radisson Blu Anaheim hotel.
The environment at the space, large enough to hold 9 basketball courts, along with meeting space and other amenities, is fast-paced. That makes sense given the Open Gym full-time team of over 60 only has three days—excluding flex Mondays and Fridays and weekend events—to complete their work for the Monday-to-Friday week.
Still, “at the same time, there’s a lightheartedness, there’s a joy,” Kanne said.
“There’s a balance.”
Along with Open Gym’s unique policy of a three-day highly concentrated workweek, the company provides a host of team building events, as well as unlimited vacation and sick days.
The company’s culture of trust and flexibility has scored it a spot in the Business Journal’s latest list of Best Places to Work, the centerpiece of this week’s print edition.
Open Gym ranks No. 7 among the Midsize Companies category—which includes companies with over 50 but less than 250 U.S. employees (see list, page 46).
It’s fun to work here, Open Gym Senior Director of Operations Christine Nguyen said.
“It doesn’t feel like a job.”
Open Gym is in growth mode. It earned about $5 million in revenue last year, plans to hit $8 million this year and could double that amount in 2023, officials say (see story, page 37).
Its success wasn’t a sure thing as of two years ago, when the pandemic presented a handful of obstacles for Open Gym’s events-based business.
The company shut down for eight months starting in March 2020, furloughing all its staff. Another related sports facility company that Kanne was involved with, American Sports Centers, closed for good.
In the throes of COVID-19, “the approach was never like ‘why? Why is this happening?’” Kanne said.
“We were more focused on what we were going to do to come back—having that NorthStar of rebuilding [the company]” and growing it.
However, the uncertainty of the crisis also worked in the company’s favor.
American Sports Centers, which subleased a large portion of its nearly 240,000-square-foot Anaheim building to Open Gym, exited its contract. The surviving company renegotiated its portion of the complex.
“If it wasn’t for COVID … we [wouldn’t be] able to assume full control over the Anaheim facility and, ultimately, over another facility [in Oakland],” Kanne said.
Open Gym’s Anaheim sports facility runs 89,000 square feet. Its Oakland facility, which the company took over last year, runs 30,000 square feet.
When Open Gym reopened after its COVID shutdown, it retained nearly all its existing staff.
The company then tripled its headcount from about 30 to nearly 100 to meet the demands of its increased programming, such as summer sports camps, events and national tournaments.
As the pandemic gave rise to discussions over remote work and hybrid models, Kanne surveyed his employees to get a sense of their work-life preferences.
What he found prompted him to implement the company’s current three-day workweek schedule with flex Mondays and Fridays.
“There was overwhelming desire to return to the office,” he said.
“With that, there was a very strong response to continue or even expand upon the flexibility within that structure.”
Although debates about remote and in-person work point to either-or, Kanne sees the solution as a combination of both.
“People want an office, they want consistency, they want a place where they can go get work done. They want the team building, the camaraderie, the easy communication—they need all of that human interaction,” he said.
“They also definitely want flexibility and the freedom to make their own schedule. They want to have the ability to focus on certain projects from home.
“There’s so much conversation about these rigid, black and white [work models] … I think the answer is clearly in the middle.
“To me, the hybrid, compromised structure is most effective.”
The company’s facility has become the training grounds for a handful of pro athletes and celebrities, including the late Kobe Bryant.
Bryant trained regularly at Open Gym during the last five years of his career, Kanne said.
One early morning, when Bryant arrived at the Anaheim Open Gym facility, Kanne spotted another man with him dressed in an oversized hoodie.
Kanne, who says he isn’t a knowledgeable music fan, didn’t think much of Bryant’s guest when he let them both into the building.
It was only after his co-workers blurted out “oh my gosh, that’s Kanye West,” that Kanne realized who he had just let into the gym.
While he trained at Open Gym, Bryant also brought in NBA stars Russell Westbrook and Tracy McGrady, among dozens of others.
The company worked with Bryant to develop a summer workout program in 2015.
Today, the Anaheim Open Gym facility serves as a training spot for the women’s USA Volleyball team.
Open Gym has inked a handful of notable partnerships.
The company’s flagship partner is adidas America Inc. The clothing brand provides the company with product and signage while Open Gym uses it to generate more visibility for the brand.
Open Gym is one of 15 members of the Jr. NBA Flagship Network. It landed a partnership with the NBA Summer League for this year.
The company’s other partnerships include San Clemente-based underwear manufacturer Ethika Inc. and SIQ Basketball, a maker of a “smart basketball” that tracks and analyzes ball movement to improve shooting.
Tech Ramp Up
Although Open Gym’s core businesses are its sports tournaments, camps and club teams, the company has recently begun to ramp up on its technology, which it calls the Passport.
The Passport is an online profile for youth sports players and teams. It stores live stats for the more than 10,000 basketball games Open Gym operates every year, as well as players’ birth certificates and report cards.
“Think of a passport on steroids that allows you to archive your youth sports career from both a player and team perspective,” Kanne said.
Open Gym monetized the Passport last September.
Kanne noted the company is currently hiring for more web programmers to expand the company’s tech.
“We’re working to have new features coming out regularly,” he said.
Most recently, the company launched a feature that allows Passport users to upload their own pictures and videos to player and team profiles, rather than only the company being able to do so.
Chapman Alum, Gym Rat Scores a Growing Business
Matt Kanne’s initial vision for Open Gym Premier was more facility-focused than it is today.
He founded the company in 2009 while playing basketball as a business major at Chapman University.
“I really like basketball and I wanted to play it all the time,” he said.
In college, “I wanted to put in the work and grow as a player [but] I couldn’t find an open gym.”
When his frustration with the lack of practice spaces “reached a boiling point,” Kanne vowed to himself: “I’m going to open a gym and I’m going to call it ‘Open Gym.’ Everybody and anybody is going to be able to come and play.”
He spent about three years writing a business plan and raising money to build and operate a gym in a warehouse.
After realizing he’d “gotten nowhere” close to opening his own gym in those three years, he pivoted to providing basketball training, events programming, and creating leagues for teams to play.
In 2011, he launched Open Gym and “got it off the ground quickly with a lot of guerilla marketing.”
Two years later, the company began to host tournaments and camps, which now make up most of its business.
In 2015, Open Gym expanded its events arm beyond California into “every state west of Texas.”
Not long after, the company started to replicate its programming in basketball with volleyball.
Today, it serves over 50,000 players and 5,000 teams every year in programs and events across California, Washington, Arizona, Oregon, Nevada, New Mexico, Hawaii, Colorado, Utah and Texas.
Open Gym generated over $5 million in revenue last year and is on target to reach $8 million in revenue by the end of this year. It aims to generate $10 million in revenue in 2023.