Industry Insights


5 Growth Lessons From Lightning AAU

By LeagueApps
October 19, 2017
5 min

There’s a lot to learn from Jim Fox, Island Garden, and the nation’s largest AAU program

Brainstorming ways to grow your club and programs? Follow the example of the largest AAU program in the country, Long Island Lightning, and its founder Jim Fox.

As one of the most successful basketball brands today, there are things that Jim Fox has done – and not done – that have helped grow the Lightning brand. The Lightning approach is based on a simple philosophy: do the right thing.

This month, Jim and the Lightning staff are celebrating the 25th anniversary of the AAU program. For two and a half decades, the skills players have developed through Lightning Basketball have transferred naturally off the court to other areas of the athletes’ lives. The Lightning teams are not only developing the great competitors of tomorrow, but great people as well.

Jim is also one of the founders and current CEO of the Island Garden Basketball Arena in West Hempstead, New York, which opened its doors in October 1998. Presently, Island Garden hosts team leagues, tournaments, camps and clinics on a year round basis. The estimated annual attendance at Island Garden is two hundred and fifty thousand people.

Recently, we were lucky enough to receive a visit from some of the staff of Island Garden. We sat down with Jim, Administrative Director Karen Cammer, and General Manager Tom Sigismonti to find out what their secret is to growing the Lightning and Island Garden brands to such heights.

Here are five quick tips provided by the staff of Lightning AAU that you can adapt today.

1) Reach as many kids as possible

In youth sports, particularly grassroots basketball, directors and coaches can get caught up with fielding the most competitive team. There seems to be a mentality that with a better team, it’ll be easier to market to parents and players. The Long Island Lightning is proof that this is not a recipe for growth.

Since its founding, the Lightning have made it a part of their mission to welcome every athlete with open arms, regardless of skill level. As a result, more kids had access to a game they loved and Jim and the staff created more teams- and more programs- to fulfill the demand.

“We want every kid to be able to enjoy the sport,” Jim said. “When we started 25 years ago, that was our goal. To open up opportunities for everyone in the community regardless of skill level and make basketball a safe haven.”

The program started with one team. Now, the Long Island Lightning consists of 275 teams competing at various skill levels.

2) Deliver excellent customer service

At the backbone of any successful business is great customer service. Basketball and sports programs are no different.

“It’s simple really,” Karen said. “Just treat everyone the same and with respect. And take every opportunity you can to truly listen.”

It seems like an easy philosophy, but practicing patience in this industry can be tricky. Karen knows that sometimes a parent will rant because they want to rant. These are the best times to turn a seemingly disgruntled parent into a lifelong customer.

“I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had to take a breath when a parent rants. I can tell you though that each time I’ve let a parent get something off their chest, they’ve appreciated it and most have even apologized to me after. Two, three years later, these are our best customers.”

3) Learn to take criticism

When running day-to-day operations of programs, directors can only manage and see what they’re in control of. Sometimes it’s hard to see the customer experience in person or the user journey on the website. That’s why it’s essential to be open to criticism.

Jim’s staff holds themselves to a standard of excellence. So when a customer or parent comes to them about a problem, it’s important to listen because chances are, someone else has the same issue. To deliver on that standard of excellence, they will make adjustments to improve the overall customer experience.

Making a change based off a critique from a parent, even a small change, can sometimes be a difficult process. But in the end, it’s the difference that can make your programs stand out in your community.

4) Hire and work with the best people

When your programs do start to scale, it’s inevitable that more will be taken out of your control. That’s bound to happen and there’s not a whole lot a director can do about it. It’s also inevitable, as explained above, that customers and staff will bring up new ideas or constructive criticism.

It’s important to build professional relationships with people you trust. Make sure whoever you hire is 100% aligned with your goals, your mission, and most importantly, your values. Don’t worry if a prospective hire doesn’t have the complete skill set that the job requires. Skills can always be taught. Values and good ideas can’t.

The same can be said when building a potential partnership with other organizations and businesses, even if it is a competitor. Be open about your mission. Align yourself with others that share similar values and commons goals for the future.

“This is why I work with you all here at LeagueApps. Not only have you been able to make amazing introductions and help us build great partnerships, but I really trust the entire team,” Jim said.

“I’m not a number with LeagueApps,” Karen added. “You all treat us the way we treat everyone we work with. You can’t put a price on shared values like that.”

5) Never stop thinking about the future

The industry is changing rapidly everyday. What worked yesterday will not work tomorrow. Always keep that in mind when building your short and long term goals. If you’re truly looking to grow, don’t be afraid to step outside your comfort zone and try new and different programs. 

Think about this. Some twenty years ago, when Jim, like most directors at the time, was running adult-only basketball leagues, he saw the future as youth and wanted to get kids more involved, so youth programs were created. When youth programs began focusing on competition and became more exclusive, he and his staff saw the future being more inclusive. As a result, the Super League was created and the Lightning AAU program grew exponentially.

With the influx of technology in the youth sports world, Lightning AAU saw the need to adapt to an online solution to increase efficiency. It was also clear a new website was needed to help enhance the Lightning and Island Garden brands to online users.

Now, the staff sees the future in new and unique program types- even different sports! This type of outside-the-box thinking will provide amazing sports experiences to even more kids in the New York metropolitan community. With the unique skills development by the Lightning coaching staff, the athletes will be ready for their futures as well, on and off the court.

Island Garden has been granted to be the sole operator of the 2018 Jr. NBA 3v3 League. It will be played during the first week of January. They were also recently named as one of 15 Flagship Members of the Jr. NBA. In conjunction with the Jr. NBA and its curriculum, Island Garden will be launching several new program types in 2018.

It didn’t happen overnight for Lightning AAU. But if you can start to follow these five quick tips that innovators Jim Fox, Karen Cammer, and Tom Sigismonti provide, you’ll be well on your way to being the next youth sports influential leader in your community.

Read also: What Mike Klinzing of Head Start Can Teach You About Your Basketball Program.