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The Sporting Life

The Sporting Life – A Game Plan For Sport Kite Competition

by Marc Conklin

Originally published in Kiting Magazine 2011 Vol 33 Issue 1

The decline in the number of sport kite competitors over the past decade has been well documented. There are many contributing factors to this decline: the increasing complexity of competitive flying brought about by the introduction of slack-line tricks, the coming of the Internet and online forums that allow for community without travel, the steady increase in travel costs, etc. Over the past several years, I’ve been involved in many live and online conversations about these trends and what to do about them. Unfortunately, these conversations usually follow a similar pattern, beginning with a lament about the “good old days” followed by pie-in-the-sky ideas about ESPN, corporate sponsorships, and the Summer Olympics.

It’s time to face facts. As far as niche hobbies go, we are as about as niche as it gets. I remember discussions about the obscure sport of curling during the last winter Olympics. There were several comments made about how if curling was an Olympic sport, surely there was room for sport kiting. Those folks were right about one thing: curling IS obscure, a niche sport if there ever was one, at least in the USA. However, a quick perusal of the US Curling Association website reveals that the organization boasts 13,000 members from over 130 clubs in the US alone. Compare that to the number of sport kite competitors from every AKA competition for 2008 and you’ll find that we had 205 sport kite competitors in the 2008 season, 1.6 % the number of curlers. [Editor’s note: the US Curling team is sponsored by a condom manufacturer and a whiskey distillery. There’s a lesson to be learned there!] Now for the really depressing news: out of those 205 (and because I’m lazy, I included teams and pairs as competitors in that count), 74 (36%!) only competed once. So, while we started with a number equaling only 1.6% of curlers in the US, we could only retain 64% of that number. So rather than dream about the Olympics or even a return to the “grand ol’ 80’s”, I feel it’s more productive to focus on actionable, attainable efforts directed toward two main goals. The first of these is obvious, bringing new sport kite fliers to competition. The second goal is to improve our retention of those competitors.

I am convinced that the best way to attract new competitors is to offer frequent, regional, “no-frills” competitions/clinics with a focus on providing local novice fliers with a comfortable environment where they can learn the field craft of sport kite competition as well as the rules and regulations without the expense of travel. When putting on a competition, there are two primary considerations for the continuance of that event: participation and finances. Of course, these considerations are tied together; the more participants, the more money made by the event, at least if you’re counting on registration fees to fund the event. However, if you can minimize the financial needs of an event, you can offer minimal or even free registration for at least your novice fliers. To be clear, what I’m suggesting is a grass-roots event. Find a soccer field, a local park, a large yard, anywhere where you can have the field for free. This is possible thanks to our access to the AKA event insurance. That insurance is a great selling tool to convince a potential landlord that, while they won’t make rent off the event, they at least won’t have any liability. Call your local parks and recreation department, you’ll find that many are open to family-friendly events like kiting competition.

Once your field is set, then all you need is a judging panel and sound. Sound is easy; if you don’t have a PA system available to you, use a boombox! If you’re willing to factor out spectators (and let’s face it, sport kite competition, even ballet, is not a very spectatorfriendly aspect of kiting), a strategically placed boombox is sufficient for the flier and judges to hear the music. A judging panel is a little more difficult. You want at least three (preferably five) folks who have competition experience to act as the judging panel, and more importantly, to explain to the novices how to improve their skills as a competitor. The best way to get experienced competitors to the event is to offer an open competition where those folks can gain some AKA points competing against each other. If you run the open competition before the corresponding novice competition, you also provide the novices with an opportunity to see the discipline run. The best case scenario is to get the novices on the judging panel as shadow judges so they can see how that process works. If you can’t put together a judging panel for the open competition, run it anyway as a demo, or use the novices (with your Chief Judge) as the judging panel.

The scheduling template is simple. Start your day with an hour or so of “Flight 101.” If possible, pair up each novice flier with an experienced competitor to teach basic precision flight skills such as cornering, straight lines, landing, and recognition of the wind window. Then, run your open competition and follow it up with the novice version. Before each novice comp, hold an extended pre-flight briefing to make sure that the novices are as familiar and comfortable as possible. After the novices compete, hold a debriefing to gently let the novices know what areas they can improve on, and allow the judging panel to offer advice on field craft that they wish to share. Repeat the process for all disciplines run at the competition.

An example schedule:

  • 8 – 8:30 am – Novice registration
  • 8:30 – 9:30 am – Novice flier mentoring sessions (Flight 101)
  • 9:30 – 10 am – Pre-flight meeting
  • 10 – 11 am – Open Ind. Dual-Line Precision
  • 11 – 11:30 am – Novice Ind. Dual-Line Precision
  • 12:30 – 1 pm – Open Ind. Dual-Line Ballet
  • 1 – 1:30 pm – Novice Ind. Dual-Line Ballet
  • 1:30 – 2 pm – Open Ind. Multi-Line Precision
  • 2 – 2:30 pm – Novice Ind. Multi-Line Precision
  • 2:30 – 3 pm – Open Ind. Multi-Line Ballet
  • 3 – 3:30 pm – Novice Ind. Multi-Line Ballet
  • 4 pm – Awards, closing comments

Obviously, the times are adjusted according to the number of fliers in each discipline, but the pattern is clear: show the novices how to do it and then have them do it. If time allows, you can feel free to add disciplines like pairs and team events. However, especially for the purpose of these regional competitions, it is much more important to have the time available to provide as much instruction as possible to your new competitors. Supplies for a competition like this are also simple. You need 6-10 clipboards, 10-12 pencils, a stopwatch, a wind meter, a copy of the IRBC rule book as well as the AKA Appendix. Both are available in PDF format from the AKA website. It’s also a worthwhile investment to have a case or two of bottled water in a cooler full of ice, your participants will thank you. You also need something to mark off the field. Obviously, the optimal setup is to rope off the entire field, but if you don’t have that resource, get some banners or flags, mark off the corners of the field, and use anyone available to act as line judges to enforce the boundaries of the field.

This is a blueprint for the most simple of sport kite competitions. As your event grows, you can re-invest registration fees into improving your supplies, field setup, etc., with the goal of building your one-day regional event into a two-day, full sport kite competition. However, in order to get to that point, you’ve got to not only offer opportunities for your new competitors to learn, but you’ve also got to build the reputation of your event so that those competitors that come this year will return for the next event.

The most prevalent complaints I’ve heard about sport kite competition: 1. “It’s too much like work” — because of the small number of participants, competitors are often pressed into service as judges on multiple panels. 2. “It’s too disorganized, nothing runs on time” — anyone who has ever attended a competition has heard the joking term “kite time”, and it’s easy to laugh at that, but the bottom line is that no one wants to run on “kite time”, they want the event to be scheduled in real time, with a dependable schedule that folks can plan around.

The good news is that both of these problems can be resolved with mandatory pre-event registration for all non-novice competitors. In other words, require that any non-novice competitors turn in their event registration one week before the event is to occur. This allows you to know exactly how many competitors you have in each discipline, as well as knowing who is available to fill judging assignments. Once you have this information, it’s easy to figure out how long each discipline will take using the following formula: Individual Precision: 11 minutes per competitor Individual Ballet: 5 minutes per competitor Pairs Precision: 12 minutes per pair Pairs Ballet: 9 minutes per pair Team Precision: 13 minutes per team Team Ballet: 10 minutes per team OIOU: 10 minutes per competitor

Once you’ve received all your competitors’ registrations, set up a spreadsheet that places the disciplines as columns, competitors as rows. Plot out each competitor’s disciplines to get your total number of competitors per disciplines. Multiply the number of competitors by the time per competitor number listed above, and you know how much time each of your open disciplines will take. You can then adjust your event schedule accordingly to reflect the exact amount of time required for each discipline. Hopefully, your novice competitors will also pre-register so you have an idea of how long the novice disciplines will take as well, but always add a little extra time for the Novice events; you never know when someone will show up, see the competition, and decide they’d like to give it a try!

Having a complete list of all your participants also makes it much easier to spread out judging assignments amongst all competitors so that no one is overworked. When setting up judging panels, take care to note who is competing in the discipline before and after the discipline you’re setting up the panel for, try to avoid having anyone work back-toback disciplines. Giving folks a chance to sit and relax between disciplines will ensure that no one feels overworked. Requiring all competitors to preregister allows you to create a schedule that you can stick to, and gives you the time before the event to plan judging assignments in such a way that the workload is spread evenly between all of your staff-eligible participants. By running your event in a professional manner, you create an environment that will comfort your novice competitors, which will in turn inspire them to keep coming to events. For your experienced and masters competitors, spreading the judging assignments evenly eliminates the “this is too much like work” feeling that accompanies a disorganized competition, thereby motivating them to keep coming as well. In other words, taking the simple step of requiring all competitors to pre-register will enhance the ongoing reputation of your event, which is the best way (besides having 100% guaranteed lab-grade wind) of ensuring that your event grows from year to year.

This formula for growth is simple. Offer as many opportunities for novice competitors to develop their competitive skills as possible. This means that the events need to be done as cheaply as possible. The good news: kitefliers don’t ask for much! Just run your event on time and in an organized manner, and do what you can to provide a fun, friendly, and educational environment for your participants. All it takes to make this happen is for a few people to make the decision to put on the event, and a little legwork to find a free field to hold the event on. Remember, if the competition doesn’t cost anything (or very little) to put on, then it doesn’t really matter if folks show up or not. If you don’t get any competitors, you’ve got a nice bit of time blocked out for you to fly. Either way, you can talk about what a great time you had at the Sport Kite Challenge/Competition/ Invitational/Unlimited/Championships!

The methodology presented here has already proven itself in a small event in central Virginia, the Richmond/Washington Regional Sport Kite Championships (RWRSKC). There have been six RWRSKC events following the exact formula described here (the annual budget for RWRSKC is somewhere around $125). As an average, there has been three first-time competitors at each of these competitions. Out of those, an average of one novice per year have gone on to continue to compete in other AKA and Eastern League events. Out of those are two current Masters level competitors, three Experienced, and one current Novice competitor, all of whom have competed at multiple events this season. I think it’s safe to say that 20 such events, producing similar modest results, would generate a lot of excitement for our niche community. Of course, lucky you, you don’t need to worry about 20 events, you only need to focus on one: the one you’re setting up for this spring!