Some might say Jessica Bugg Smith is doing everything wrong at her Danville, KY-based gym, Kentucky Reign All-Stars. Somehow though, things are going very right. Instead of going the group-classes-with-additional-private-coaching route, Kentucky Reign primarily offers one-on-one time with coaches, with all-star athletes practicing together as a group a couple of hours a week. It was a risky move, but one that has paid off. Since making the change in August, Kentucky Reign’s roster doubled within months.
“It has been amazing,” says Smith, a Danville native. “Our kids are getting more one-on-one attention, and we are able to get results faster that way.”
Because many of the gym’s athletes are in multiple extracurricular activities and come from busy large families, flexible scheduling works out in everyone’s favor. Their times can move weekly, depending on schedules and coaches’ availability. It is not uncommon for Smith to list those openings on Facebook in the middle of the night, and by morning, every hour is spoken for. “In our modern time, we have access to almost anything 24/7,” Smith says. “So we adapted the traditional model to work for modern parents.”
Plus, in a group class, a child may only get about seven minutes of one-on-one attention from his or her coach. With the gym’s new model, kids are getting results quicker and learning new skills more rapidly—and that’s what is bringing in new faces. And for all-star newbies, individual lessons are less intimidating, she adds.
Yet Smith acknowledges that this sort of business model wouldn’t work for all gym owners. After all, it took her a while to find the right formula. Smith first struck out on her own after moving back to Danville upon giving up on a career in finance after the financial crash of 2008. With a supportive husband, $30 and fond memories of her years coaching cheer while putting herself through college, Smith set out on her new path.
She began by renting space at the local Salvation Army and offering tumbling classes. It wasn’t long before she needed her own gym, so Smith rented a sparse room 30 minutes away in Nicholasville, a busier suburb of Lexington. “It looked like Shrek lived there,” she jokes about the gym’s humble beginnings.
When it came time to move into bigger digs again, she struggled with what direction to go in, literally. Her head told her to stay in Nicholasville, which has a population of 30,000 compared to Danville’s 16,000. But her heart wanted to be back home, working within the community she has so much pride for because of places like Centre College, which hosted vice-presidential debates twice during the last decade. Her beloved small town is also home to the annual Kentucky State BBQ Festival and a place that Money magazine rates as one of the best retirement destinations in the U.S.
With a tie score between her head and heart, Smith made a conscious decision to wait for a sign. It happened at a local burger joint, like so many things do in small-town America. A former student who Smith had not seen for at least a year approached her and asked why Smith’s classes had to be all the way in Nicholasville.
And although Smith could think of a few reasons, like how others in the industry assured her she could do better in a bigger city, she knew that would not resonate with the little girl staring at her over French fries. Smith decided right there and then that reconnecting with her own community and the kids growing up there–offering a smaller, unique opportunity closer to home–was what she should do.
But even with the level of enthusiasm her All-Star athletes have for competitive cheer, Danville is not a competitive cheer town like many Kentucky locales. Football is the “Friday Night Lights”-style main event. Everything revolves around pigskin. And inadvertently, Kentucky Reign All-Stars has become part of that rotation with football players seeking out the gym’s coaches for conditioning and cross-training. Many players report improvement on the field thanks to their cheer conditioning, bringing more males through the doors.
As Kentucky Reign’s emerging business model began to present itself due to demand, Smith began taking notes on Courtney Smith-Pope’s success at Cheer Extreme. “They have been an inspiration,” Smith says. “They were pioneers who showed that (All Stars) can be done in a small area.”
Trusting her instincts, Smith decided to go the private-lesson model almost completely at that point, dropping recreational classes and open gym hours in response to demand. The focus shifted solely to intense training for competition and preparing athletes for college cheer teams (as well as helping them acquire funds and scholarships to pursue their degrees in the process).
The key to the gym’s success, according to Smith? Adaptability. As her clientele’s needs change, her gym changes—even the name when it didn’t fit the gym’s personality anymore. Change is always a gamble, Smith acknowledges. But paraphrasing Kenny Rogers, the world’s favorite gambler, she says the secret to surviving is knowing what to throw away, even if it’s what works for everyone else.
The shift was a boon for her coaches, who began to make their own schedules and thereby set their own salaries, paying a small percentage of the tuition to Kentucky Reign. The gym, which has little overhead thanks to its no-frills, high-functioning facility (read: small, sparse, succinct) covers bills mostly through all-star tuition. Since the area’s median household income is around $38,000, coaches work closely with parents to help offset those costs through fundraisers.
At the core, Smith’s business philosophy echoes that of her mentor, Pride Cheer Metro St. Louis’ David Briggs. Here’s how she sums it up: “It is my and my coaches’ jobs to find a way to make our kids successful on their terms,” Smith says. Whether it’s by accommodating their schedules or helping them pay their way, she wants to keep the sport accessible for everyone.
Briggs also instilled in Smith that there is no success without successors: “He mentored me and now I mentor others.”
Part of that mentoring for Smith is matchmaking. Within the gym, a two-tiered, family-style system exists to sustain the feeling of unity, even with more one-on-one coaching hours logged. Each of the older students is assigned a “Little” during a ceremony, which in turn determines what family they are a part of. “It’s a big deal,” Smith says. “There is a lot of thought put into it. It creates a very good system and teaches older ones how to lead others. That is something they will need to do later in life.” And Smith is just the person to lead the way.