Prior research on service quality in the sport industry has focused
almost exclusively on the satisfaction of sport spectators. The
current study expands this literature by beginning exploration into service
quality issues related to sport event participants. Specifically, we examine
the effect of participant skill level on the expectations that event participants
place on various service quality dimensions applicable to a participatory
sport event. Specifically, we propose that relatively lower skilled players
will place greater importance on peripheral event service dimensions (those
attributes of an event that fall outside the actual competitive play of
the sport and do not directly influence the athlete’s performance, such
as event parties, promotional giveaways to participants, and general ambiance
surrounding the event). We also propose that relatively higher
skilled players will place greater importance on play-related event service
dimensions (those attributes that are directly associated with the competitive
play of the sport and can directly influence athlete performance).
Tests of these hypotheses are performed through survey data collected
from participants at the United States Tennis Association’s Southern Sectional
Championships. Results indicate that lower skilled players indeed
place greater emphasis on peripheral event service dimensions than do
higher skilled players. However, lower skilled players did not
place less emphasis on play-related event service dimensions than did
higher skilled players. The importance of understanding the expectations
of participatory sport event consumers is discussed, and directions for
future research are provided.

The Importance of Expectations on Participatory Sport
Event Satisfaction: An Exploration into the Effect of Athlete Skill
Level on Service Expectations


The emergence of research related to service quality in the sport industry
has only recently gained moderate attention. Given the enormity
of the sport industry in the United States, and indeed across the globe,
this is somewhat surprising. Moreover, the stream of sport service
quality research that has emerged in recent years has been somewhat limited,
focusing almost entirely on understanding fan satisfaction at spectator
events. For example, Kelley and Turley (2001) find that the importance
of nine different service quality factors at a sport spectating event
(e.g., concessions, price, fan comfort, facility access) differs across
a variety of demographic and fan identification characteristics.
As another example, the “sportscape” model has been an important relatively
recent contribution to the sport service quality literature, yet it too
focuses solely on spectator service encounters (e.g., Hightower, Brady,
& Baker 2002). The sportscape (e.g., the physical environment
where a spectator event occurs, primarily the arena/stadium) has been
shown to influence fans’ excitement and satisfaction with the experience
(Wakefield & Blodgett, 1994), their desire to stay through the event
(Wakefield & Sloan, 1995), and their likelihood of repatronizing events
at the facility (Wakefield, Blodgett, & Sloan, 1996). This
stream of research geared toward a better understanding of service quality
related to spectator events is invaluable, yet service quality research
geared toward a better understanding of service quality issues related
specifically to participatory sport events (i.e., events for which the
primary customers are the event participants, such as recreational golf
tournaments, tennis tournaments, softball tournaments, etc.) has been
largely unstudied and is much needed. It is toward this end that
the current study is addressed.

Chang, Chen, and Hsu (2002) provide an overview of service quality literature
to be considered in examining sport industry quality issues. One
of the models they touch on, and indeed one of the most influential models
in the service quality literature is the Gap model of service quality.
According to the Gap model, a customer’s satisfaction with a service is
largely driven by the extent to which his or her perceptions of received
service meet or exceed his or her expectations (Parasuraman, Zeithaml,
& Bitner, 1985). Customer expectations, in turn, can be defined
as beliefs about service delivery that function as standards or reference
points against which performance is judged (Zeithaml & Bitner, 2000).
It is critically important, therefore, that in order for participatory
sport events to be judged in a favorable light by participants, event
managers must pay particular attention to participant expectations during
event organization and management.

A key element for event managers in meeting or hopefully exceeding event
participant expectations is the careful consideration of the various sources
from which such expectations can arise. Zeithaml and Bitner (2000)
classify various sources of customer expectations, including enduring
service intensifiers, transitory service intensifiers, perceived service
alternatives, and explicit and implicit service promises. While
we contend that each is relevant to participatory sport event managers
(for example, an event participant’s satisfaction with an event would
logically depend on the number of competing events from which the participant
can choose), the current study focuses on enduring service intensifiers
and their ability to influence sport event participant’s satisfaction
with an event. Enduring service intensifiers are defined as stable
personal factors that lead to higher service sensitivity (Zeithaml &
Bitner, 2000). We propose that one such enduring service intensifier
relevant to participatory sport events is athlete skill level.
Event managers should consider that the skill level of the athletes participating
in their event could potentially influence the athletes’ expectations
for various event attributes. We posit that event attributes can
fall into two distinct categories, play-related attributes and peripheral
attributes. We define play-related attributes are those attributes
that are directly associated with the competitive play of the sport at
an event. Peripheral attributes are those attributes of an event
that fall outside the actual competitive play of the sport and do not
directly influence the athlete’s performance, such as event parties, promotional
giveaways to participants, and general ambiance surrounding the event
(e.g., play-site attractiveness). We hypothesize a direct, positive
relationship between skill level and play-related expectations, such that
as the skill level of the athlete rises, so do expectations regarding
play-related attributes. In turn, we hypothesize a direct, negative
relationship between skill level and peripheral expectations, such that
as the skill level of the athlete declines, expectations regarding peripheral
event attributes increase.

To illustrate the rationale behind these hypotheses, consider United
States Tennis Association (USTA) League Tennis. Players are grouped
according to skill level in categories ranging from 2.0 through 5.0, and
destination events are often held that hold competitions for players of
multiple skill levels. For example, the USTA holds state and regional
events in which one site hosts tournaments and the peripheral (e.g., banquets)
events surrounding them for players of multiple skill levels; in other
words, multiple skill level participants are participants in their own
skill level tournament, but are participants at the same overall event.
It is proposed that participants with a high skill level (e.g.,
a 5.0 USTA rating), given their competitive drive and focus related to
tennis (necessary in achieving their high skill level), are likely to
have relatively high expectations on play-related attributes such as the
match schedule, officiating, and court conditions. What we have
defined as play-related attributes are conceptually similar to what Gronroos
(1983) has defined as “technical quality”, or the core service that the
buyer receives from the seller. On the other hand, we propose that
players with lower skill levels (e.g., a USTA 2.5 rating) are often playing
as much for the “experience” and social aspects of the event as they are
for the competition, and are therefore likely to have relatively higher
expectations on peripheral attributes, such as event apparel offered for
sale or as a premium, food, and social “events (e.g., nightly parties/banquets)
within the event”. These hypotheses are stated formally as follows:

H1: Sporting event participant skill level is positively related to expectations
on play-related event service dimensions, such that higher skilled participants
will have higher expectations than will lower skilled participants on
service attributes related to the competitive play of the event.

H2: Sporting event participant skill level is negatively related to expectations
on peripheral event service dimensions, such that higher skilled participants
will have lower expectations than will lower skilled participants on service
attributes with are part of the event but unrelated to the competitive
play of the event.


To test these hypotheses, we collected data from 487 participants at
the 2003 USTA Southern Sectional Championships, an event with tennis players
ranging in USTA skill rating from 2.5 (novice) to 5.0 (expert).
Prior to play, players were asked to rate the importance of multiple items
which could affect their overall satisfaction with a multiple-day tennis
tournament. The survey items were generated prior to the event
by asking ten tennis players (not participating in the event surveyed
in this study) to list items which might influence their satisfaction
when participating in a tennis tournament. Items receiving more
than one mention were included in the final survey used in this study,
resulting in 33 items. The items included those which were both
play-related and peripheral. The 33 items are provided in Appendix

Formally stated, the survey question asked players “When evaluating your
satisfaction with a multiple-day tennis event to which you travel, how
important is each of the following items?” Players rated each of
the 33 items on a seven-point likert-type scale, with one being very unimportant
and seven being very important. Importance was used as a proxy
measure for expectations, as respondents will logically place more importance
on the dimensions for which they have higher expectations. Following
the importance ratings, respondents were asked to indicate their USTA
skill rating, gender, and age.


Exploratory factor analysis was performed on the 33 items (Kaiser-Meyer-Olkin
= .929, suggesting the data were highly appropriate for factor analysis).
Using a varimax rotation and a loading cutoff value of 0.5, four
factors were retained (eigenvalues ranging from 11.78 to 1.07) and labeled
as follows: Play (court condition, sufficient practice
courts available, draw continually updated/readily available, courts conducive
to spectating, all matches played on same surface type, well-equipped
area for changeover (water, chairs, etc.), extent to which match/draw
schedule runs on time, quality of officiating, tournament officials readily
available at all sites; a = .84); Souvenirs (quality of souvenir
merchandise (t-shirts, hats, etc.), selection of souvenir merchandise,
price of souvenir merchandise, attractiveness of awards offered, free
souvenirs offered to participants; a = .90); Hotel (proximity
of hotel to play sites, directions to tourist attractions/restaurants
provided, availability of reasonably priced hotels, availability of high
quality, attractive hotels, cleanliness of hotels; a =.85); Tournament
(tourist attractiveness of host city, physical attractiveness
of play sites, wide selection of restaurants in host city; a = .77); and
Concessions (selection of concessions at play sites, price of
concessions at play sites; a =.72). Cronbach’s alphas for all five
factors indicate that the five retained factors demonstrate strong internal
consistency. Further, the five retained factors explained the majority
(58.43%) of the variance. Factor structure, loadings, percent of
explained variance, and eigenvalues are provided in Table 1. The
Play dimension represents a service dimension directly related to a participant’s
competitive play in the event, while the four remaining dimensions of
Souvenirs, Hotel, Tournament Destination, and Concessions represent what
we have referred to as peripheral service dimensions. Nine items
did not load on any of the five factors and were dropped; these items
are noted in bold in Appendix A.

In order to analyze differences in importance by participant skill level,
a one-way MANOVA with skill level (relatively lower skilled = 2.5, 3.0,
3.5 USTA rating, n = 281; higher skilled = 4.0, 4.5, 5.0 USTA rating,
n = 206) as the independent variable and the mean of the summed score
of each service dimension factor (Play, Souvenirs, Hotel, Tournament Destination,
Concessions) as the multivariate dependent variables was performed.
MANOVA revealed a significant between-subjects skill level main effect
(Wilks’ Lambda = .97; F(5, 481) = 3.35; p<.005). Given multivariate
significance, we examined the univariate F-tests on each of the five service
dimension factors, which indicated significant differences between skill
level on four of the five service dimensions. Results of the univariate
tests are provided in Table 2. Note that all tests are one-tailed
due to directional hypotheses. These results indicate that lower
skilled players placed greater importance on each of the four peripheral
event dimensions (Souvenirs, Hotel, Tournament Destination, and Concessions)
than did higher skilled players, providing support for H2. As added
support for H2, we analyzed one item which did not load highly on any
of the four peripheral dimensions, yet represents a peripheral attribute.
Specifically, lower skill level players placed greater importance
on the item “quality of event social functions (banquets/parties)” than
did higher skill level players (lower skilled M = 4.96, higher skilled
M = 4.67; t = 2.12, p = .017). However, there was no difference
between lower skilled players and higher skilled players on the play-related
dimension. Therefore, H1 was not supported.


It is pertinent that managers of participant events pay particular attention
to participant expectations and the various factors that might influence
such expectations. This study is an initial step toward this end.
Thoughtful analysis of participant expectations is especially important
for managers of grassroots or local events. According to Graham,
Goldblatt and Delpy (1995), special events have continued to increase
exponentially both across the country and around the world. City
officials and officers of other entities are drawn to the idea of hosting
special events not only to create positive publicity, but also for city
branding purposes and to create economic impact. Special events
are perceived to be economic catalysts for future growth, and the increased
number of special events has created competition for consumers’ discretionary
time and income. These events include not only sport events, but
any of the special event types as categorized by the International Events
Group (IEG), including 1) sport, 2) festivals, fairs and annual events,
3) cause-related, 4) arts, and 5) entertainment, tours and attractions.
Within sport events alone, on any given day or weekend a consumer
may choose between any number of events. However, given that most
people do not have unlimited discretionary time or income, it is important
to understand as much as possible about the expectations of attendees
in order to maximize branding and economic opportunities.

The following definitions apply to types of special events:

Mega event – Mega events by way of their size or significance, are those
that yield extraordinarily high levels of tourism, media coverage, prestige,
or economic impact for the host community or destination. Their
volume should exceed one million visits, their capital costs should be
at least $500 million and their reputation should be of a “must see”
event (Getz, 1997, p.6).

Hallmark event – a recurring event that possesses such significance,
in terms of tradition, attractiveness, image, or publicity, that the event
provides the host venue, community, or destination with a competitive
advantage. Over time, the event and destination become inseparable
(Getz, 1997, p.7).

Major events – events that by their scale and media interest, are capable
of attracting significant visitor numbers, media coverage and economic
benefit (Allen, O’Toole, McDonnell, & Harris, 2002, p. 14)

Given these definitions, there is no doubt that branding opportunities
and economic impact are more easily achieved for a mega event such as
the Olympics or for hallmark events such as New Orleans’ Mardi Gras, Omaha’s
College World Series or Times Square’s New Year’s Eve celebration.
Events such as these have achieved a level of prestige and have generally
garnered significant corporate and municipal sponsorship, and have increased
media coverage, specifically from television. However, it is generally
much more difficult for managers of local events, and particularly participant
events, to garner financial support and media coverage. Furthermore,
because these local participatory events have relatively small budgets,
lower sponsorship prices, and less media coverage than do events falling
in the other categories, it is particularly important that local event
managers know and understand the expectations of their patrons in order
to be efficient and effective in event production. These events
simply do not have the resources to spend on service dimensions that participants
consider relatively unimportant.

From a management perspective, participatory event directors should become
familiar with the Gap model of service quality, and in particular, realize
that participant expectations are a key component in participants’ event
satisfaction. Our results indicate that participant skill level
is one variable which can affect participant expectations, and thus a
variable which event directors should consider when planning an event.
Clearly, understanding participant expectations will allow an event
manager to more effectively establish long-term commitment from participants,
direct event production efforts, and inform event budget allocation.
Participatory event managers are often of the mindset that offering more
amenities makes for a more satisfying event. However, given that
few managers have unlimited event budgets, knowing the relative value
of various service dimensions such as (but not limited to) those analyzed
in this study will help managers better direct expenditures, whether this
be increasing spending on important dimensions or decreasing or eliminating
spending on relatively unimportant dimensions. For example, if
a manager is holding a USTA league tournament and has a large number of
high-level athletes (4.5, 5.0), excessive expenditures on banquets and
merchandise would not prove as beneficial as spending resources developing
an optimal tournament draw and schedule (for example, holding the events
at multiple play sites in order to avoid a significant number of matches
running behind schedule) or repairing courts and ensuring the presence
of qualified officials.

Most event managers must be concerned with corporate and municipal fundraising
to supplement the cost of event production. Furthermore, evaluation
of sponsorship relationships and accomplishing return on investment is
crucial as both corporations and municipalities that fund events are seeking
tangible results (Irwin, Asimakopoulos, & Sutton, 1994; Kuzma, Shanklin,
& McCally,1993; Meagher, 1992; Schlossberg, 1992; Stotlar, 1996).
Understanding the participants’ expectations can help event managers
to better match which sponsors will be more successful and can, in turn,
increase the relationships and longevity of sponsor relationships.
For example, if event participants place a relatively strong importance
on peripheral event dimensions, event managers can target hospitality
organizations as likely sponsors whose association with the event would
prove beneficial to both sponsor and event. Additionally, as competition
for both municipal and corporate sponsorship dollars increases, a thorough
understanding of participant expectations becomes increasingly significant.

In this study, the USTA’s Southern sectionals hosted players from beginning
skill level to advanced skill level as participants. This study
hypothesized that 1) players of higher skill (4.0, 4.5, and 5.0) levels
had higher expectations where play-related dimensions were concerned and
2) that players of lower skill levels (2.5, 3.0, and 3.5) had higher expectations
where peripheral dimensions were concerned. Although the first
hypothesis was not supported, one possible explanation pertains to the
championship level of this event. For a team to participate in
a sectional event, it would be necessary for the team to finish in the
top two in their league standings, and subsequently win both their city
and state playoffs. Therefore, even a lower skilled participant
or team would have to be highly competitive to achieve this standing,
and thus place significant importance on play-related service dimensions.
For instance, the Southern sectional tournament in this study was
the first event to have senior 2.5 teams. The implication from
this issue is that event directors who are managing an event of this stature
should consider that all participants will have certain expectations of
the play-related or more technical aspects of the event given their efforts
expended to earn eligibility to participate. Therefore, future
event directors of the USTA’s sectional event should pay particular attention
to play-related dimensions.

Future Research

Athlete skill level is only one factor that can influence event participant
expectations. Future research should be directed toward identifying
and analyzing other factors which might influence such expectations.
For example, the gender of the participant could be hypothesized to influence
their event expectations. It might be hypothesized that relative to male
participants, female participants would generally be more concerned with
souvenirs/merchandise, the tourism attractiveness of the host city, and
hotel/accommodations. This knowledge could help inform decisions such
as the type of hotel used and arranging the city attractions that may
be most attractive in order to meet the female participants’ expectations
more thoroughly. In a similar vein, the age of the participant
might also play a significant role in influencing their expectations.
As enduring service intensifiers such as gender and age are outside
the scope of the current study, this avenue proves ripe for further research.

Future research should also use existing marketing theory on service
quality to springboard into a deeper understanding of participant expectations.
As an example stemming from the current study, consider the zone
of tolerance, used by marketing scholars to explain the difference between
desired service, which represents what the service customer hopes to receive,
and adequate service, which represents the level of service that the customer
will accept as adequate or sufficient. According to service literature,
zones of tolerance are narrower for more important service dimensions
(e.g., Berry, Parasuraman, & Zeithaml, 1993). It could be posited
that for play-related attributes, the zone of tolerance will narrow as
athlete skill level increases. Conversely, for peripheral attributes,
the zone of tolerance will narrow as athlete skill level decreases.
The tolerance zones should narrow primarily due to the effect of skill
level on adequate expectations. For example, while both a 2.5 and
5.0 tennis player would likely desire similar quality in play-related
attributes, the quality that a 5.0 player will accept as adequate
, given his or her competitive focus, is likely to be higher than
that of a 2.5 player. Conversely, while both a 2.5 and 5.0 tennis
player would likely desire similar quality in peripheral attributes,
the quality that a 2.5 player will accept as adequate , given
his or her focus on the “overall event experience”, is likely to be higher
than that of a 5.0 player. Future research addressing propositions
such as these would prove both theoretically and practically interesting.


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Table 1

Factor Analysis of Event Service Dimensions

Percent Variance Explained
Factor Loadings
Court Condition
Sufficient Practice Courts Avail.
Draw Continually Updated/ Readily Available
Courts Conducive to Spectating
All Matches Played on Same Surface
Well-Equipped Area for Changeover
Extent to Which Match Schedule/Draw Runs on Time
Quality of Officiating
Tournament Officials Readily Available at All Sites
Quality of Souvenir Merchandise
Selection of Souvenir Merchandise
Price of Souvenir Merchandise
Attractiveness of Awards Offered
Free Souvenirs Offered to Participants
Proximity of Hotel to Play Sites
Directions to Tourist Attractions/Restaurants Provided
Avail. of Reasonably Priced Hotels
Avail. of High Quality, Attractive Hotels
Cleanliness of Hotels
Tourist Attractiveness of Host City
Physical Attractiveness of Play Sites
Wide Selection of Restaurants in Host City
Selection of Concessions at Play Sites
Price of Concessions at Play Sites

Table 2

Univariate F-tests (Mean Comparisons) on Service Dimension Factors

Lower Skilled
Higher Skilled
Tournament Destination

Note. **p<.01, *p<.05

Appendix A

  1. Court Condition (court surface, lines, nets)
  2. Sufficient Practice Courts Available
  3. Draw is Continually Updated and Readily Viewable
  4. Courts Conducive to Spectating
  5. All Matches Played on Same Surface Type
  6. Well-Equipped Area for Changeover (water, chairs, etc.)
  7. Extent to which Match/Draw Schedule Runs On-Time
  8. Quality of Officiating
  9. Tournament Officials Readily Available at All Sites
  10. Well-Equipped Locker-Rooms at Play Sites
  11. On-Site Racquet Stringing
  12. Quality of Competition
  13. Medical Staff Present at All Play Sites
  14. Event Results Reported in Local Media
  15. Quality of Souvenir Merchandise (t-shirts, hats, etc.)
  16. Selection of Souvenir Merchandise
  17. Price of Souvenir Merchandise
  18. Attractiveness of Awards Offered
  19. Free Souvenirs Offered to Participants
  20. Quality of Event Social Functions (banquets/parties)
  21. Tourist Attractiveness of Host City
  22. Physical Attractiveness of Play Sites
  23. Wide Selection of Restaurants in Host City
  24. Play-Related Food/Beverage at Play Sites (Fruit, Energy Bars/Drinks)
  25. Selection of Other Concessions at Play Sites (Burgers, Chips, Soft
    Drinks, etc.)
  26. Price of Concessions at Play Sites
  27. Friendliness and Courtesy of Host Site Staff
  28. Host Site Staff Knowledgeable about Host City (restaurants, tourist
    destinations, etc.)
  29. Proximity of Hotels to Play Sites
  30. Directions to Tourist Attractions/Restaurants Provided
  31. Availability of Reasonably Priced Hotels
  32. Availability of High Quality, Attractive Hotels
  33. Cleanliness of Hotels

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