As we reach the decade milestone and celebrate 10 years of NE FIRST, we're excited to take you behind the scenes of what goes into making our FRC District shine!
NE FIRST is the official program partner of the FIRST Robotics Competition in all six New England states. Starting in 2014 with 162 teams, 9 events, and a 54-team District Championship at Boston University, we have seen a 25% increase in both teams and events over the past ten years. New England district events have been hosted in 27 unique venues throughout Connecticut, Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire and Rhode Island, and another five locations have been large enough to hold the past eight New England District Championships.
With 86 successful qualifying competitions in the history books, it’s clear that the majority of our host venues return year after year to provide an excellent experience for teams from all over New England. But what makes a venue successful? What does NE FIRST look for when considering host venues? Come Behind the Scenes with us as we share what goes into finding a home for our competitions!
First, we consider how many district events we need each year. The District Model was launched by the state of Michigan in 2009, to give teams a way to compete more often, for less money, closer to home. New England was the third region to move to the District Model in 2014, and we followed much of the best practices provided by FIRST in Michigan, including hosting events in smaller venues than traditional FRC Regionals and providing increased match plays for one registration cost (typically twelve matches per event with two events included in the price of registration, or 24 guaranteed matches per season). While Regionals could host up to 64 teams, Districts typically host 30-40 teams, with 36 teams resulting in the best match schedule (when a team list is divisible by 6, there are no surrogate teams).
When there are 200 FRC teams in New England who all need 2 qualifying events, 10 District Events is the bare minimum needed for a successful season, and that provides no room for teams to play a third local qualifier or venues that can’t easily hold an event for 40 teams. With 185 teams registered for events in 2023, we anticipate a similar number to plan for this year, making it a goal to host 11 district events in 2024.
Second, we look at physical space and the requirements of the event itself. There are the obvious needs of a FIRST Robotics Competition event, namely a location that can hold a 54’ x 27’ playing field where the robots will compete. But there also needs to be room around the field for scoring tables, referees, and robots to move around. There needs to be room for spectators to watch the matches. There needs to be approximately 4000 square feet of pit space plus aisles for navigating to those pits. There needs to be access to space for active judging, meals for teams and volunteers, and holding the field’s road cases. When you start to include space for the event planning committee to hold meetings, a room for the judges to make decisions, a quiet room for getting away from the stress of the competition, a place to put the practice field and more…it’s clear an event needs a lot of space.
Beyond just the capacity of a location to find room for this many unique purposes, the space must be accessible. Robots have to quickly get from their pit to the field, so having those two locations on different floors and involving an elevator becomes a problem. Even having the pits be a long walk from the field can cause delays in the match schedule. Judging rooms shouldn’t cause team members to get lost inside of a school if the classrooms are nowhere near the gym, and the same is true for any space being used for the competition. Spectators with all sorts of mobility devices should find it easy to get around the venue and enjoy the matches, as should team members who need to fully compete in the event. Amenities are considered for all, such as the location of the quiet room, handicap parking, inclusive team seating areas, and gender neutral restrooms.
Event planning committees have developed a list of best practices for venues, including the presence of appropriate technical specifications related to availability of power and Internet access for the field, the pits, and the teams. Lighting levels, the height of ceilings, the ability for PODS to deliver the field with no restrictions, a spectator capacity of 2000, and square footage of rooms for all purposes have been advised. A venue can be considered if a number of minimum quality standards is met, but failing the wrong standard can make a venue unviable. Requiring teams to navigate a raised loading dock to load in, having ceilings that are too low or no options for spectator seating are some of the reasons that a venue could be considered impossible. And of course, even if a venue is perfect in every other way, if the rental costs are too high we will look elsewhere in order to meet appropriate budgets.
Third, we look at some of the factors that can affect the schedule itself, such as potential weather or dates a venue is actually available. As the New England District, we know that weather will always be a factor in how our events play out in March. Contingency plans are made for single-day events, as experienced during Week 1 in New Hampshire in 2023. Even with this adjustment, the Granite State District Event is the only event that has been consistently hosted since 2014 (including 2020!), even if the venue sometimes changes!
When it comes to dates, spring is a busy time. Spring breaks can last one week or two, and there are many holidays, religious and not, in March and April each year, which can also affect a team’s ability to compete at an event even if it is the closest one to them. While many teams find it difficult to compete during Week 1, many also find it difficult to compete Week 5 if they are close to qualifying for the District Championship a few days later. Competing during back-to-back weeks is not ideal for teams, and planning travel or out-of-state events can be difficult as well. All of these considerations of our teams are equally valid and the schedule is built to be as varied as possible so that teams may make the best decisions for themselves.
A focus of NE FIRST over the years has been finding university venues to provide inspiration for the high-school students participating in our competitions. Competing in the same spaces where college-level research and innovation happen daily can motivate them to pursue their own educational and career goals, one of the staples of the FIRST program. College venues have included Worcester Polytechnic Institute, the University of New Hampshire, and Western New England University; and historically Boston University, Northeastern University, Bryant University and the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth. For 2024, we are pleased to add the University of Rhode Island and Bridgewater State University to this growing list!
Both universities and high schools have competing priorities during the spring, with school plays, events and sports games all vying for the same space. Potential venues are asked to provide all weeks that could possibly host an event so that the most logical schedule for the district can be built. With this in mind, we get to our fourth consideration…
Finally, the goal is for the proximity of venues to teams and to each other to be balanced. This often involves finding locations with close access to highways, hotels, and other helpful businesses such as hardware stores, grocery stores, and restaurants. Making sure that two events in the same part of New England aren’t held on the same weekend gives teams more options when registering for events, and more importantly makes sure that our relatively small volunteer pool is not split. For both teams and volunteers, varying the venue locations from week to week gives everyone the best opportunity to participate with minimal travel. In 2024, the closest events to each other within the same week are still more than 90 miles apart.
Since FIRST moved back to a single Championship event in 2022 and New England teams must travel further than they did prior to 2020, the need for a week between the New England District Championship and the FIRST Championship becomes clear. This requires us to plan 11 events within 5 competition weeks, and finding the best week to host 3 district events at once is all part of the process. In 2024, events in Maine, Massachusetts and Rhode Island are all Week 3, giving opportunities for teams all along the eastern coast.
When viable venues are found, they are invited to submit all of their available dates on the schedule each year. Matching all of the above helps us choose the best venues for the most appropriate week and build a schedule that can check as many boxes as possible. Accomplishing this after a long competition season, mostly when our university and high school contacts may be on summer break, but before event registration opens each September is a daunting task! Accommodating events that are most accessible for teams, and working with venue availability, can result in some changes as we saw this year.
We hope you are as excited as we are for the 2024 New England FRC District Event schedule, and we welcome your suggestions for venues in 2025 and beyond! Contact email@example.com with recommendations and, if possible, contact information for the venue.