Tampa's Tennis Republic
With a “by the people, for the people” view, MP Tennis’ ladder promotion is reaching new heights.
Good ideas often have humble beginnings. Such is the story with MP Tennis, a once-fledgling Tampa-based pro shop with a basic-but-brilliant promotion that in just two years galvanized the tennis-playing population of western Florida.
So what’s the secret to MP Tennis’ success? “It’s simple: We listen to our customers,” says store owner Mike Pratt, an Indiana transplant who cut his tennis-teaching teeth at fabled Saddlebrook Resort near Tampa. “Give the customers what they want, and they’ll come back — and they’ll bring three friends with them.”
It’s only fitting that MP Tennis’ most successful — and lucrative — promotion came from, you guessed it, Pratt listening to his customers. As Pratt tells it, when he opened his first store in the summer of 1998, many of his customers would complain about how hard it was to find tennis partners. This gave Pratt an idea: He hung a bulletin board in his store and invited customers to post their names, telephone numbers and the days and times they were available to play tennis. The bulletin board — a rather low-tech idea, Pratt admits — was an instant hit, and matches between MP Tennis customers quickly became daily occurrences.
There was only one problem: So many people were tacking their information to the bulletin board that it quickly became a hodgepodge of letters and numbers. That’s when a loyal customer suggested bringing a method to the madness by creating a tennis ladder, one that would rank players on a sliding scale and encourage those on the lower rungs to climb upward by challenging and beating higher-ranked players.
“It was such an obvious idea, but it was so brilliant, too,” says Pratt. “We just took the ball and ran with it. We haven’t stopped running since.”
Today, three years since the ladder’s inception, more than 200 people are taking advantage of MP Tennis’ wildly successful promotion. Demand has grown so great, in fact, that MP Tennis now offers three singles ladders for men (between 25 and 30 players populate each ladder) and one for women, as well as men’s, women’s and mixed doubles leagues. Participants pay $20 per season, and each season lasts five months and culminates in a tournament that offers prize money to top finishers.
And to prove that the promotion has come a long way since its bulletin-board days, the store’s website (www.mptennis.com) catalogs match statistics, posts a top-10 ranking for each division and lists comprehensive schedules. “Players are addicted to the website,” says Pratt.
Pratt now has two stores in Tampa, and both display the exact same ladders. To sign up, participants must visit one of the stores; they can’t register on the website. But the site has become a valuable tool for Pratt’s business. “The website gives us another opportunity to communicate with our customers and tell them about new items in stock and the latest sales,” says Pratt. “Everyone benefits.”
This communal relationship sits just fine with Debbie Ramenda, a 4.0 player who has been a part of the MP women’s ladder since its beginnings and now also enjoys competing in the recently launched mixed-doubles league.
“It’s such a great way to play a lot of matches and meet a lot of nice people with a passion for tennis,” says Ramenda, who also competes in the recently launched mixed-doubles league and plays tennis once or twice a day. “You meet people through the ladder, and you can set up friendly matches with them outside the ladder. It’s fun to check the website every day or go into the store and see where you’re ranked.”
It’s not just players like Ramenda who recognize MP Tennis’ unwavering contributions to promoting grassroots tennis in western Florida. Industry heavyweights — including Babolat, Prince and the USTA — have shown their support for the store’s leagues by contributing grant money, equipment and apparel. “We have a Prince Award that goes to the two players who have played the most matches throughout the season,” says Pratt. “We figure anyone who’s played that much tennis could really use a new pair of shoes.”
MP Tennis has given local tennis junkies something to rally around, but has the promotion bolstered business?
“Absolutely!” says an enthusiastic Pratt. “What drives tennis sales are people playing the game. I can tell them how great tennis is until I’m out of breath, but they have to experience it firsthand before they fully understand tennis’s strong appeal. And the more players you introduce to this great sport of ours, the better your business will do.”
Mike Pratt needn’t worry about talking himself hoarse in the name of tennis. His actions have proven louder than words.
See all articles by Jonathan Whitbourne
About the Author
Jonathan Whitbourne is a contributing editor of RSI magazine.