Tap a New Market
Catering to Special Populations may provide you with incentives that go beyond money.
By Liza Horan
In this age of über-marketing — whether you are selling lessons or the latest and lightest in shoes and racquets — it’s tough to shout above the din. Trying to “build business” usually means “acquiring new customers” or getting current customers to spend more. It’s all about numbers, ROI and efficiency.
Perhaps you feel you’ve exhausted all promotional channels, from advertising in church bulletins to buying internet search terms. We all know that the tennis market has been depressed for some time, but it’s clear that the potential for growth is real. There is an untapped market, but it requires old-school human interaction.
No matter what your business in tennis, part of your charge is to sell the sport. To the public, pro players are the most visible part of the sport, but it’s local tennis figures, from teaching pros to retail staff, who are most accessible. If your business could stand to grow, try stepping back from the mass marketing and getting personal.
To promote the sheer joy of the game — and to help participation (and potentially your bottom line) — reach out to people in your community with special needs or some disability. They are more prevalent than you think. In fact, nearly one out of five people have some lasting medical condition or disability, according to the 2000 U.S. government census.
“It’s such an untapped resource,” says Wayne McCoy, who chairs the USTA Special Populations Committee, “because most people don’t get the fact that people with challenges still buy tennis balls, racquets, and tennis shoes.”
Despite there being some part of the body that is not accessible to them — maybe a difficulty with mobility, hearing, vision, or a developmental disability — these individuals enjoy tennis, and the sport has an uplifting effect on them. In addition, though, there’s a good chance that their friends and families may join in the fun on court.
Janet Lefkowitz knows. “I have a woman with multiple sclerosis in my class and she likes nothing more than telling people she’s going to tennis Wednesday nights. They can’t believe it,” Lefkowitz says. “One guy just shows up every week and is the ballboy. They are doing things they would ordinarily never dream of doing.”
Tennis is the perfect medium with its protocol for clothing, behavior and equipment. It provides a framework to relate in a social scene, which is often a welcome change to the routine.
“This is about human beings having fun and feeling just a little bit better,” says Lefkowitz, who has been teaching tennis to the physically and developmentally disabled for 25 years through her work in the Greenburgh, N.Y., parks department and through the USTA. “If they can’t hold the racquet you use self-adhesive tape to secure it. I’ve done it. Anybody can participate. You tailor the program to them.”
This might sound a little daunting at first, but there are resources to help and, as McCoy says, you are still teaching tennis, just adapting it to a special challenge. The PTR offers certification on teaching for special needs as well as printed guides for starting programs.
At the USTA, reaching outside mainstream groups started years ago with “minority” groups, which came to mean everyone from diverse cultural backgrounds to disadvantaged youth to wheelchair players. Now the organization has a full-fledged “Special Populations” department, headed by Helyn Edwards, who also manages NJTL and Community Outreach. Despite the “extremely small” budget, the staff and volunteer committee are making important progress to address the challenge of tennis being available to everyone.
“There’s a lot of work to be done, and the USTA has started,” says Edwards, who heads the USTA’s Special Populations, NJTL and Community Tennis areas. “They’ve given us the tools and means to do that. Everybody should have the opportunity to play.” Other important efforts include the launch of Tennis Welcome Centers, as well as the Special Olympics formalizing its relationships with the USTA and the PTR (“Official Training Partner”).
McCoy credits the USTA and TIA for Tennis Welcome Centers and general efforts to reach special populations, and he approaches the work with great exuberance: “There’s really a target audience that has been overlooked.”
Targeting this audience yourself can provide not only another possible revenue stream for your business, but, maybe even more importantly, it will provide a measure of satisfaction about what you do to help others.
In a future issue, we’ll focus on the experiences of some industry people who are going on-court with special populations.
What Does ‘Special Populations’ Mean?
The term “special populations” refers to individuals who are physically, mentally or environmentally challenged. This covers the drug-addicted, homeless, physically disabled, mentally retarded and even those living in outlying areas or inner-cities where tennis facilities don’t exist; anyone for whom tennis has not been presented as an opportunity. (While some individuals in special populations might be in wheelchairs, the USTA generally classifies wheelchair tennis in its Community Tennis area.)
For More Information
Contact these organizations if you are interested in visiting an existing special populations program, starting one or getting materials to learn more:
- Helyn Edwards, USTA, 914-696-7114
- Julie Jilly, PTR, 800-421-6289
- Jolyn de Boer, TIA, 843-686-3036
See all articles by Liza Horan
About the Author
Liza Horan ran TENNISWIRE.org and WorkInTennis.com.