Kurt Kamperman came to the Community Tennis Division looking to refocus and reapply the USTA’s resources. How has he been doing these past three years?
When Kurt Kamperman joined the USTA as chief executive of the Community Tennis Division in April 2003, his goal was to bring the vast USTA resources to bear on increasing tennis participation. After three years, Kamperman still has that youthful, excited look when he talks about growing the sport, his Blackberry still buzzes constantly as people try to get in touch with him, and he still has that infamous May 1994 copy of Sports Illustrated — the “Is Tennis Dying?” cover — prominently displayed in his office.
But anyone who’s been the slightest bit involved with the recreational game in the U.S. can tell you that a lot has changed in Community Tennis over the last few years, and that Kamperman has had a lot to do with it. The day before his three-year anniversary with the USTA, we met up with Kamperman at his office in White Plains, N.Y., to get his take on how tennis has been doing.
RSI: Three years ago, we sat in this office talking about the challenges and plans you had for Community Tennis. So, what have you been up to since 2003?
Kamperman: The time has gone very fast, and we’ve had our share of successes and challenges. Three years ago, it was obvious to me that we had huge resources to apply to growing the game, and our biggest challenge was to concentrate those resources in the areas that gave us the best chance to move the dial. What’s exciting now is the sport of tennis has turned the corner. Tennis participation, TV ratings, attendance at pro events and industry sales are all up. We’re doing extremely well compared to other sports. In fact, tennis is the only traditional sport to have grown in the last six years. We have some great momentum going for us.
The USTA has a very broad constituent base, consequently in the past, we had too many things that were priorities. The old saying that when “everything’s important, nothing is,” was definitely true. We had to narrow our focus and determine where spending our money would have the greatest impact on growing the game.
RSI: How did you do that?
Kamperman: One of the main things we did was decide to make fact-based business decisions, based on the data we receive from the annual U.S. Tennis Participation Study. We use this as our road map for growing the game. That study, along with in-depth surveys with lapsed and frequent players, gave us a clear picture of what was needed.
For instance, the Participation Study showed that public parks and schools are the two big entry points into the game, particularly for kids, so we launched a huge parks initiative and we’re just finishing a year-long pilot program for a new schools initiative. The development of Tennis Welcome Centers and Cardio Tennis was also based on the research.
It was also clear that we needed more people out in the field, so along with our sections, we funded the Tennis Service Reps Initiative. The TSRs will help ensure our resources get down to the local level, where we have 5 to 6 million new players coming into the game each year.
Our big push toward diversity was also helped by the data from this study. While the USTA wanted to embrace diversity because it’s the right thing to do, the research showed us it’s also the smart thing to do if we want to increase participation.
RSI: Within the USTA itself, what is the view of Community Tennis?
Kamperman: As you know, the USTA’s mission is “to promote and develop the growth of Tennis.” That is what Community Tennis is all about. Fortunately, the current Board of Directors, and the previous Board, have really put their money where their mission is. We’re spending millions of dollars more in Community Tennis than we used to. Particularly this last year or so, [USTA Chairman of the Board and President] Franklin Johnson and the Board have dramatically increased spending. Without that, we wouldn’t have our new marketing campaign, we couldn’t have launched our major Parks Initiative, and so on.
RSI: How are relationships with partners and allied organizations?
Kamperman: Very good. Having been president of the TIA for seven years prior to coming into this job, I already had well-established relationships with all of our key partners. However, when I began here, I had several very frank conversations with our key partners and each told me they wanted to be a real partner, not just called upon for a photo op when the USTA wanted to launch a program. The prevailing opinion was that when the USTA wanted to do something and say it had industry support, the USTA would call and say, “Here’s what we want to do, buy in, and show up.” None of our partners were thrilled with that approach.
The NRPA and others wanted to be a real partner, and it made sense. If we’re funding parks and want to reach parks, wouldn’t a letter from the NRPA be more appropriate than a letter from the USTA? Same thing with the teaching pros and others. Instead of us trying to take the credit and do it ourselves while saying our partners are supportive of it, why not just let them do it? It just makes sense to let our partners carry the ball on things that they’re already doing well. What we have now are real partnerships.
Early on at the USTA, I didn’t want to try to be all things to all people, and that was a challenge. When you’re a National Governing Body with $200 million a year in revenues, everybody wants to be your partner. However, we took a “less is more” approach and focused on our core “tennis” partners. We decided to strengthen those partnerships before attempting to partner with any others.
We work very closely with the TIA, USPTA, NRPA, PTR, World TeamTennis, the National Intramural-Recreational Sports Association, and the Intercollegiate Tennis Association. The USTA Board recognizes we need to be “the umbrella and not the gorilla.”
Community Tennis, plays a big part in all this. If we do our job right, and develop valuable resources and services that we freely share, the efforts of the teaching pros, facilities, CTAs, parks, clubs, schools, and retailers will get the job done. We want to be an organization that is looked at as a help and a benefit to the people at the grassroots level who deliver tennis.
RSI: What are the next few priorities for you?
Kamperman: At this point no new priorities, just continuing what’s already been started. For example, I want to continue the progress we’ve made in narrowing our focus and concentrating on the areas that can have the greatest impact on participation. We need to stay the course on our big initiatives and continually improve them. We have lots of room for improvement.
Another area we’ve worked on over the past three years is shifting from an administrative focus to more of a marketing, promotions, and service approach. As a national group, we want to create marketing and promotional platforms that everyone can benefit from. And we want to provide resources and services to those who deliver tennis. We’ve made real progress in this area, but I want to make sure we continue on this path.
The other area where we’ve made progress and want to continue is building the strongest Community Tennis team possible here at National. We’re the biggest entity in tennis by far in the U.S. so it only makes sense that for each of our national positions, we should have the very best person available. If you look at our Community Tennis National staff, you’ll see that we have people with legitimate, hands-on tennis experience. We’ve increased our “tennis DNA” and have a team with a huge amount of tennis expertise as well as business acumen. We are now adding a strong learning and training component to ensure that everyone stays at the top of their game.
RSI: What about the relationship with the sections?
Kamperman: It’s very strong. My main conduits to the sections are the executive directors, and I have great working relationships with them, collectively and individually. That doesn’t mean we don’t have challenges or disagreements on occasion. We do, but we work through them. We have a lot of great volunteers and staff in the sections.
I came here right after the Blue Ribbon Commission Report, which identified problems [in the organization and its relationships]. I think there’s been dramatic change. There will always be differences of opinion in a large organization like the USTA, but I don’t feel there are any significant issues regarding candor, trust and transparency.
RSI: What other challenges do you feel Community Tennis faces?
Kamperman: One of the biggest is our governance system, which is unwieldy to say the least. It’s a constant challenge for both volunteers and staff because it’s perpetually changing. Can you imagine any business that would change their CEO for the national office and their leadership in each of the 17 regional offices every two years? That’s basically what happens at the USTA and it creates a lot of moving parts.
That said, there are some positives with it. With each change, there’s a lot of fresh energy, enthusiasm, and passion. The challenge is making sure that there’s continuity. We are working hard to ensure that continuity. This is improving, as we’ve taken a more fact-based approach to what our priorities should be and what our key initiatives are. For example, although parks were Franklin Johnson’s major push, I can’t imagine that parks wouldn’t remain a key initiative moving forward with the next administration.
RSI: How do you think people view the USTA’s Community Tennis division now?
Kamperman: I hope they see us as making real progress. Four years ago, we had no marketing budget and no marketing campaign for tennis. League Tennis and Junior Team Tennis had no marketing effort behind them. We didn’t have a parks initiative, TWCs, Cardio Tennis, Rec Coach Workshops, TSRs, or a push towards diversity. We were counting cards to measure success, we weren’t getting along with any of our partners, and our sections didn’t like us all that much. I’d like to think we’ve come a long way. I think people realize we’re raising the bar.
RSI: The USTA’s Membership Department now falls under Community Tennis. How are things going with membership?
Kamperman: It’s working very well. I’m very excited to have the Membership team as part of Community Tennis. Before I came to the USTA, I always worked in environments where you had to hit revenue numbers. When I started working for Community Tennis at the USTA, it was just about spending money effectively. Professional Tennis, with the US Open, made all the money.
It’s nice now to have something that is more of a traditional business model, where we are also helping to contribute financially to the bottom line. There are a lot of synergies between Community Tennis and Membership. That said, it’s somewhat ironic because I’m very much a tennis person — I think we have to sell tennis first, and then sell memberships. Fortunately, growing tennis and membership is not mutually exclusive. There are 4 to 5 million frequent tennis players out there who aren’t members of the USTA, so they’re low-hanging fruit. We’re going to focus on adding benefits that will appeal to hard-core players, like offering them deals at tennis resorts and camps. A membership in the USTA should enhance your relationship with the game.
RSI: What are your goals for USTA membership?
Kamperman: We ended last year at 676,000 members, and now it’s about 686,000. I want to see it hit 700,000 in 2006, then 750,000 in ‘07 and 800,000 in ‘08. We also have more than 7,000 organizational members that we’d like to grow, but that’s a tricky area because there are some governance issues tied in with the voting strength of organizational members.
We’re taking a hard look at org member pricing, because those prices have been the same since 1989, and right now, we actually lose a lot of money per organizational member when we send them banners, yearbooks, and so on. We’d like to grow organizational membership and continue to provide all the services and benefits. We don’t want to make money on it, but we’d like to get it closer to a break-even model.
By the way, the liability insurance we now offer to our CTAs that are organizational members is a great benefit. If you’re a CTA and running programs, you need to become an org member so you can get this low-cost insurance.
RSI: What about working with the Professional Tennis Division?
Kamperman: We work together now on a number of projects, but we both realize that we could do more. A closer collaboration between Community Tennis and Pro Tennis has a huge upside potential for the sport. We are starting to work more with the US Open Series events. These are major events in key markets that we can tie in to all sorts of initiatives: parks, team tennis, leagues, reaching out to the Hispanic and Asian communities, and many others. It’s a real opportunity to piggyback on those pro events.
RSI: What else are you looking at for the future of Community Tennis?
Kamperman: We have to really raise the bar for our youth offerings, and we’re starting to put a lot of resources behind Junior Team Tennis. We have to convince parents and kids that tennis is the new team sport. We have the resources to develop the best youth sports offerings out there. I’d be really disappointed if five years from now team tennis isn’t something you can talk about in the same vein as youth baseball and football. Once it gets going, it can snowball.
RSI: The USTA.com website was recently revamped. What do you think of it?
Kamperman: The new website is a quantum leap in the right direction. Our home page now has the ability to engage players and enhance their experience with the game. The “find a court, find a program, find a partner” feature has a huge upside for tennis. We have the framework of the house built and now we’ll keep working to improve on the interior design.
RSI: So what does the USTA’s Community Tennis Division have to offer those in the business?
Kamperman: We want to serve everyone in the sport. We’re constantly looking at things we can do that will benefit the greatest number of tennis providers, teaching pros, coaches, facilities, and retailers. We know that some of them may have given up on the USTA. We encourage them to go to our website, take a look at what we have to offer, or if they get a call from a TSR, take the time to sit down with that person and see what’s available from the USTA.
For the people delivering grassroots tennis programs, we’re offering resources that can help them, whether it’s marketing materials, educational resources, grants, information online, or free statistics from our research study. We need to use our assets to touch as many people as possible, both providers and consumers. I think we’ve learned that just money without the right strategy, the right partners, and taking the team approach doesn’t grow tennis.
We want to try to stay focused on one agenda, which is more people playing tennis. That’s the bottom line. We have to put that first.