Raising Your Game
After suffering through tennis’s lean times, new marketing strategies have helped the Scranton Tennis Club rally back.
Joe McNulty fondly remembers the “good old days” at the Scranton Tennis Club, when members simply needed to show up to get a match. “No one had to call to prearrange play,” says McNulty, the club’s manager, teaching pro of 21 years, and longtime member. “The place was booming with all different levels of players who were looking to pair up for a game.”
Indeed, the Scranton Tennis Club was the most popular outdoor tennis venue in northeast Pennsylvania in the 1970s. With the sport’s popularity at an all-time high, local tennis clubs across the country reaped the benefits.
The Scranton Tennis Club, actually located in Clarks Summit, Pa., a suburb of Scranton, was no exception and had to cap its membership at 220 in order to ensure quality playing time for everyone. A two-year waiting list during the period was not uncommon. The STC — once home to high-level USTA Middle States tournaments that attracted players from Binghamton, N.Y., and Allentown, Pa., both one-hour drives — was an integral part of a tennis economy in the greater Scranton area that also included 18 indoor courts at three separate facilities.
However, as the allure of tennis slowly withered throughout the country from the mid-1980s through the ’90s, the area’s indoor courts were reduced to six and the STC saw its membership shrink below 100, barely enough to maintain operational costs. “In my opinion, it was tennis players converting to golf that hurt us the most,” says McNulty.
Another problem, board members believed, was the club’s next-door proximity to the Scranton Country Club, as many people assumed the courts were part of the upscale country club and therefore beyond what they were willing to pay for tennis. However, the Scranton Tennis Club has always held its rates in check, with a family membership today at $380 and a single adult fee of $275. Students under 22 can join for $80. And, there are no court fees.
Of more immediate concern was the fact that the club’s active junior program, available throughout the summer to both members and non-members, rarely translated into membership. And, the average STC member was a middle-aged male.
Marketing Trial and Error
In order to keep its head above water, the club began to enact several marketing initiatives aimed at attracting potential players. Results did not come quickly, but after many years of trial and error, the club has at last gained traction in terms of numbers. “We’ve increased membership by 25 percent over the past several years,” says John Weiss, club president. “The courts are busy once again, even during the week.”
Of course, numbers are relative, and 40 or so new members may pale in comparison to other clubs, but such an increase at the STC bodes well since the majority of newer members are now active players. For many years, only about half of the membership actually played more than a handful of times each season. Thus, attrition had long plagued the club, with as many as 50 percent of new members not rejoining the following year. “Not having someone to play with on a regular basis has been cited as a major reason for people not rejoining,” says Weiss.
Attacking that problem head on, the club instituted weeknight leagues for players ranked at levels 2.5 through 4.5, and a mixed-doubles night once a month. Overseen by board members, the concept has evolved into systematic, well-organized leagues where members are assured regular play. “This in turn has led to friendships that may not have developed otherwise, and people pair up outside of league play,” says Weiss. “We think we’ve finally turned the corner as far as not only attracting new members, but keeping them, as well.”
New this season is a “stroke of the week” clinic, offered by fellow members who have coaching backgrounds. “It’s a very popular bonus for our members,” says Mike Strong, longtime men’s and women’s tennis coach at the University of Scranton, who demonstrated the service technique one night to a crowd of players.
Weiss pointed to several other factors for the mini resurgence, including a reduced membership fee for first-time members, a 10-day free trial membership, an open house for prospective members in May, and a member/guest cook-out mixer in June.
Wanting to connect directly with its members, the board runs a popular bus trip to the US Open and holds a year-end dinner/social in September at its annual meeting, available to all members and guests for a nominal fee to cover expenses.
Bringing in Juniors
Perhaps most significant in the club’s re-growth has been its attention to the junior program. Overseen by McNulty, a two-week clinic for youngsters 4 to 18 years of age kicks off the summer season and normally attracts between 75 and 100 participants, most of whom are not members. Many of these same youngsters also take weekly lessons throughout the season.
In order to entice these kids to join, five free group junior lessons are included with every junior or family membership. “It’s been a very popular incentive,” says McNulty, who also encourages youngsters to participate in the annual tournament and become involved in a competitive tennis ladder.
With six well-maintained Har-Tru courts, the STC is a club without pretensions. Void of a pool, golf course, or bar, tennis enthusiasts come to enjoy the game and each other’s company. Among the unique features is the fact that courts can’t be reserved; players sign their name on a blackboard and wait patiently on the front porch of the clubhouse for their turn. Utilizing the honor system, players announce “court open” when they complete a set. At most, people wait 30 minutes on weekends.
The Scranton Tennis Club derives its name from its origins more than 80 years ago as a two-court club in Scranton. Founding members, who issued themselves shares of stock, decided to move the club to nearby Clarks Summit several years later when a few acres of prime land became available. The stock was ultimately deemed non-transferable and ownership status eventually transferred to club members, thereby rendering its nonprofit status.
Over the years, the club has served as a breeding ground for several quality players, including a No. 1-ranked doubles team in the USTA Middle States Section. Also, a handful of outstanding college and high school tennis coaches have cut their teeth at the club, as did former Pennsylvania Gov. William Scranton, who for years competed in a weekly mixed doubles match.
Now, as the momentum has swung its way, the club hopes that an aggregate effect of new members each year who opt to remain with the club will comfortably keep expenses under control.
“I’d hate to think what we’d do for recreation and exercise without the Scranton Tennis Club,” says McNulty.
Scranton Tennis Club’s Recovery Strategies
The club’s board of directors, all active tennis players, decided to take a hands-on approach to increasing membership. This is especially true with regards to new members and league play. Over the last few years, the club has implemented the following strategies that have resulted in a 25 percent increase in membership, and the trend appears to be continuing.
- A reduced membership fee for first-time members.
- A ten-day free trial membership so that prospective members can learn more about the club.
- An Open House for potential members in May.
- A member-guest cookout/mixer in June.
- Weeknight leagues and a monthly Mixed Doubles Night (both overseen by board members) for players ranked from 2.5 to 4.5, which ensure regular play.
- A “stroke of the week” clinic conducted by club members who are former high school and college tennis coaches.
- A free social/barbeque at the annual club tournament.
- Five free group lessons with every family or junior membership.
- A modest advertising campaign in the weekly newspaper.
See all articles by Jeff P. Lewis
About the Author
Jeff P. Lewis is a sports columnist with the Scranton Sunday Times and freelance journalist for a variety of news outlets. He is a former high school tennis coach and teaching pro, and is a past president of the Scranton Tennis Club.