Centers of Action
Family-oriented, affordable, and fitness for life are proving a winning combination for both private and public tennis facilities.
By Mitch Rustad
With the economy in such a state of flux, how do you explain the boon enjoyed by the tennis industry these last few years, which has seen a healthy increase in participation, racquet sales and ball sales?
Charlotte Hermann, a small business counselor for SCORE in Gainesville, Fla., believes tennis facilities are sort of “recession proof” as long as they offer enough extra services and amenities to capitalize on the social aspects of the sport, like hosting fundraisers or charity events. “There’s lots of fun stuff to do at tennis clubs to keep people coming back,” she says.
Keeping fit and healthy is a national craze, and Hermann says tennis clubs offer an ideal outlet. “If you have any money at all to spend on fitness, it’s more fun to do it at a tennis club than a normal fitness club. Once you’re a tennis player, you’re going to cut corners elsewhere than touch your tennis.”
We also asked a number of the country’s leading tennis facility managers to help shed some light on what many would see as a head-scratching irony — how can a recreational sport like tennis be flourishing in a down economy?
“This is a wonderful dichotomy, a very pleasant surprise, and knock on wood it stays like that,” says Ajay Pant, manager of the Overland Park Club in Kansas City, Kan., and national director of tennis for the Tennis Corporation of America. “We have not in any way sensed a hiccup of any nature on the tennis side in any of our clubs. We’re doing exceptionally well.”
Bringing the Family
Pant believes the best indicator of the sport’s local health is reflected in the volume of Overland’s junior memberships being upgraded to family memberships. “Now they’re bringing the whole family to play,” says Pant, who believes tennis provides the perfect vehicle for families to bond, especially when times are tough.
“I think people build a strong connection to their families via this sport,” says Pant, “and are choosing to spend more time together knowing it’s an investment in their money. They may hold off on a new car or expensive dinners every weekend, but when it’s crunch time you find that people choose to come to a place with a comfort level, with their friends and family around. That’s a lot more fun for people.”
Another industry leader believes the industry’s healthy numbers merely reflect a real advantage tennis has over many other recreational options — it is relatively inexpensive.
“You can play an entire season of league tennis in this area and it costs only about $20 (for USTA members),” says Carl Hodge, director of tennis for the city of Macon, Ga., a metro area with 36 public courts at two facilities including the John Drew Smith Center. “Even when you include court costs, it’s probably only $18 or so for court fees and that covers everything. Where else can you have that much fun for so cheap?”
That “price is right” mentality is shared by Scott Hanover, manager of the 14-court Plaza Tennis Center, a public facility in the heart of Kansas City, Mo.
“Even though the economic times are a bit tough,” says Hanover, “I think tennis survives because as a sport it is still fairly reasonably priced for equipment like starter racquets and balls, and that attracts both new and returning players.”
Affordability and being family-friendly may in fact be helping the industry flourish, but Billy Freer, tennis director at the Brookhaven Country Club in Dallas, also sees the competition from other sports like soccer and in-line skating waning as well.
“Soccer moms are starting to realize tennis as a life sport, it’s a better choice than almost any other sport,” says Freer. “Soccer used to be going through the roof and now people are starting to realize you can’t play soccer when you want to, or after you graduate. You only need one other person to play tennis, you don’t need a whole team. All you need is a court and someone to play with. You can play it day or night, almost anywhere in any city.
“I also think that people got bored with sports like in-line skating and are coming back to tennis,” adds Freer, “because it’s a sport you can continue to learn about, no matter how good you are. It’s a very diversified sport that continually entertains people.”
But while the sport’s indicators are all pointing upward, tennis facilities still need to work to keep the momentum.
“The single biggest mistake is to sit back and say we’ve got it made,” Pant says. “We need to keep attracting people and whole families to the sport. To maintain this momentum, we need to keep developing ways to make this game easier for all players and families.”
Freer says the industry’s prosperity lies in its ability to attract talented college grads to fill leadership roles at clubs and facilities.
“If you look around, the clubs and facilities that have good tennis directors are doing very well,” says Freer. “I think the key is for tennis to attract good, qualified young people who have business and marketing degrees who’ve also played four years of college tennis. We desperately need these kinds of people coming into the industry. We need these kinds of people to choose tennis as their future.”
Maintaining the Momentum
While the economy remains volatile and about as predictable as a Roger Federer serve, what can club owners do to maintain their current momentum, or maybe even add to it? * Run “modified” events. Ajay Pant says modified events, such as parent/child events using foam balls and/or modified racquets, allows all levels and ages to participate and be competitive. “We sell out these tournaments every time,” says Pant. “We have to get them playing as quickly as we can by utilizing transitional equipment.” * Take special care of members and guests. “In any business, customer service is huge, but especially in tennis,” says Carl Hodge. “Make sure people know that they’re welcome, then offer quality programs and stay well organized. But covering customer service is the most important thing.” * Reach out, network, and establish industry relationships. “Stay abreast of what is happening in the industry,” says Scott Hanover. “And keep networking. Also, try new things, and don’t be discouraged if they don’t work. Just try something else.” * Go for variety beyond tennis, too. Charlotte Hermann says other amenities, such as fitness equipment or racquetball, are important, too, and will bring in a more diverse client base.
See all articles by Mitch Rustad
About the Author
Mitch Rustad has been a long-time freelance writer based in New York City.