With the public finally realizing all the benefits that tennis provides, teaching pros — and the sport itself — are beginning to cash in.
By Kent Oswald
The tennis industry’s front-line troops are riding the crest of outstanding industry news. And while there may be no standard measure, teaching pros acknowledge the steady, and sometimes exploding, increase in lesson hours.
As Mike Woody puts it, “I look at our industry and I don’t see barriers, I see only opportunities.” Woody, a USPTA Professional 1 and executive director of the 32-court Midland (Mich.) Community Tennis Center, says 2007 was one of their best racquet-stringing years ever and notes ball sales, lessons and “court utilization” all rose — and are continuing to do so.
For Woody, marketing the sport’s traditional benefits is paying off in increased lessons and play. Thanks at least in part to the Cardio Tennis program rolled out in 2005, consumers have (re)discovered that in a couple of hours a week they can play, have fun, socialize and get their cardio health benefits. And the QuickStart Tennis format “has really pinpointed a market that we can do better at,” says Woody. “That’s helped us. When you have a big national campaign, that affects us locally.”
Even the USTA, which in years past has been a target of criticism about the sport’s lackluster grassroots growth, is now receiving its share of praise for the good news. Shella Augspurger, women’s tennis coach at Newman University and a teaching pro at the Wichita, Kan., Riverside Tennis Center and Reflection Ridge Golf and Swim Club, is one of many who believe the national organization deserves credit for the swell of interest. “The USTA has done a great job opening up tennis at every level, from youngest to oldest,” she says.
Augspurger also credits touring professionals, who look like they are having more fun playing than in years past, as enticing new students and encouraging frequent play. Even electronic gaming has influenced participation. People who have played video tennis “want to hit with me just to see if they can do what they do on TV.”
When Augspurger first arrived in Wichita six years ago, she says, “There was nothing going on. Now, I’m getting complaints that people can’t get courts to play on.”
That timetable fits with what Craig Jones, director of tennis at the Petersburg (Ga.) Racquet Club, has noticed, too. He believes many people stayed at home, seeking safety and comfort, after Sept. 11, 2001. But, ironically, the current credit crisis is encouraging people to go out and seek more social situations. As an example, he points out that at the PRC, league play has doubled measured against 10 years ago, when it was about 40 percent of the non-lesson business.
The theory that relative bad times for the economy can still be good times for tennis is pervasive. USPTA CEO Tim Heckler says he sees tennis lessons as recession-proof. “People want to stay healthy and fit regardless of the economic climate,” Heckler says. “Typically, when people are faced with hard economic times, they will have to cut out yearly vacations, but they make up for that by spending more time at the tennis club or facility.”
Sarah Witherspoon, an instructor with Macon (Ga.) Tennis Connect and coordinator of their adult and junior programs, says the keys to her facility’s recent success are economic and social. Tennis is “not as expensive as the rumor used to be,” she says. Actually, one of her biggest problems concerns the social aspect. She isn’t able to move on many folks from the group lessons because they are motivated by the friendships they’ve made. Her solution has been to move whole groups into league play to open up lesson time for more beginners.
Witherspoon has watched adults “discover” tennis as an activity that keeps them in touch with their kids, also a key tactic for the Four Seasons Racquet Club in Wilton, Conn. Greg Moran, the Four Seasons director of tennis, says the club’s success is certainly not an accident or reliant on tennis as a fad.
“There’s a lot more beyond just coming here, taking your lesson and leaving,” Moran says. “We strive for a family feel.” A metric of that success is about 700 kids in Four Seasons’ junior programs.
And sometimes all this good news can be bittersweet. “Last year was the first year we had to turn people away,” says Moran, “There were times when we were simply full.”
Firing Up the Engine
But there may be a dark cloud on the horizon. Dan Santorum, CEO of the PTR, is as bullish as anyone on the sport’s current prospects, talking up the various new initiatives and the public’s awareness of the sport’s health benefits and relatively low cost. Rather than hearing complaints about business or lack of lessons as in years past, the biggest problem most people are sharing with him is finding teaching pros. Still, the economics for teaching pros is a bit vexing for Santorum.
With all the new programs, people are going to be learning quicker and starting play sooner, and because of the emphasis on health, they will stay with it longer. All of it will increase the need for tennis professionals. But, says Santorum, “salaries are like tennis balls — they’re the same as they were 20 years ago.”
He expects many of the “first generation” of teaching pros — those who took it up in the 1960s— to be retiring within the next five to 10 years. He worries there isn’t the financial incentive necessary to attract the necessary number of new teaching pros.
Whether it is club owners or the pros themselves, someone has to overcome consumer resistance to increased lesson prices so good teachers can be properly compensated. “Teaching pros are the engine,” Santorum says. “They drive this industry.”
And we need to keep the engine stoked to keep the good news coming.
Keeping the Ball in Play
Teaching pros may well be the most important factor in the growth of tennis in recent years, and in its continued growth in the future. Here are just a few ways you can continue to not only grow the game, but grow your income, too.
- Gain marketing muscle. Tie into national programs launched by the PTR, USPTA, USTA, TIA and other groups.
- Consider more group lessons. With players in groups, you can emphasize the social aspects of the game, keep costs down to players, and maximize revenue to pros by having more players on court at one time. Also, arrange it so friends or teammates can be in group lessons together, making it more fun for all.
- Expand your relationships with your players. It should be about more than just giving a lesson and sending them on their way. Invite them to involve their friends and family in the program.
- Don’t cookie-cutter lesson plans. Get student feedback. Retention depends on getting the right coach or developing the right lesson plan, rather than just trying to fit everyone into the same system.
- Keep new players involved. For example, QuickStart Tennis or Cardio Tennis keeps everyone moving, not just the student at the head of an eight-person line.
See all articles by Kent Oswald
About the Author
Kent Oswald is a contributor to TennisNow.com, producer at the JockBookReview.com and a former editor of Tennis Week magazine.