Careers in Tennis Generation Next?
With the “graying” of industry personnel, leaders are worried that the tennis business isn’t attracting enough young talent.
By Peter Francesconi and Mary Helen Sprecher
Successful tennis players know how to anticipate what their opponents will do. Will they move in to the net, hit down the line, lift a lob, sneak a drop shot?
Successful tennis business people also need to anticipate: What will be the next hot racquet, what will happen with recreational participation, what tennis programs will yield the best returns, what will the future in general hold?
Now, many in the tennis industry are beginning to voice a concern about a potential problem ahead, one that could set back or bring to a halt gains that this sport has made in recent years. They’re worried that there aren’t enough younger people coming into this business.
The most obvious clue is the so-called “graying” of tennis teaching pros. Many pros started in the 1970s and ‘80s when tennis was booming and are now nearing retirement age. However, there aren’t sufficient, qualified younger people ready to move into these spots. And the potential problem stretches beyond teaching-pro positions, to the many other jobs in this industry — such as club and facility directors, sales reps, event managers, tennis organizational staff, etc. — that can benefit from an infusion of youth who are passionate about the sport.
“While the industry has had positive momentum in both participation and sales, we need to look at the overall picture if we’re going to improve the health of this sport for the long term,” says Jolyn de Boer, executive director of the TIA. “If you go to the various industry conventions and conferences, a lot — most — of the people involved are baby-boomers and older, not just in terms of teaching pros, but in the industry itself. If we don’t prepare now and recruit younger people into the business, it threatens our infrastructure and our delivery systems.” And some in the industry attribute a lack of adequate infrastructure to what contributed to the slowdown in tennis following the boom years.
“We definitely are graying as an industry,” says Kurt Kamperman, the USTA’s chief executive of Community Tennis. “I haven’t seen a lot of young professionals getting into the sport. We need to have a collaborative approach to this issue and make sure we create career paths in tennis for younger people and clearly communicate that to them.”
A True Career?
“When I started in the business in 1980, tennis was in favor, and it was a really good profession to get into,” says Dave Haggerty, president and CEO of Head USA, president of the TIA and a board member with the USTA. “A lot of good pros got involved at that time, and a lot of people got involved from a manufacturer perspective.”
Now, though, many people, both young adults and their parents, think being a tennis pro is not a viable career; it’s a job — something to do during college, or after graduation and before getting a “real job.” Those in the industry say there is a lack of understanding of all the different, and possibly lucrative, career paths within the tennis industry itself.
“Is there an image of a teaching pro just being a tennis bum?” asks Ajay Pant, national tennis director for Tennis Corporation of America and the general manager of the Midtown Tennis Club in Overland Park, Kan. “Oh, yes.”
The perception, adds Stephen J. “Pete” Petersen, director of the Professional Tennis Management program at Methodist University in Fayetteville, N.C., is that, “People who want to be tennis pros — who just want to teach tennis — don’t have to have a college education.”
“Part of the problem we had at Ferris State was convincing parents that tennis was a real business,” says Tom Daglis, the former director of the Ferris Professional Tennis Management program who recently became director of tennis and fitness operations at Lakewood Country Club in Rockville, Md. “They see you in your tennis clothes and they aren’t convinced it’s a credible industry. We needed to teach them that this is a way to make a very, very good living. This is a career path, and you can be very successful.
“My last year at Ferris,” adds Daglis, “we had some students who right out of college took jobs paying $55,000 a year. You compare that to other graduates who take jobs in marketing and are making $35,000 a year. We need to do a good job encouraging parents, and do a better job of promoting the career path.”
The Money Question
Feeding into the perception of tennis as not a “real” career, particularly in the case of teaching pros, is the issue of pay. “If we go back to the early 1980s and you look at the pay rate for on-court teaching, and then you look at today’s rate, you find that it simply has not kept pace with the cost of living,” says Pant.
Dan Santorum, CEO of the PTR, agrees: “Entry-level pay has been fairly constant. What used to be a great job coming out of college in the ‘70s and early ‘80s is just an average job now. It used to be good money; now it’s average money.”
“Tennis is such a great profession, but it’s certainly not easy to make a buck,” adds Doug Cash, former COO of Tennis Corporation of America who now runs CashFlow Tennis, a consulting business. “The lower pay is not attractive. First-year teaching pros probably will make $35,000 to $40,000, if they are very good.”
Santorum says he thinks entry-level teaching pros should be making more like $45,000 to $50,000 a year. But some in the industry note that it’s often hard to approach the issue of pay without accurate data. It’s been many years since an accurate salary survey of the tennis profession has been performed — or at least released within the industry. While industry insiders were hesitant to be quoted on the matter, there is a feeling that releasing general compensation information may unintentionally hurt salaries, especially in a struggling economy, by giving clubs and facilities data that they can point to as a reason to keep pay at the same level or possibly lower it.
Kimm Ketelsen, program director of Tennis Tech, the professional tennis management program at Tyler Junior College in Tyler, Texas, is direct about the problem: “The pay has to be better for assistant pros. If they’re not making a living, they’re not going to stay with it. We should not be paying assistants by the hour; we should be paying them a percentage.”
“We need to set the pay up in such a way that a person understands he or she can make money,” says Billy Freer, director of tennis at Brookhaven Country Club in Dallas and the chairperson of Club Corp.’s National Tennis Committee. “The trend is toward clubs fixing salaries for its pros; there are ceilings. That’s not something a college graduate wants to see. What we need to say to someone coming in is, ‘Here’s what I’d like to pay you now, and here’s what I’d like you to know you can make.’ It gives them an incentive.”
“The range of what [clubs] charge today is all over the map,” adds Cash. “I think it’s almost as much of a pricing problem than a compensation problem. Clubs don’t charge enough, so they’re afraid to increase their pay [to teaching pros]. To jump now to pay the right amount is difficult. I really believe [facilities] should be raising their prices more than they have in the past, and if you have a quality product, people will pay for it. Money has to get up there to be able to pay these people enough.”
“I think that what some clubs are saying is, ‘Why hire a good director of tennis and pay all that? Why not just hire someone to give lessons, and then we can hire someone to do accounting?’” says Freer. “That does not make a tennis manager or a director of tennis. You want to have a pro who stays at the club a long time, but you’re not going to get that with a person who’s just there to give lessons. You have this revolving door, and it sends absolutely the wrong message.”
Many say creating quality teaching pros is key to making the business attractive to a younger crowd. “You’re not going to change the minds of employers unless you’re able to present them with a product — a tennis professional — who is the best and can demand a better price,” says Tim Heckler, CEO of the USPTA.
Tennis pros need to be more than just on-court teachers. They need a set of skills that allows them to be salespeople, business managers, marketers and more. “If people are interested in moving up, they have to have an understanding of how a club works and how the business works,” says Ketelsen.
“I encourage my pros to get involved with everything, including budgeting, maintenance, programming, scheduling, inventory, racquet stringing — everything,” says Fernando Velasco, the general manager and director of tennis at Circle C Tennis Club in Austin, Texas. “And all of my pros have to become certified within six months of getting here.”
Adds Collin Cadwell, interim director of the Ferris State PTM program: “Our graduates are hired at entry-level positions, but within about two to three years, they are going from there to head pro, director of tennis. They’re able to move up because of the skills they have.”
Getting more colleges to offer professional tennis management programs is clearly on the radar for concerned industry insiders. “Overall, the golf industry has done a much better job of creating a career path and of the professional management approach,” says Kamperman. “We’re not going to get colleges to offer PTM degrees right away. But they should look at offering certificates and other training.”
Kamperman says the tennis industry needs to have a presence at job fairs and other career events, and to help with mentoring young hopefuls. “There’s no reason that this winter and spring we can’t get a message in front of thousands of students playing high school and college tennis about the career opportunities in the tennis industry,” he says. That will increase the pool not just for qualified young teaching pros, but for all positions.
College Tennis Players
Appealing to college tennis players is important in bringing quality young professionals with a passion for the sport into this industry. Students playing on varsity tennis teams in the U.S. are highly prized, but the pool has been somewhat limited by the 15,000 to 20,000 slots for players in this country. But helping to increase that pool is the vastly successful USTA Tennis on Campus program. Started eight years ago, Tennis on Campus allows thousands of players to join college club and intramural teams. Currently, there are more than 450 club teams with more than 30,000 student-athletes involved.
The ToC program communicates frequently with its student players throughout the country. And some of the student leaders who started teams at their colleges are already going through the USTA ranks in a volunteer capacity, says Glenn Arrington, the USTA’s national manager for the program.
“They’re running these clubs and intramural teams themselves,” he says, “and learning the basic skills that any tennis pro would want: event planning, sales and marketing, leadership, administration. For our program, we’re all about providing leadership opportunities for these students to move forward. We realize that by positioning opportunities in front of them, the future might look bright for this industry.”
Santorum points to the PTR on Campus program as helping to bring younger people into the industry. The program offers discounted PTR memberships and free workshops for young players who are good students and good players. The program also requires that students give 10 hours back in community service.
The USPTA, too, is hoping to bring youth into the industry through new programs and resources geared toward a younger generation. “We’ve recently released five new programs, including a tennis resource center, built along the lines of YouTube,” says Heckler.
Elevating the Profession
Whether due to low salaries, a “tennis bum” perception or the idea that teaching tennis is a job, not a career, there is a need to raise the status of teaching pros and others in this industry.
“To be taken seriously, young professionals need a sense of pride in the business,” says Peter Burwash, founder and president of Peter Burwash International, a tennis management company. “Right now, our standards [in the industry] are so bad.”
Burwash, who since founding PBI in 1975 has personally interviewed more than 10,500 pros to run tennis programs at high-end resorts throughout the world, says many young people show up in interviews “dressed like slobs,” which perpetuates a poor image of the industry.
“For a long time, we’ve been trying to figure out how to help elevate the tennis pro,” says the TIA’s de Boer. She adds that the TIA has been working with a marketing group to help “put more focus on the teaching pro in the media, to emphasize the attractiveness of the tennis teaching profession and the important role pros play as the first stop in the tennis delivery system.”
But beyond that, the TIA is hoping to coordinate an industry-wide effort to both attract more young talent into the business and to create more lucrative and stable job opportunities in the industry. One tactic will be a new website, careersintennis.com, slated for a “soft” launch in mid-December, in time for the Intercollegiate Tennis Association convention. The site will allow companies, clubs, resorts and others with positions available to post them for free.
Other strategies involve reaching out to high school and college players through coaches and the Tennis on Campus program, and educating executives in the club, resort and park industries on the long-term benefits of hiring and retaining top tennis pros. Also important is starting more professional tennis management programs at the college level to churn out qualified young industry
“This will be one of the most important initiatives this industry has launched,” says de Boer. “While the efforts will be far-reaching and a permanent part of our core mission, it will take many years before all of our collective resources see the first wave of change.”
“We have an opportunity to put in front of these students the idea, and the reality, that tennis is a lucrative, fulfilling career that has a lot of positive aspects, such as helping others, a healthy lifestyle and more,” says Kamperman. “We have a great story to tell.”
Adds Daglis: “There’s the old saying that if you enjoy what you do, you’ll never have to work a day in your life, and I think that’s really true about tennis. It’s a great opportunity to work with people and to be around people, and to really enjoy your job.”