Changing Our Game
With challenges and changes looming, the USTA’s executive director says the organization must be disciplined, lean and in it for the common good.
By Gordon Smith
One of the great things about being involved in a traditional sport like tennis is that it can be an oasis of continuity in a world of change. Sure, things do change, such as racquet technology, tennis fashions, even electronic line-calling. But a lot of the time, getting together with friends to have a hard-fought game of tennis is not all that different than it was 25 or even 75 years ago.
I like that sense of being part of something with such a great tradition. The temptation, however, is to ignore the more uncomfortable changes that are being thrust upon us. As executive director, it is my responsibility to ensure that the USTA responds quickly and effectively to the implications of that change so the game can continue to grow.
The first change that has come upon us is the double whammy of a plateauing USTA income and a tight economy. With declining resources, the national office must be the model of leadership and operational excellence. Toward that end, I will aggressively lead an effort to become leaner, more efficient and accountable while retaining and recruiting the best available talent.
We in the national office need to decrease expenses. We must begin to spend the USTA’s money as if it were coming from our own checking accounts. But that alone is not enough. We can’t ask others to sacrifice until we’ve gotten our act together. And I want to hear from you about what you think we could do better, more efficiently and with less cost.
As we continue to improve at national, I’m committed to providing the 17 sections with the best training, financial advice, and mentoring possible. I realize that in many cases it works the other way — we can learn best practices from the bottom up. That’s why we need our 17 laboratories experimenting with new league formats and new ways to find young athletic talent.
The second change we face is the 75 million baby-boomers who are retiring and being replaced by Generation X, and more importantly, by Generation Y. Gen Y are people born roughly between 1978 and ‘94. They are racially and ethnically diverse, technology savvy, impatient, skeptical, and celebrity- and entertainment-driven. They have no memory of Arthur Ashe, Billie Jean King, John McEnroe, Bjorn Borg, Jimmy Connors, Chris Evert, Boris Becker or wood racquets. What does this mean for tennis?
Their natural acceptance of diversity means our programs and our very structure must genuinely reflect diversity. Remember: Diversity at its purest is not about the underprivileged. It is not about programs for diverse groups. It is about inclusion at all levels. If Gen Y sees us as a group that compartmentalizes diversity, they simply won’t sign-on. For them diversity is organic and natural.
The experts tell us the best way to reach Generation Y is by Gen Y’s. That means we must recruit Gen Y volunteers. And if we want this generation as our next national leaders, we must consider rethinking some of our traditional practices.
For example, does traditional print marketing move the dial to generations wired into the internet as never before? This has implications from planning our national gatherings to creating a highly effective Advanced Media operation, and by that I mean how we’re using the power of the web to our advantage.
With the help of our talented Advanced Media group, we are conducting a soup to nuts review of Advanced Media including a complete assessment of our website. Seventy-five percent of our web traffic is from people who want to sign up for a program or scout an opponent. Yet, our website is not nearly robust enough in participation opportunities and not well-linked to non-USTA opportunities. That will change.
By the way, the Generation after Y, those born after 1996, are sometimes called Generation I, for the Internet generation. They are also known as “digital natives” because they will never remember a time when you couldn’t do everything you wanted to do on a computer. With Gen I, we’re in a battle for their hearts and minds. We’ll never get them to the tennis net unless we meet them first on the internet.
I realize I’m asking us to do all of this at the national and sectional level with fewer resources, but I’ve rarely seen a good tennis player who wasn’t also disciplined and lean. So must this organization be, too.
When I am faced with a decision, I find it helpful to go back to the basics. Who are we? And, what are we? We are a not-for-profit organization. We are in this for the common good. The stock-in-trade of a not-for-profit is a changed human life. We are human change agents.
Tennis is fast, healthy, entertaining and doesn’t take all day or cost an arm and a leg. It has an outstanding history and an even greater future. And I hope that you are as proud to be a part of it as I am.
See all articles by Gordon Smith
About the Author
Gordon Smith joined the USTA national office as the executive director in November 2007. An avid player, he is a longtime volunteer, serving as president of the USTA Southern Section, at-large board member of the national USTA, and vice president of the USTA.