Tennis Industry magazine

 

State of the Industry: Teaching Assistance?

For nearly 35 years, there have been two teaching pro groups in the U.S. Now the question is being raised again: Is this the best system for tennis?

By Peter Francesconi

This is the third in a series of articles about the tennis industry’s changing landscape. Future topics will deal more specifically with issues affecting teaching pros and their day-to-day work, such as salaries, insurance, their businesses, health, and more. Other upcoming topics in this “State of the Industry” series include tennis participation, court construction, pro tennis, and more. We’d like to hear your comments and concerns, too. Email them to rsi@racquettech.com. Please put “state of the industry” in the subject line.

To many in the tennis business, it’s fairly clear that the tennis teaching profession is one of the most important sectors of the industry. Tennis teachers often are the first ones to touch consumers. They run tennis clubs, park and rec programs, and leagues. They help influence consumer purchasing. They’re key for getting people into tennis and keeping them playing, and they help create “frequent” players.

What’s less clear, though, is whether tennis is better served by having two teaching pro organizations or one combined group.

Publicly, industry insiders have danced around this issue for decades, not wanting to incur the wrath of either the Professional Tennis Registry or the U.S. Professional Tennis Association, or both. But the issue has been out there since the late 1970s, most of the time simmering just under the surface.

It’s recently bubbled up again, but the difference now seems to be that people are more willing to talk about it. And more than that, officials of the PTR, USPTA, TIA, USTA and others are willing to find ways the two groups can work together and — who knows? — maybe even form one teaching pro group someday.

To be sure, there are those who maintain two separate teaching pro organizations has its advantages. The PTR’s stance is to start “working together” rather than talk “merger.” The USPTA, on the other hand, has come out publicly about wanting to form one teaching pro group. For their part, USTA and TIA officials say that for the good of the game, they are willing to support and assist bringing the two groups together — whether it means working together or merging.

Some in the industry say that tennis — and teaching pros — are best served with one organization, a true trade group working toward common goals. Others maintain the competition keeps both organizations sharp, always looking for ways to better serve their members. Of course, clouding the issue is that for many, the debate tends to be highly political and emotional.

But how this issue plays out can easily affect many other important areas regarding tennis teaching pros and tennis in general. For instance, the PTR, USPTA and USTA all have talked about mandatory continuing education for teaching pros, a hot topic that easily is affected by whether there is one group or two.

That issue, in turn, would affect certification and possible recertification, and that can affect the quality of teaching pros overall and their perception in the eyes of both the public and facility owners, which affects salaries. What happens next in this debate over teaching pro groups can influence priorities, programs, alignments and relationships within this industry.

One Group, or Two?

In September, at the USPTA’s World Conference, new President Tom Daglis said one of his initiatives in his two-year term is to form one united tennis-teaching organization. He reiterated that stance in the March issue of USPTA’s ADDvantage magazine, which reprinted a letter he sent to PTR President Jean Mills. “We are not interested in perpetuating the two professional tennis teaching association system,” Daglis wrote, adding that the USPTA is “only interested in a merger.”

“The dynamics of one or two … it’s not an easy conversation,” says Mills. “The thinking of the PTR board is that before you can go into a discussion like a merger, we think it’s more beneficial to sit down with their leadership at every level and let’s start working together.”

Whether a merger is in the cards or not, a positive sign cited by all parties is a vote by the USPTA board of directors in April to rescind a rule that prevented pros who are members of both groups from moving to the higher levels in the USPTA structure. For the last few years, if you were a member of both organizations, you had to give up your PTR membership if you wanted to be on the USPTA board or in other national or sectional positions.

(The rule preventing dual membership remains in effect for USPTA testers; they can’t also be testers for the PTR. “The rule for testers has been in place a lot longer than the rule for the executive committee,” says USPTA CEO Tim Heckler. “Our testers are involved in a lot of our confidential business matters, such as trying out new practices and programs.”)

Rescinding that rule, says Mills, “was a terrific step toward us really building a wonderful, positive working relationship going forward.”

“When the USPTA board made the decision to allow PTR membership, that was a great gesture of goodwill,” says Jim Loehr, a USPTA board member who has reached Master Pro status in both organizations.

With the USPTA advocating a merger, it’s the PTR that states the case for maintaining two separate teaching pro groups.

“The competition is good and healthy,” says Mills. “The bottom line is that we feel both organizations are great for tennis, and we encourage our members to be members of both.”

“The two organizations give people a choice,” says Dan Santorum, CEO of the PTR. “Both organizations have high numbers of people joining and reinstating their memberships every year. Clearly these thousands of people value the choice and the differences between the two, choosing the one that suits their needs the best.

“We differ in culture, education, leadership, structure and philosophy,” he adds. “The question becomes, is it possible to bridge these differences to form one organization?”

“Both groups have such terrific strengths,” says Ajay Pant, a PTR board member who also is a Master Pro in both organizations. “But if they merge, do you lose those strengths? I think it all goes back to looking at them as two organizations that both bring a lot to the table. There are some things the USPTA does exceptionally well and some things the PTR does exceptionally well.”

Industry watchers agree — both groups have their definite strengths and attractions. Many like the way the PTR has a “family” feeling to it, the large international membership bringing in fresh ideas, and the idea of a basic method for teaching fundamentals, especially to groups. Others cite the USPTA’s strong educational and business components, including the use of technology, and its U.S. structure (it has 17 “divisions” along the same lines as the USTA’s 17 sections), which helps lead to a strong local presence.

Duplication of Efforts?

But time after time, you hear comments like this one, from a tennis director in the Midwest: “Having two organizations is a detriment to our industry. I’ll be frank, the reason we have two is because of egos, it’s all, ‘Mine’s better than yours.’ But more importantly, to get more teaching pros you start to water down the certification, so you’re only hurting the industry. I see that as a major problem. To increase membership, you’re not developing the right pros or giving the right education.”

“An enormous amount of energy is expended to be competitive with each other,” Loehr says. “Sometimes competition is helpful and spawns good things, but I see a lot of things that are unnecessary, a lot of planning that could be put into developing a much more robust trade association to help teaching pros protect their careers and build stability.”

“Clearly at this point the teaching pro organizations are doing their own thing,” says Heckler. “If we merged there would certainly be a common interest in doing what is right for all of the pros in the nation. In a lot of ways we’re just duplicating effort.”

“Both groups are so focused on competing that they’re not doing justice to their own members,” adds another industry insider who is a member of both organizations. “Here, we certify you and now you’re totally on your own. They need to create career paths, entry-level positions. We’re in an industry where the role of the teaching pro has become increasingly marginalized. We won’t see improvement until we have one organization.”

Comparisons are frequently made to PGA of America professionals in the golf industry. With only one certifying group in golf, standards are high and training is rigorous, and PGA pros are the recognized experts when it comes to teaching the sport. And the PGA has a clear line of progression and a mentoring process, so young golf teaching pros have a pathway for their careers.

“I think the credential in golf means a lot more than it does in tennis,” says Greg Moran, director of tennis at the Four Seasons Racquet Club in Wilton, Conn. “I’ve spent 17 years at a country club and I’ve not seen a PGA golf professional who’s not top-notch. What they have to go through is awesome.”

“The PGA is kicking our butt; their golf pros are so much more superior to us,” says the Midwest tennis director. “It’s because the one organization has control and doesn’t lower its standards.”

All for One?

Supporters of a merger say that if there is one tennis certifying organization, those same benefits enjoyed by golf pros will come to tennis pros.

“There are so many good people involved in both organizations,” Loehr says. “But if we were speaking with one voice, protecting and really developing the career path and competency for this group, it would be so much better for them and so much better for tennis.”

“I think [a merger] will happen within three years,” adds Daglis. “It has a very big groundswell, and I believe both memberships want it to happen. I know our members want it to happen. What we’re trying to do is form a better trade association for those pros trying to make a career in this industry. The stumbling block is at the top. If it doesn’t happen, it goes back to us competing for the same members.”

“I think there’s a real openness on the part of the USPTA to find a structure that will accommodate everyone,” says Loehr. “There’s a sense that this is in the best interest of the game and everyone needs to bury the past. I have this strong feeling that this is a time when potentially a great move could be made.”

Says Santorum: “Our board would make any decisions regarding a merger or not, but as Jean [Mills] points out, right now we’re interested in getting together to talk about how we can work together to grow tennis. We understand that we’re competitors, but our focus is how to improve tennis.”

Ultimately, that’s what the USTA is after, too. “I’d love to think [the PTR and USPTA] could come to the same table and talk about how they can grow the game,” says USTA President Lucy Garvin. “Our goal is to improve tennis and to work with all of our partners. If they would like us to be part of it, we would certainly play any role that they would like us to play.”

Head/Penn has had long-term sponsorships with both groups. “Their goals and our goals are the same,” says Kevin Kempin, CEO and president of Head USA. But when asked if, businesswise, it would make more sense to deal with only one group, Kempin is uncharacteristically silent, then he chooses his words carefully: “In an optimal world, if there was one group, philosophically it would be easier to deal with. But in the end it comes down to the individual teaching pros out there supporting our brand because of the affiliation they have.

“It would make life easier in many ways, and it would make life less challenging in many ways,” he continues. “Look at the PGA — there is one message coming out, rather than two. But in the end that’s their business, not mine. I think it’s easier for others who aren’t affiliated with either group to say yeah, one group makes sense.”

Many, when considering a merger, say they are not in favor of a “takeover,” but would want to take the best of both groups, possibly forming a totally new teaching pro organization with a new name. “Both groups bring a lot to the industry and teaching pros,” says Jolyn de Boer, executive director of the TIA. “If there were to be only one teaching pro group in the U.S., it would need to be clear that it has elements of both the USPTA and PTR.”

“You never say never and shut the door to anything,” Santorum says. “It is difficult to make a decision without a plan. Maybe the answer is to draw up how you’d like to see a single organization.”

Mandatory Continuing Education

The notion of mandatory continuing education for teaching pros is tied closely with this issue of a possible single teaching pro organization — some may say mandatory ed is what’s helping to move this issue along. Right now, in either organization, once you take the test and are considered “certified,” that’s it. It’s like getting a driver’s license, you pass at age 16 and you never have to take the basic DMV test again.

Of course, both the PTR and USPTA encourage their members to continue their education beyond the basic certification, but that’s not mandatory; there’s no “required” continuing ed.

“That’s not necessarily how you want your professional continuing education to be,” says Pant. “If you are a doctor and you were trained in how to do a knee operation in 1975 and you haven’t done anything to stay updated since then, you’re not touching my knee. But it’s also not just a lack of education, it’s a lack of incentive [on the part of teaching pros].”

As the anonymous teaching pro from the Midwest alluded to, if only one teaching group implements a mandatory education policy for its pros, it might drive members to the other group.

“What would be really nice would be if both groups could agree on mandatory continuing education,” says Kurt Kamperman, the USTA’s chief executive of Community Tennis. The idea is that the two organizations should get together to come up with a standard that both groups can implement.

“I think it’s certainly a conversation that should be had,” says Mills. “A consistent mandatory education component would be beneficial to tennis.”

“Everyone wants higher standards in coaching,” says Loehr. “The best protection you have is to have the highest level of competency in your field and clear-cut guidelines for excellence. If we’re able to do that as one unified body, so much more could get accomplished.”

“Every profession has continuing education,” says Pant. ” I don’t want people working for me who have not committed to their profession, who have not committed to being good at what they do.”

Relaxing the Standards?

So, has “competition” between the PTR and USPTA actually caused a “dumbing down” of the teaching profession in this country? Some believe it has, while others say U.S. pros are still better trained and continue to have more opportunities for top-notch education and training than any other teaching pros in the world. Clearly, both teaching groups continue to stress education and are indeed producing more, and better, educational materials.

“In Europe, especially for entry-level pros, we’re a joke,” says one longtime teaching pro in the West. “Things are much more rigorous overseas.”

“Other countries require significantly more hours of training before potential teaching pros are even permitted to take the test for certification,” says Kirk Anderson, the USTA’s director of coaches and programs. Some, he adds, even require a phys ed degree.

In virtually every other ITF country, the national federation also certifies teaching pros. However, the USTA says it has no plans to get into the certification business.

“If we started things over again, would we structure it [the way it is currently]? No,” says Garvin. “The best we can do in this country is to work together with the teaching pro groups.” And many think that’s as far as the USTA involvement should go.

“It’s a complex issue. The USTA has national coaches and they’re in the coaching business,” says Loehr. “They can do whatever they choose to do with mandatory training. But it’s important to have a very clear line between a trade association and the national governing body. The USTA is in the business of making players; a trade association is simply trying to protect the profession and the teaching pros. It should work in concert with the USTA.”

More, And Younger, Teaching Pros

Membership in both groups has been increasing over the years, say both Heckler and Santorum. For 2010, Heckler says total USPTA membership should top 15,500, while Santorum says he expects PTR membership to hit 14,500. Of these totals, the USPTA says it has 2,000 international members, while the PTR claims 5,300 overseas. Both executives agree there are about 1,000 people who hold memberships in both organizations.

So if we assume all U.S. members of both groups are “certified” pros, for a total of 21,700 (taking into account the dual memberships), and you start crunching numbers compared to the latest tennis participation survey, the figures are daunting. For instance, with the 7 million people who took up the game in 2009, it would mean one pro for every 323 new players. With the 5.4 million “frequent” players, who presumably also take lessons and clinics, it would be 249 players per pro. For the 30.1 million total players? Each pro would be dealing with 1,387 players.

The problem, say those in the industry, is that if the number of players increases and there is not an increase in the number of teaching pros, then players will begin to leave the sport. Qualified teaching pros are essential to keeping players playing.

“Attracting and retaining quality tennis teaching pros as well as enhancing their importance to facility owners and managers is essential for this game to move forward and continue to grow,” says de Boer. “We need to raise the profile of teaching pros in this country and make the profession one that young talent will be attracted to in terms of career goals, salary, benefits, chances for advancement, and more.”

“The industry is still living off the really bright people who got into it in the late 1970s and early ’80s,” adds Kamperman.

Many are concerned about this “graying” of the teaching profession. Santorum puts the average age of PTR members at 45 years old, while Heckler says USPTA members average around 42 to 43.

“There should be a concerted effort to groom and create interest for teaching pros in this business,” says Garvin. “We need to make sure they have a desire to enter this profession.”

“My biggest concern is the next generation of teaching pros,” says Mills, “because I don’t see the commitment, knowledge, drive and professionalism that I feel the sport needs to sustain the future, and certainly to sustain a career.”

Industry ‘Feeder’ System

Look at virtually any job within the tennis industry today. Whether organization executives, manufacturers or sales reps, retailers, facility owners or managers, court contractors or any other position related to tennis — many of these people started their careers as tennis teaching pros. The teaching profession, critical in itself, also is an important springboard to just about any other career in this business, and the industry is concerned that this “feeder” system may slow down or run dry.

One element that many see as holding a key to the future is more college-level Professional Tennis Management programs, such as those offered by schools such as Ferris State University in Michigan and Methodist College in North Carolina. Students come away with a business degree, tennis teaching certification and knowledge in areas that extend well beyond the boundaries of the court.

Right now, there are four such programs for tennis. Again, a comparison can be made to the golf industry, where there are at least 20 college-level Professional Golf Management programs.

“I have parents that come in who are not really sure about the program and whether this is a viable career for their son or daughter,” says Derek Ameel, director of the PTM program at Ferris State. “After we go through our presentation, they leave with an entirely different perception. Tennis is the fastest growing sport, and you have people who are aging and retiring and you have this growth — huge supply and demand issues. There is going to be a demand for more tennis professionals.”

“We would love to see more colleges and universities offer more PTM courses,” says de Boer. “Through the Careers in Tennis initiative, we hope to create greater awareness of these college-level programs that will continue to help professionalize this business.”

And ultimately, continuing to improve the professionalization of the teaching of tennis is what everyone is after. “Whatever we do,” says Mills, “we want to grow the game so everyone benefits and it’s a win for tennis, the pros and most importantly the players.”

“Every other area of the industry needs to work in cooperation with teaching pros,” says Daglis, “because if the teaching pro is successful, every other area will be successful.”


How Did We Get Two?

The USPTA is the world’s oldest association of tennis-teaching professionals, founded in 1927. The PTR was founded in 1976 by Dennis Van der Meer.

Van der Meer was concerned that different teaching pros were teaching different methods to students. “A systematic approach was needed to make learning tennis simple, especially for the novice, and teachers needed guidelines to ensure professionalism in delivering quality lessons in a friendly environment,” he said. This led to the birth of his TennisUniversity, aimed at developing teaching pros, which then led to the PTR, to certify pros and teach the Standard Method.

Today, the PTR no longer refers to it as the “Standard Method.” And while fundamentals, group instruction and sound teaching principles are still a key part of the PTR’s certification exam, the organization recognizes that there are different methods for effectively teaching the game, says CEO Dan Santorum.

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About the Author

Peter Francesconi is editorial director of RSI magazine.

 

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