State of the Industry: Under Construction
Court builders have been hit hard by the slump in the economy. Many remain cautious, unsure of whether the rollercoaster ride is still heading downward, or will soon start the slow climb out of the hole.
Additional reporting by Peter Francesconi
This is the seventh in a series of articles about the tennis industry’s changing landscape. Future topics will deal with participation, day-to-day conditions affecting teaching pros and more. We’d like to hear your comments and concerns too. E-mail them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put “state of the industry” in the subject line.
There’s been no doubt that the economy is playing a tough game with all aspects of the tennis industry. A financially tenuous environment is wreaking havoc on membership numbers, lesson enrollment and equipment and apparel sales. Retailers, manufacturers, teaching pros and facility owners have all sounded off on their worries, and also on the strategies they’re using in order to meet the next shot that comes over the net to challenge them.
The impact is huge for tennis-court builders as well. That shouldn’t come as any surprise; home and commercial building and buying, and the market for those in the business of remodeling, has been anemic at best. It only stands to reason that the tennis-court construction and rehab industry would be affected by the same external factors. And while many tennis courts can be less expensive to build, operate and insure than some other recreational facilities (such as swimming pools), they do represent a significant investment, something many buyers have put on hold for the time being.
The Sudden Drop
Tennis-court construction professionals (those whose companies market themselves strictly as court and athletic facility specialists, not those who are general contractors for many different types of projects) have been hit hard. Most say the slide actually started at least two years ago.
“With us, everything hit around mid-2008, and it was a very clearly defined line,” says David Marsden of Boston Tennis Court Construction Co. Inc. in Hanover, Mass. “At the beginning of ‘08, we had enough business to know we had a good year ahead of us. Then suddenly, in the second half, business just dropped off the table. I told (my business partner, Bruce Mahler), ‘I think we’d better get ready for a crummy 2009.’”
“For us, it was like someone turned a switch off,” notes Kevin Healion of Century Tennis in Deer Park, N.Y. “We just went dead.”
Many company owners, who had become accustomed to a certain workflow and pace, scrambled to find jobs. Trouble was, they weren’t alone.
“We suddenly started seeing so many more bidders on tennis-court projects than ever before,” says Steve Wright of Trans Texas Tennis Ltd. in Houston. “These were for projects that in the past, tennis-court builders would exclusively have been bidding on. That’s been a huge shift and it’s certainly that way today. Even multi-million-dollar general contractors are bidding on these tennis-court projects. Before, they never would have bothered with them.”
While normally, competition is the sign of a healthy marketplace, this economy has created conditions that are far from normal. The problem with the increasing number of bidders at the table, say tennis-court contractors, is that few of those bidders actually understand the sport of tennis, and fewer still know how to build a court correctly. (See “Finding the Right Builder” on page 26 for insights on how to pick a skilled court builder/repair professional.)
The wrong decision comes back to haunt the facility owner, says George Todd of Welch Tennis Courts Inc. in Sun City, Fla. “I’m seeing people make some fairly good-sized mistakes from the standpoint of design. It’s going to be hard for the owner to come up with the budget twice: once to get the project built and once to get someone to fix all the things that are wrong with it.”
As the USTA’s Director of Community Tennis Development, Virgil Christian constantly lobbies for the use of tennis-court contractors to callers who ask for advice on a construction or rehab project. The USTA’s Facility Assistance program includes advocacy, technical support and financial assistance, and the staff has been busy lately with calls and e-mails.
“At one point in the dialogue, we always tell people that they should get professional involvement,” says Christian. “We try to tell them, ‘You’re going to lose a lot more than you’re saving.’ I must have this conversation four times a week. We also try to get them to get a local architect or engineer to guide the process. We want to see a nice facility built, and our standards are high. Tennis courts are not parking lots.”
The Quick Fix
These days, many players will have their current racquet restrung rather than buying a new one. Owners and managers of tennis courts are taking a similar route. Mark Brogan, who owns Pro-Sport Tennis in Devon, Pa., serves as Tennis Division President of the American Sports Builders Association (ASBA). From talking to others in the court construction industry, he has noticed a distinct trend among consumers toward what becomes — literally and figuratively — a patch job.
“If people have a pretty major reconstruction project coming, they want to know what they can do so that they can put it off for a few years,” says Brogan.
Like many surfacing manufacturers, Jeff Gearheart of SportMaster Sport Surfaces in Sandusky, Ohio, has noticed “positive movement in court repair and resurfacing, so it seems the economy is beginning to strengthen. New construction is still slower than usual, though.”
What contractor Herb Osburn of Aylett, Va.-based Tennis Courts Inc. calls “a Band-Aid job” doesn’t come close to being profitable for a company that normally resurfaces a particular asphalt court every five to eight years.
Some companies, however, profit from the current “repair, don’t replace” trend. NGI Sports in Chattanooga, Tenn., and Armor Crack Repair System in Farmingdale, N.J., both make repair systems for cracked tennis courts, and both report strong sales. Armor’s contracting division, which does the actual repair work using Armor’s products, has also been busy. “In fact,” notes Armor’s David Clapp, “the last two years, our schedule was booked full by June. This may indicate that repair work is abundant.”
“The repair business is phenomenal,” adds Tom Hinding of RiteWay Crack Repair of West Haven, Conn. “Our business has grown tremendously. People are doing the minimal possible to get by, asking us to get them by for two to five more years before they have to resurface.”
The No-Frills Court
The need to cut expenses in new construction or rehab of tennis courts has resulted in a new no-frills approach (see “Spending Less on Court Improvements”). Even maintenance is affected by the downturn.
In clubs with soft courts, owners and managers are simply trying to hold the line on costs, says Randy Futty of Lee Tennis Court Products in Charlottesville, Va. Futty, ASBA’s Supplier Division President, notes that from what he sees of the country-club market, “Until membership starts to increase, people don’t want to spend yet. They’re just hanging in there, doing the basics. Folks with clay courts are doing just enough to maintain them.”
Brogan says contractors are finding that owners have scaled down their plans for tennis facilities; this too cuts into the builder’s bottom line. “In the private sector, we’re seeing that projects are moving, but people are cutting back to the bare minimum. They’re not going with lights, they’re not going with the cushioned surfaces. They’re getting rid of the fluff.”
Art Tucker of Andover, Massachusetts-based Plexipave Div. of California Products has noticed a lack of investment in the peripherals of the court. During a visit to a major university not long ago, Tucker stopped by the tennis facility. “I looked at the courts, and they were mostly in good shape, but the fencing around them looked like something out of ‘Shutter Island’ — it was worn out, the galvanization was gone and the whole thing was really dangerous. But if you asked someone there, they’d probably just say they couldn’t squeeze anything else out right now.”
Tennis-court builders tend to specialize in certain markets. They range from public or municipal facilities (including courts for school systems), to private clubs, to colleges/universities/private schools, to the individual or residential court market.
According to Rick Burke of NGI, many builders who work in the public and municipal market still have an active caseload because their projects are the result of bond money that has been in place for several years. But even that, he notes, may be drying up soon. Those contractors, he adds, “are worried about next year.”
Colleges and universities, as well as private schools, are unique in terms of tennis-facility construction and rehab. Many new construction projects in educational institutions are the result of fund drives and alumni and corporate donations; therefore, much depends on each school’s success with fund raising and development — but these are areas that are presently suffering. At the same time, however, schools need to remain competitive in order to attract new enrollment, and state-of-the-art student wellness centers and athletic facilities can be key to those efforts. It is, says John Graham of DecoTurf in Andover, Mass., a conundrum.
“We are somewhat confused as to how school systems can continue to lay off teachers and still find money to build or resurface tennis courts,” he notes. “We’re not complaining about the work, but we just don’t understand how it’s happening.”
The residential court market has just about flat-lined, according to Osburn. “Our private residences are way off,” he says. “People are waiting to fix things until the court is well beyond easy repair.”
Fred Manchester, who operates Manchester Courts LLC in Lexington, S.C., says he has had good luck lately with his maintenance business for local private clubs with soft courts. However, he adds, when the recession first hit, “People put projects on hold. I had projects that were supposed to happen, and they didn’t. Some things that I had been doing as repeat business, like clubs with clay courts, the clubs elected to do their courts in-house or not at all. There was also a definite drop in inquiries about new construction.” For Manchester, inquiry calls are starting to come in again, but he remains cautious, waiting to see if they pan out.
Materials and Labor
Another essential contributor to the bottom line for tennis-court builders is the cost of materials and the price of the fuel that gets those materials to the jobsite. Two years ago, the cost of asphalt, which is petroleum-based, was wildly volatile (as were the costs of gasoline and diesel fuel), and was wreaking havoc on contractors’ estimates. Concrete also went up in cost, as did rubber. While those prices are a bit more predictable now, they can still throw a wrench into an estimate, according to Fred Volpacchio of Hudson Design Build Group LLC in Peekskill, N.Y.
“There’s still a lot of volatility in that sector, and for steel and other products,” says Volpacchio. “Mostly for me, it’s steel, which affects a lot of the different trades for materials. I haven’t seen that settle down yet.”
While all tennis-court contractors reported difficulty in attracting new work and bidding against unqualified companies, virtually none reported trouble finding and keeping workers. Many use foremen and other lead workers who have held their positions for years, or decades.
“We get the same foremen back year after year,” says Marsden. “We also get the same laborers coming back because our foremen lure those guys back. We pay a fair amount of money in a short season. Having the same people saves us a lot of headaches in training and quality.”
According to Wright, the recession has taken any difficulty out of getting laborers on board. “For common labor, projects like moving stuff around and helping out the skilled guys, we can always get college kids, people who are out of work, etc. The only problem there is that you just don’t know how long they’re planning to stay with you.”
Only one contractor (who asked not to be identified) had a labor problem: “Finding someone with a valid driver’s license.”
New Players: New Courts?
New-player initiatives, such as the USTA’s 10-and-under tennis using the QuickStart play format and its focus on community tennis, including its grant program, have created optimism among builders, says John Graham.
“I think the USTA is doing a fantastic job on promoting the game,” he notes. “We as an industry are really lucky to have a governing body that is doing that; it’s something not a lot of sports can say.”
QuickStart Tennis focuses on shorter courts, more appropriate for kids. And the USTA has been pushing hard for two years to have courts built and/or lined specifically for the 10-and-under play format, including supplying grants to facilities to help cover costs. Graham notes that his company has been designing line paint for QST courts in colors that will not distract adults from their game, but will allow children to understand the court boundaries.
Tom Hinding, who also owns Hinding Tennis Courts of West Haven, Conn., says he’s realized a huge increase in business in building and lining shorter courts for QuickStart Tennis. “We’re pushing it hard — we know it’s the future. And clubs are now seeing the potential of QuickStart courts; it’s generating a lot of money for them. Now, people are actually calling us and saying they need to get QST courts installed, and asking what they have to do,” says Hinding. “I think within five years, if a club can fit it, you’ll see permanent QST courts at every club.”
He also has noticed that more senior players are enjoying tennis on the shorter courts, too. “I go over to East Shore Park in New Haven, which has four permanent 36-foot courts, and I see more seniors playing than juniors,” Hinding notes. In fact, the International Tennis Federation is looking into rolling out a program for adults using the shorter courts.
While organizers and those in the industry have been living and breathing it every day, says the USTA’s Christian, the message of the ever-growing comeback of tennis is finally filtering through the municipal market. What resonates most, he adds, is the notion that children are finding it easier to take up the game, since “there’s not a park director out there who doesn’t want kids playing.”
Builders have praised the USTA’s facility grants and its facility advocacy and information programs as being important first steps in helping a limping construction industry regain its footing. Some say they’re already optimistic (albeit cautious as well).
“We get the sales reports,” says Rob Righter of Nova Sports USA in Milford, Mass., “and we see that ball sales and racquet sales and clothing sales are growing and we know that looks good for our industry.”
“I don’t have that many big worries about the industry,” says Lee Tennis’s Futty. “When you look at us compared to other sports, we’re doing a hell of a job. I think we need to keep doing what we’re doing: growing the game, positively branding the game, and working toward a unified goal of bringing more players into the game for life and keeping the ones we have from leaving. You want to get them to the dance and have them dance all night versus leaving after one song.”
Programs that increase the player base, say builders and suppliers, can spell success for all segments of the industry. More lesson-takers means more income for pros. More players means more business for parks, clubs and other tennis facilities. More leagues means more court use, and it all adds up to a demand for more courts, more well-appointed courts, and more courts that must be kept in good shape.
“A rising tide lifts all boats,” was the saying echoed by no less than four builders.
Green building and the use of sustainable materials and eco-friendly techniques are a concern in most segments of the construction marketplace. However, as tennis-court builders note, many initiatives, such as the Leadership in Energy & Environmental Design (LEED) green building certification system, apply to new construction, and those projects have dropped off significantly. But eco-friendly construction remains a powerful marketing tool.
While many builders employ green techniques in varying degrees (see “Going Green” above), others say the concept creates increased work when contractors are more pressed for time than ever before. They are hopeful that the process, essential as it is, can be streamlined in years to come.
“More and more owners are having LEED documents, and we have to fill those out to show we’re complying with the sustainable design items people are requesting,” says Wright. “The paperwork involved is taking a great amount of time.”
Meeting the challenge
From the outset, the economic downturn caused builders to rethink their strategies. Todd noted that Welch Tennis Courts has become fiercely competitive in its pricing. “But I would say the bigger change for us has been using a wider, broader area to find the jobs.”
At Century Tennis, says Healion, “Some of our men went on unemployment, but they do every year. They went on it a little early this year. We don’t look for different work in the winter; we tried snowplowing years ago, but we learned that it damages the equipment that we’re going to need in the spring.”
Brogan notes that many contractors in the ASBA have started thinking outside the box, or at least outside the tennis court, for other income opportunities. “I’ve done that, and we’ve tried to educate our members over the past few years on ways to diversify and on other things they can do to expand their capabilities during the tough times.” Brogan says his own company has installed synthetic putting greens and tees for golf courses. Other ASBA members have built playgrounds and facilities for basketball, bocce, and shuffleboard, as well as dog parks with antimicrobial artificial turf.
Most contractors were reluctant to discuss layoffs or downsizing of their workforce, although some did say — off the record — they either recently had made, or were currently being faced with, that decision.
Like many tennis-court builders, Fred Kolkmann of Fred Kolkmann Tennis and Sport Surfaces LLC in Grafton, Wis. admits to being worried about the lasting impact of the recession on an industry in which he has spent his life. “I would say it’s going to take a few years to get back out,” he notes. “I think it’s going take some companies under, and it’s going to hurt next year.”
Some builders met the challenge head-on, creating their own strategies to deal with the impending shortfalls. When Marsden shared his gloomy forecast for 2009 with his business partner, he said, “Bruce came up with a three-pronged attack. He said: ‘One, we’re going to retain our key customers. Two, we’re going to pay our vendors on time. Three, we’re going to try to get our employees as close to the salaries of previous years as we can.’ That was his plan, and that’s what we did, and we succeeded and we survived. Right now, I think that if we just plod along, this is going to be an OK year.”
After 35 years in the business of building tennis courts, says Osburn, there aren’t very many surprises the economy has in store for him any longer. “I say to people, ‘Just ride the rollercoaster. Ride it on down, get to the bottom and hopefully it has enough steam to get back up.’ I do remember setbacks in the late 1970s, early ‘80s, but I don’t remember whether they were as bad as this.”
Opinions diverge as to whether that rollercoaster has hit bottom yet, whether it’s still plummeting, or whether it’s climbing back up. Nobody is a fan of thrill rides, though.
“It’s an exciting time, all right,” says George Todd, “if you can stand the excitement.”
Finding the Right Builder
Planning any new court construction or rehab work? Don’t fall prey to an inexperienced contractor.
- Require references and check for tennis court -specific experience; find out if the company’s previous court projects are holding up.
- Find out if the company has a Certified Tennis Court Builder (CTCB) on staff.
- Check for membership in the American Sports Builders Association (go to www.sportsbuilders.org and use the search feature); ASBA also has helpful publications and informational resources.
- Find out about the USTA’s Facility Assistance program (advice, grants, answer to FAQs and more) by going to usta.com/facilities/.
Spending Less on Court Improvements
Tennis participation may have climbed to its highest level in decades in 2009, but spending on courts and facilities is on the downswing. According to a TIA survey of over 420 facilities:
- 20% of facilities planned for capital improvements in 2009.
- Less than 50% of those improvements will be made to tennis courts.
- The remaining percentages include equipment, interior building, exterior building and landscaping (in descending amount of funding allocated).
Want to incorporate eco-friendly techniques into your facility? Some tips from builders and manufacturers:
- “Asphalt tennis courts are wonderfully recyclable,” says Art Tucker. “Hot mix is already using up to 25% of recycled products.”
- According to David Marsden, “Our company has taken the initiative on a few things, like using magnesium chloride instead of calcium chloride on clay courts. Calcium chloride is a fairly corrosive salt; it’ll corrode the net posts and damage plants.”
- “We are always trying to recycle a lot of the playing lines on clay tennis courts,” says Kevin Healion.
About the Author
Mary Helen Sprecher is the managing editor of Sports Destinations Management Magazine, a niche business-to-business publication for planners of sports travel events, in addition to being an RSI Contributing Editor. She is the technical writer for the American Sports Builders Association and works as a newspaper reporter in Baltimore City.