Q & A: Response time
The USTA’s top brass answer our questions on topics that impact many segments of the tennis industry.
As the US Open gets under way, we thought it would be a good time to put some important questions to top USTA leaders about a range of topics, including 10 and Under Tennis, the junior tournament structure, tennis participation, USTA relationships, coaching, teaching pros, college tennis, Player Development, industry relations, the NTC, perceptions of the USTA, and plans for the future.
Taking the time to answer our questions were Kurt Kamperman, the USTA’s chief executive of Community Tennis; Patrick McEnroe, general manager of USTA Player Development; and Gordon Smith, executive director and chief operating officer.
Q: What are key challenges the USTA and the industry face with 10 and Under Tennis? Are teaching pros and facilities adopting the program?
Kamperman: As far as adoption, currently we have over 6,000 facilities that have registered on our 10 and Under Tennis website. Red, orange, and green ball sales are booming, so clearly it’s taking off.
The key challenge, and opportunity, is getting clubs to go “all in” and really offer a full complement of 10 and under programming. Unfortunately, the great majority of facilities are just doing this in a partial way, which is not what’s best for the kids or their business. The facilities that have been really focused on offering a complete 10 and Under Tennis pathway have seen significant growth both in participation and the revenue they’ve been able to generate.
Q: How are the USTA Sections adapting to 10 and Under Tennis, including the different balls/equipment/courts and the rule changes?
Kamperman: All of the USTA Sections have made 10 and Under Tennis a priority. However, consistency with the specs for USTA tournaments at the section level is a challenge. Obviously, we’d love to have a more standardized, consistent approach, and we are recommending that, for most sections, 10% of their 10 and under events should use the green ball for the very top kids in the section. The rest of the tournaments should be orange or red, depending on the age.
Q: There has been a lot of talk about better kids being allowed to play with the yellow ball. Is this a real “issue” with 10U? How many kids are we talking about, and can they simply “play up”?
Kamperman: When we started this initiative, we had only 10,000 unique kids playing in USTA 10-and-under tournaments. Think about that number for a moment and recognize that most major cities have more 10-and-under soccer players than we had tennis players in the entire country. Our numbers were that low despite having 10-and-under tournaments available for decades and despite having many kid-focused instructional programs like Pee Wee Tennis, Munchkin Tennis, Little Tennis, etc. over the past 20 years.
With several million kids 10-and-under playing the game in schools, parks, lessons, clinic programs, etc., we had far less than even 1% of those kids playing in USTA tournaments. Of that very small percentage playing tournaments, less than 1% of those kids for their long-term development have any business at all playing with a yellow ball on a full-size court. So is this a real issue? Perhaps, but only for a very, very small number of kids, parents and coaches who believe they might be the next world champion and need to start training like Federer at age 9. And yes, those players can play up and they always have.
Q: Do you feel the USTA is “force feeding” rules to players and parents?
Kamperman: First, keep in mind my answer to the last question. Second, the rule change was one that the ITF has required worldwide. I would add that had the USTA not made this rule change, we would have been neglecting our duties as the national governing body for the U.S. The fact that every other sport has kid-sized their competitions and every member country in the ITF has supported this rule change might also be worth noting.
When you look at the population of the U.S., it’s an incredibly small base of players and parents who even knew what the rules used to be. That said, kids, parents and coaches can train and play any way they want and with any ball. However, when it comes to USTA-sanctioned events, yes, they have to play by the rules of tennis, which are set by the ITF and in this country, the USTA.
The same thing is true for every age division and is also true for every other sport. The sanctioning body sets the rules. Before the rule change, the only ball that was allowed for USTA-sanctioned events was the yellow ball…only one choice. Now there are three choices, and we feel they are much better choices for the masses.
Q: What kind of increases do you expect to see in youth tennis participation, and when do you expect to see them?
Kamperman: When we started this initiative, we felt that increasing the number of kids in our competitive system from 10,000 to 100,000 in five years was an aggressive goal. We may reach that goal this year.
Ball sales are a great metric for play because they can be measured accurately. Five or six years ago, the industry was selling less than 100,000 low-compression balls. Last year, according to TIA census reports, over 3.2 million red, orange and green balls were sold to retailers, and we expect that to grow significantly again this year. So what’s exciting is that with ball sales growing that dramatically, there is obviously lots more 10-and-under play, even outside of our USTA competitions.
Q: There is concern that the USTA is too single-focused on 10U, to the exclusion of other programs/audiences. What are your thoughts?
Kamperman: 10 and Under Tennis is a top priority for the USTA as a whole, and for Community Tennis and Player Development in particular. What’s exciting about this initiative is we have a huge cross-functional team from all parts of the organization working collaboratively to make sure this is successful. That said, our other key USTA programs for both youth and adults are receiving about as much support as they have in the past and remain critical for our long-term success. 10 and Under Tennis has the ability to feed into all these other programs and to be a “tipping point” for helping us fulfill our mission to promote and develop the growth of tennis.
Q: I understand the USTA is revamping the junior tournament structure, which would result in fewer events and smaller draws, but events that are closer to home. How is this being received?
McEnroe: We are making changes to the National Junior Tournament Schedule (NJTS), which will take effect in 2014. While some events have been eliminated, new tournaments have been created. The new NJTS will promote earned advancement as players will have to be successful within their Sections in order to advance to Regional and National competition.
There has been some criticism of the new NJTS, which has largely focused on the reduced draw sizes of two National Championships. It’s worth noting that there have been proposals since 2004 to restore the traditional 128 draw to our National Championships, and that will now take effect in the summer of 2013. The 128 draw should make the events much more challenging and should also make it more affordable for families.
We’re trying to help folks plan for the changes and our experience over many years is that players, parents and coaches will quickly adapt to the new schedule. The most recent evidence of this is the change to the national ranking point tables that took effect in 2012. While there were some questions about the changes to the tables, players have adapted well to the improvements in the tables. There will be a two-year phase-in of the changes and families have plenty of time to prepare.
Q: Explain the importance of doubles in the junior ranks.
McEnroe: We do think doubles is important for young players and we are expanding doubles opportunities as a part of the changes coming in 2014. It is worth noting that doubles is already offered at every tournament on the National Junior Tournament Schedule, so the promotion of doubles is nothing new.
It’s no secret that there are plenty of skills one learns while playing doubles that can help one’s singles play. In addition to the importance of doubles in college varsity tennis, the USA has a long and strong tradition of doubles play and we want to make sure that continues. Starting in 2013, there will be a new, true National Championship for doubles and the winning team will earn the traditional Gold Ball. Mixed doubles is already played at our USTA Zone Team Championships (BG12, BG14, BG16 Section team events played in July) and is very popular.
Q: Explain the TGA relationship. How does this impact local tennis providers and teaching pros?
Kamperman: TGA is a franchisor of tennis enrichment programs delivered at schools. USTA is not a business partner with TGA, we simply support TGA with our normal training, court, and equipment grants if they qualify. As for teaching pros, it appears to be a great opportunity for pros or tennis entrepreneurs to own their own businesses and earn extra money. TGA has used this model very successfully in introducing more kids to the game of golf, and we hope TGA can do the same for tennis.
Q: Some critics say the USTA should not be involved in coaching. What are your thoughts?
Kamperman: If you’re referring to coaching education, the USTA has been involved in helping coaches for many years, particularly in the area of high performance and now 10 and Under Tennis. We will continue to do so, working collaboratively with the USPTA and the PTR.
If you’re referring to our Player Development Department, coaching players directly, that’s really not for me to answer. However, I would say this. When you’re watching the French Open and a TV announcer is talking about the lack of Americans playing in the second week, it’s the USTA taking all the heat. I’ve never heard individual coaches or the teaching pro organizations being blamed for our lack of success. It’s the USTA as the governing body taking the fire, so we have a responsibility to help develop more top players, working with some players directly as well as working with the many talented coaches that develop top American players.
Q: Does the USTA feel there should be one unified teaching pro organization?
Kamperman: The USTA doesn’t have an official position on this. We’ll leave that up to the leaders of both the PTR and the USPTA.
Q: Is the USTA going to get into the tennis teacher certification business?
Kamperman: In many other countries, the NGB’s do certify tennis professionals. The USTA clearly has the resources to do this if it wanted to, and if it wanted to, it would. However, our preference has always been to work collaboratively with both the USPTA and the PTR to raise the standards of teaching tennis.
Q: What is the USTA’s position on college scholarships for foreign players? Is this something the USTA can/should be involved in?
McEnroe: It’s not an issue where the USTA has jurisdiction. The National Collegiate Athletic Association sets the rules for college athletics. The sport is definitely global, and college tennis is a reflection of that. We have a challenge and a responsibility to help develop young players who will be able to compete at that level. If you were to take a look at recent results and ranking for NCAA Division I tennis, you will see that American players are doing quite well.
Q: We hear about college tennis programs being dropped. How can the USTA help prevent this from happening?
McEnroe: Obviously, we are not in favor of any program being dropped, and we know these decisions are not made lightly by universities and colleges. What we can do and have been doing is trying to help provide college coaches with tools that will help them embed their programs in their local communities, such as Campus QuickStart, Campus Kids’ Days and Campus Showdowns. Hopefully, it will make these decisions tougher if a president can see what the tennis program means to the campus and to the community as a whole. Engaged tennis alumni are also important advocates in this process.
Q: In your opinion, is USTA Player Development as effective as it could be?
McEnroe: Since the USTA made the decision five years ago to become more directly involved in working with players by establishing a full-time residence training program in Boca Raton, Fla., the results of our younger players have been quite good, including winning Junior Grand Slam Championships. With this being said, we understand that this is a long-term project. In Player Development, our goal is to help all American players reach their highest level, whatever that might be and whether or not that assistance is direct or supplemental. We are always looking for ways to improve all facets of everything that we do. Overall, we have made some good strides in the last five years. If you were to take a look at the results of the players that we’ve supported and been working with or have worked with on a full-time basis, they have been pretty good.
Q: Do you feel Player Development is worth the money that the USTA puts into it, or could that money be better spent in other areas?
McEnroe: We take our responsibility very seriously. With the success of the US Open, we have been very fortunate to receive some great resources that enable us to carry out our daily mission of trying to develop world-class American champions. We are always looking at how our resources are allocated and most effective ways to use these resources. Most countries and even most National Governing Bodies in this country spend a significant portion of their dollars towards player development.
Q: What is the accountability and measures of success that are being used with Player Development? How is the USTA measuring its effectiveness and impact?
McEnroe: One of our most important metrics or goals is the number of players we have in the Top 100 of the ATP and WTA rankings. The more players that we can help get into the Top 100, the more players there will be in the Top 50, Top 10, contending for major titles, etc. We also take a look at the success of younger players that we have coming up through the system.
The quality of our national coaching staff is an important measure and consideration, as is trying to help elevate the overall level of coaching in the U.S. through our High Performance Coaching Education program. Another major effort we have undertaken in the last four years is the establishment of USTA Certified Regional Training Centers (RTC’s). We have allocated significant resources in this area and are partnering with existing, high-quality programs around the country to help deliver regionally-based camps, coaching education, parent education as well as helping to enhance the RTC’s in-house programs.
Q: It seems that smaller, local tennis pro shops are having a tough time. What is the USTA doing to help keep local retailers in business?
Kamperman: We want all tennis businesses, large and small, to succeed. The best thing the USTA can do to help in this area is to grow the number of frequent players, particularly youth. We have the opportunity to create hundreds of thousands of lifetime players with 10 and Under Tennis. These players can help drive the entire industry, and in particular retail, for decades to come.
Q: What is the USTA’s relationship with Tennis Warehouse?
Kamperman: Tennis Warehouse is one of several online retailers listed on our 10 and Under Tennis site. Tennis Warehouse handled our Jr. Team Tennis jersey fulfillment, but no longer does. Lastly, we recently did an RFP for a company to handle our internal fulfillment orders for schools, etc., and Tennis Warehouse was awarded that business. USTA National has no relationship with Tennis Warehouse that offers us financial gain in any way from its sales or orders, nor have we ever had such a relationship.
Q: Cardio Tennis has over 1.3 million participants in just 7 years, and other countries have latched onto the program as a way to grow participation and get people healthy. What are your thoughts on Cardio Tennis, and will the USTA use it more in the future to help grow the sport?
Kamperman: The USTA has invested several million dollars in Cardio Tennis. We funded the development and launch of Cardio Tennis and have continued to fund efforts to educate and train the provider network here in the U.S. For the last several years we’ve provided financial support to the TIA to continue funding Cardio Tennis. This is another program that the USTA has funded because we believe it will help grow participation and help teaching pros. Despite the fact that we’ve been the biggest funder of Cardio Tennis, we’ve never had a USTA logo associated with it, made a penny from it, nor tried to grow USTA membership through Cardio Tennis. We feel that the TIA is overseeing it quite well and don’t feel we need to take a more active role.
Q: Where does the USTA see the playtennis.com website in 5 years?
Kamperman: With all the changes in technology, and the runaway growth of social media, it’s hard to predict what any technology will look like in five years. That said, the primary goal of playtennis.com is to help create more frequent players by connecting players of all abilities with local play and instructional programs. We have 14 million regular players in this country who play between 10 to 20 times a year. If we can get 20% of those players to become frequent players, it will be a huge boom for the entire tennis industry. We believe that playtennis.com can help accomplish that goal.
Q: Do you feel there are areas the TIA should address to better help the industry grow?
Kamperman: I think the TIA’s focus should remain where it’s always been, which is to be a unifying force that brings individual brands together to work collaboratively on our shared brand, TENNIS. In addition, the TIA provides important and reliable industry data and research. What has separated the tennis industry from other sports is we have competitors working collaboratively under the TIA umbrella to grow tennis. That’s been a huge reason why tennis is the fastest growing traditional sport in the U.S. over the past 10 years.
Q: A $500 million long-term “strategic vision” for the National Tennis Center, yet it doesn’t include a roof. What was the rationale behind that?
Smith: Nothing would make the USTA happier than being able to announce that we will be installing a roof on Arthur Ashe Stadium. Unfortunately, the best structural engineers and architects in the world have not yet been able to design a roof that works for Arthur Ashe Stadium given the unique issues the stadium presents:
- Problematic underlying soil conditions.
- Design doesn’t allow for the additional weight; need to construct a building over a building.
- Span and size of stadium.
- Air handling and temperature issues.
We remain steadfast in our determination to find a solution and will not stop until that solution is found. When a design that works is found, we will construct a roof.
While a roof will benefit the 20,000 fans in Arthur Ashe Stadium, the USTA is equally focused on improving the experience for the more than 700,000 fans who attend the Open each year. The US Open is not a one-stadium event. We need to upgrade the entire USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in order to continue to provide a level of excellence in entertainment and fan experience. That is why we have announced a strategic vision that plans for significant upgrades for the entire site, including the replacement and rebuilding of Louis Armstrong Stadium and The Grandstand.
Q: What are some immediate changes we’ll see at the NTC for this year’s Open?
Smith: Visitors will see an emphasis on the upgrades to the fan experience at the 2012 US Open. Court 17 is now complete. It will be surrounded with amenities in and out of the stadium to ensure this court becomes a very special place at the US Open. We have torn down and rebuilt the Heineken Red Star Café. The new building will be two-levels with a retail component on the ground floor and an expanded bar/restaurant on the second floor.
Moet & Chandon will build a new Moet Terrace adjacent to the US Open Club outside of Arthur Ashe Stadium, which should be a spectacular new offering. American Express is moving, and greatly expanding, the US Open American Express Fan Experience. This experience will be located in the former Smashzone area, and will include a full-sized tennis court, hitting bays, and innovative digital experiences. In short, there will be more for fans to do in-between matches and on the grounds than ever before.
Q: What do you think of the USTA’s system of governance, with 17 separate sections that essentially function as independent businesses? Is everyone rowing in the same direction?
Smith: As with any large organization, the USTA’s structure provides many positives and some challenges. The positives are numerous and outweigh the challenges. With a national office and 17 geographic sections, we can be national in scope and local in impact. This may indeed be one of our strongest assets. Also, with a professional staff combined with a vast and talented volunteer network, we can tap into the most passionate tennis advocates across the country and impart professional expertise to move the best ideas forward.
Of course, whenever you have an organization of our size, internal communication is critical and can be challenging. We are putting so many great programs into the field around the country, and it is imperative that the entire organization understands the breadth and impact of these programs, and the rationale behind these programs’ implementation.
Q: How do you think the USTA is perceived in the industry and among consumers and players?
Kamperman: From an industry standpoint, the USTA is often in a no-win situation. We’re expected to fix/solve any and all problems with tennis, i.e. build a roof, stop foreign players from playing collegiate tennis, save the pro specialty store, create American champions, etc., etc. At the same time, whenever we take a strong stance and put resources behind initiatives that we feel are important, we are accused of being big brother, i.e. the USTA shouldn’t be involved in coaching, the USTA shouldn’t set the rules for tennis, etc. Our guiding principle at the USTA is to always try to do what’s best for TENNIS and if sometimes that draws some criticism, so be it.
Q: What is the strategy for growing USTA membership?
Kamperman: The No. 1 strategy is to create more frequent players. If we can create more frequent players, we’ll get our fair share of members. We also need to continue to improve our value proposition for providers, organizers and players of all abilities.
USTA membership is a more than $20 million business. It is not a money-maker for national. It is a significant revenue source, however, for our 17 sections. We are not looking to do away with membership dues, but like any membership business, we are constantly looking at new models that may help us provide a better value proposition to players and organizers. Our governance is based in large part on membership, so I can’t see us not remaining a member-based organization.
Q: What are some of the plans for the next year? What future directions may the USTA take?
Kamperman: For next year, 10 and Under Tennis is going to remain a top priority. We’ll also be focusing on improving our performance and results for our existing programs. We are working with the USTA Sections on a prioritization exercise so that we can focus our human and financial resources on the areas that will provide the biggest return on that investment. That ROI is not money, but rather mission — more frequent players, more American champions, more programs that help kids on and off the court, etc.
In terms of the future, we’re exploring a big idea for using technology to better serve the millions of frequent players who aren’t currently engaged with the USTA. While we’ve had several excellent ideas and strategies this term, in January, we’ll have a new president and new leaders at the national and sectional levels. This leadership change every two years always creates fertile ground for new ideas and strategies to promote and develop the growth of tennis.