Our Serve: Distress Signals
In early June, USTA President Dave Haggerty sent out an email that announced the formation of a “Membership Innovation Study Group.” USTA membership, which as Haggerty pointed out typically has gone up modestly every year by 2 to 3 percent, actually declined for 2012 — down 1.8 percent, a loss of more than 13,700 people.
The overall decline in 2012 is despite adding more than 45,000 new 10 and under members. And for the first few months of 2013, USTA membership has continued to decline, from 2 to 3 percent each month, according to Haggerty. (Also remember, the 10 and under memberships were a free offer, for a yearlong membership.)
What’s even more alarming is that USTA membership is declining despite the fact that USTA and TIA research shows both total players and frequent players increased in 2012. Overall tennis participation was up 4 percent to 28.04 million, while frequent players went up more than 10 percent to 5.3 million.
The 15 or so members of this new study group (which includes section presidents, executive directors, delegates, staff, national committee members and others) met at the end of May to talk about membership, evaluate the current structure, and identify membership models and opportunities for the future. As many of you may know, membership in the USTA determines voting strength of the sections and section funding, but the group was asked not to discuss those sensitive and complex topics for the present time.
Clearly this Membership Innovation Study Group and the USTA’s membership department have their work cut out for them and have a lot of questions for which to find answers. Some of the most obvious, of course, include what exactly do members feel is a true benefit for them? What makes membership in the USTA worth the money? From an industry — and RSI — perspective, is the USTA effectively reaching out to tennis providers, so the USTA message and benefits filters out to tennis players and potential players?
Through all this, what was actually pleasing to see was the openness with which Haggerty is sharing this challenging news about membership. He’s made it a point to reach out frequently to keep USTA volunteers and the industry at large informed.
The next step is for the study group to continue to gather information, feedback and suggestions. Haggerty has promised updates as the summer goes on, and especially at the USTA Semi-Annual Meeting held during the US Open in September.
We’re used to saying a rising tide lifts all boats; that increased participation will help all tennis businesses. But in the ocean of change that is today’s marketplace, the USTA seems to have foundered when it comes to staying relevant for its members. It will be interesting to see how the USTA plans to right the ship.
Peter Francesconi, Editorial Director
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About the Author
Peter Francesconi is editorial director of RSI magazine.