Programming: League Players
League tennis is one of the most popular aspects of tennis, and it can easily help boost your business.
By Ken Bomar
While the game of tennis is several centuries old, relative newcomer league tennis is now clearly established as the most popular aspect of the sport.
League tennis was born in Atlanta in 1972 when the Atlanta Lawn Tennis Association was looking for ways to raise funds and attract volunteers for a number of regional tournaments that were being held in the city. Former college star Charley Cox had an idea that there might be interest in establishing a league competition for players not skilled enough to compete on the tournament circuit. While it accomplished the purpose of raising funds for tournaments, the idea of league tennis took off and within six years the league had attracted more than 1,000 players.
Upon seeing how successful ALTA was, Pat Devoto, an Atlanta tennis enthusiast, convinced the USTA to allow her to develop an Atlanta-based pilot league program. The success of her program convinced the USTA that league tennis should be rolled out on a national basis.
Today it attracts tens of thousands throughout the U.S. to the sport who might never have taken up tennis had it not been for league play.
Since Atlanta was the birthplace of league tennis, it is only fitting that more than four decades later, Atlanta is the hottest city in the nation for this competitive yet social aspect of the game. A closer look at league tennis in Atlanta can give other communities ideas as to how they might better grow league tennis.
With some 70,000 members, ALTA is recognized as the largest community-based amateur tennis organization in the world. It literally has something for everyone. There are 13 leagues for players of all ages, and leagues are going full-tilt year-round. The largest are the adult men, two adult women’s leagues and an adult mixed league. Smaller leagues include junior groups encompassing five different age categories, and men’s and women’s senior leagues for players 45 and above, 55 and above and a mixed league for those 45 and over.
Add to this impressive number the fact that USTA has some 37,000 members residing in the Atlanta area and also operates a number of successful adult and junior leagues. Many members play both ALTA and USTA league tennis.
A key to the success of league tennis in Atlanta is the availability of tennis courts throughout the metro area. The leagues utilize more than 1,600 different facilities, ranging from a couple of neighborhood courts to public facilities of 18 to 20 courts to private clubs that include up to 24 courts.
Some of the larger facilities have more than a dozen separate teams playing on their courts, ranging from teams stocked with players who have recently decided to take up the sport in mid-life to former tour players who still have the competitive spirit.
So what’s the allure of league tennis?
League play is just plain fun. Lifelong friendships have grown out of acquaintances made on the tennis courts. Many teams continue the social aspect in the off-season when they get together for team parties and even go on vacation trips together. League play is often an introduction to the neighborhood for families who have just moved to Atlanta. Some have even referred to league tennis as the athlete’s version of Welcome Wagon.
On the other hand, league tennis also contributes to the economy of the Atlanta area. While no one seems to know the specific number of tennis professionals in Atlanta, most tennis aficionados agree that the number is approaching 500. Georgia Professional Tennis Association President Carmen Garcia is quick to point out that many of these teaching pros would not be able to make a living if it were not for league tennis. Every team looking to improve its league play is an opportunity for a tennis pro to expand his or her teaching base and pick up additional income.
In an era in which local businesses are closing their doors with alarming regularity, the Atlanta area supports several locally owned tennis shops with multiple locations. These business owners came to the conclusion long ago that their success is tied to a customer base that lives for their weekly league match.
In recognition of the role that Atlanta’s league play contributes to the overall growth of the sport, leading equipment and apparel manufacturer Prince announced earlier this year that it will move its corporate headquarters to Atlanta. Prince CEO Mike Ballardie said, “We see Atlanta and its vast resources as a perfect fit for our management, sales and marketing teams. Atlanta has a thriving tennis community with more men, women and children playing tennis than any other U.S. city, making it a great home base for Prince.”
Rules To Play By
While it may not be possible to duplicate Atlanta’s success, there are several maxims that league organizers should consider when trying to keep participants enthusiastic and excited about league play. Paying attention to the details is often the difference between a successful league and a so-so league.
- Establish league rules and format, then stick to them. While everyone uses “Friend at Court” for the basic rules of tennis, there may be special circumstances that apply to individual leagues. Once local rules are established, make no exceptions.
- Tailor the league to the community’s demographics. Determine whether the local tennis community is made up primarily of men, women, adults, seniors or juniors. The most successful leagues are those that fit into the players’ schedules and individual lifestyles.
- Identify leaders who will take charge. Everyone wants to play but few people are willing to put in the time and effort to make sure the league works as a well-oiled machine. Most successful leagues are set up so that officers only serve a year or so. Set up a mechanism to ensure that new leaders are always ready and willing to replace those who revolve off the leadership team.
- Enlist as many volunteers as possible. Amateur leagues require a lot of volunteers who understand their rewards come from seeing others enjoy the competition. The decision to volunteer signifies that another person has bought into the league concept.
- Recruit captains with a competitive spirit. Tennis is a competitive sport and teams usually reflect the personality of their captain. An enthusiastic and efficient team captain can ensure that teams stay together for years.
- Remember the social aspects of league play. The two hours or so spent competing in league play each week allows players to escape the pressures of the family and/or workplace and unwind and have fun. Lifelong friendships are often made on the tennis court among players who otherwise would never have met.
- Set a professional example. If the local pro is enthusiastic about league play, chances are strong that his/her students will be too. And, teams that are involved in league play can be an ongoing revenue stream for the enterprising pro.
- Give lots of prizes. Reward winners, runners-up and anyone else who goes above and beyond. The more players who receive tangible rewards for their efforts, the better. Amateur athletes are always happy to receive a trophy, bag tag, car magnet, monogrammed towel or anything else as a reward for their success on the court.
- Promote, promote, promote. Every player needs to make it his/her personal responsibility to extol the virtues of league tennis whenever two or more friends come together. This is the one sure-fire way to ensure league tennis continues to prosper for years to come.
Ken Bomar has been part of the Atlanta tennis scene for three decades. He has served as President and Chairman of the Atlanta Lawn Tennis Association, as a USTA-certified umpire and as coach of a state championship high school team. For the past eight years he has served as editor of ALTA’s Net News magazine.