Photo by Christina Anne Costello on Unsplash
By Rich Neher
If the Covid-19 pandemic of 2020 taught us one thing, it's that the lack of advocacy resulted in tennis being lumped in with gyms and team sports. Only when research studies surfaced demonstrating that tennis is actually one of the safest sports on the planet did state and local health departments slowly open up our sport for limited play. It is my opinion that a strong and focused advocacy effort would have possibly prevented tennis facilities from being shut down. I don't want to point a finger at whoever dropped the advocacy ball in the past decades. But focusing now on advocacy may help tennis in two ways:
1. Fortify our sport against potential future pandemics with similar shutdowns of economy and society.
2. Finally fight off a decade-old onslaught of soccer moms, baseball dads, and pickleball Ambassadors beating a path to the meetings of planning commissions and city councils to make sure their sports are being favored.
I want to thank Mickey Maule, the USTA's Managing Director of Engagement and Services, for providing me with a lot of good material. I want to also thank Chris Widmaier, the USTA's Managing Director of Corporate Communications, who always goes out of his way to get me access and information.
This month we are taking a good look at the USTA national's advocacy material and also report about the Florida Section's advocacy activities. Thank you, Laura Bowden, and Alexis Johnson, who were both extremely accommodating.
Our goal is to report about the best advocacy programs and activities, share those with you, and ultimately create a Best Practices type of page for you to always be able to look up what works in certain areas of the country.
Feel free to email me with your thoughts, suggestions, advocacy ideas, and projects. We'd be happy to post those in our next issue.
USTA National Finally Assigns High Priority to Tennis Advocacy
I have a feeling USTA CEO Mike Dowse had a good hand in picking Mickey Maule to oversee advocacy as part of the Engagement and Services department. Although relatively young, Maule is already a 22-year industry veteran with the last 18 years working in management positions at Prince, Babolat, and Wilson. He certainly knows the tennis ecosystem from a B2B and B2C perspective.
During a mid-May phone call with him, I learned that his vision regarding our three main topics for 2021, Advocacy, Beginners, and College Grads, may be very helpful in driving change in our country. We'll see in the coming months how his support helps us provide tools and suggestions for our readers.
I am always seeing red flags when a USTA executive uses too much terminology like "task force" or "key initiative" or "strategic plan" in any communication. Why? Because 99% of the time it means millions are being thrown at a non-existent problem, with plans coming out of self-preserving committees, and nothing ever comes out of it. However, here is Mickey Maule's vision, followed by my comments about the activities and materials mentioned.
My main focus, and a strategic priority of the USTA, is to grow the sport and leverage all players in the ecosystem. We have lots of opportunities to grow our sport at the grassroots level and community level across the USA. Tennis Advocacy will be a critical area of focus to support our core strategic goal: Attract, engage and retain new generations of diverse tennis participants.
Born out of the Tennis Industry United group which was formed in April of 2020, we formed a Task Force composed of key industry leaders. This task force is specifically charged with building the strategic plan and objectives for Tennis Advocacy across the USA. This is an industry-wide effort. We recognize that growing the game happens at the grassroots level, within communities, and through local ambassadors and advocates of the game. Engaging advocates across the USA and providing them with tools needed in the trenches will grow the game locally and therefore drive the health of the entire tennis industry..
Here are some of the key actions and initiatives already activated in the market to support Advocacy:
Advocacy Landing page and "downloadable" Advocacy handbook available on this page:
Advocacy health/wellness articles=> benefits/links to articles supporting tennis
Advocacy toolkit/why "tennis" strategic sell sheets (specific to each audience/park and rec, colleges, schools etc...)
(These are attached via PDF's and we'll be adding additional)
Tennis Champions Advocacy program =>designed to engage Advocates across the USA to promote Tennis and attract new & diverse players/Advocates will be tasked targeting new markets w/ new ways of engaging communities (digital beacons and QR code signage) to find promote the game and recruit new players/ ie soccer moms, summer festivals etc..(PDF attached) and link to sign up below:
Tennis Industry Dashboard/ new template to provide new insights and data to providers and key partners in the ecosystem
Jr tennis Retail "hang tags"/ We collaborated w/ key retailers and top brands to get directly in front of NEW tennis consumers at their first touch point/ mass retail thru hang tags on Jr racquets at 5000 retail locations! Each hang tag directs consumers via QR code to a LANDING PAGE that shows where to find local providers, coaches, basic programming + free content/virtual lessons and provides them a pathway into the game. This program will continue to develop and evolve beyond '21 (link to landing page https://hello.usta.com/netgeneration/
Grow the game grants to support and help subsidize providers that offer entry level programming for the new players coming into the game. We are also developing webinars for providers focused on RETAINING new players, entry level programming and recruiting new and diverse coaches that will live on the TIU landing page. Link to press release below:
This is a start, and we will grow the strategic plan from here. Working in unison with the entire industry, all USTA sections, and all local ambassadors is how we will drive participation in tennis and keep our sport healthy and growing.
I want to go through the information provided by Maule in the same order as above.
1. Advocacy Landing Page - USTA Community Advocacy Handbook
This 54-page handbook starts with the definition of advocacy, which I think we can all get behind. However, I would add two items (in red) which tend to be sometimes easily passed over:
Advocacy for tennis involves taking our knowledge and passion for tennis and connecting it to the needs of communities, schools, colleges, facilities, organizations, and local governments. Advocacy is the ability to demonstrate to decision-makers how tennis programs can benefit the community.
I know, I know, whoever worked on the definition probably thinks clubs and academies are included in the overall term COMMUNITIES. It is my opinion that the USTA would be well advised to make sure the needs of tennis clubs and facilities are not on their backburner anymore. That's how it comes across to me on national and sometimes also sectional level, like SoCal, for instance. Work with club owners, tennis pros, managers and you have great allies for your cause.
Overall I think the handbook, while quite long, is good Lots of resources, worksheets, and business plans. Take all the numbers with a grain of salt, since, well, you know where they are coming from. It's a good source of information. However, I prefer the shorter pamphlets that are also included on the advocacy landing page.
Looking at the Advocating for Tennis in the Community, for instants, I see several good points that enable individual communities to create their own Roadmaps for Advocacy.
I'd love to see more alliances built between key groups in each community like one or two club representatives, public parks teaching pros, USTA Section TSRs, tennis players, and retailers.
Gather the facts, discuss what you want to ideally achieve and what you're at minimum happy to live with. Identify all players on "the other side" like planning commissions or other decision-makers. Establish a communication plan with those people and with the media. Explore funding needs and potential sources.
Create a comprehensive plan of attack and assign individual members of your Alliance specific tasks. Arm yourself with information like the Health Benefits for Tennis and other USTA sources. Make sure you inform your community about your plan and encourage them to show up at public meetings.
Of course, no two communities are alike, especially during times when political programs often seem more important than the peoples' needs. So, Roadmaps for Advocacy need to be flexible but they could be very effective tools in standing up for tennis and the needs of everyone involved.
2. Health/Wellness articles
Good information. I have nothing to add here.
3. Tennis Champions Advocacy Program
Whoever came up with the name Champion was trying hard to avoid creating an "Ambassador" program. Not sure why, though. I like the title, Ambassador. But let's look at the program itself.
Tennis Champions have to participate in monthly challenges to win up to $600 worth of swag.
While the idea is good and plays into our need for advocacy, I would have preferred this Champion position to be a volunteer without the need for regular competitions. Who needs that pressure?
One thing struck me as odd: Under Monthly Challenges they describe so-called 'Connector Challenges' as
designed to encourage Tennis Champions to connect their social circle and community groups to tennis.
Hu? This does not pass the smell test, folks. Similar to 'Serve Tennis' which I believe is solely being created to get access to millions of member emails in participating club databases, I have a feeling that this challenge requires the Champions to relinquish all their friends' and followers' contact information. I'm waiting for someone at the USTA to confirm that.
4. Tennis Industry Dashboard
I want to spare you that dashboard. It's the 2020 data which I think is not worth the paper it's printed on. All the TIA data disseminated are based on bogus data to begin with in my opinion and I don't believe any of it.
I don't know whether hangtags on junior racquets in retail stores work or not. I have to assume they do. And I guess that's the only way to get kids into Net Gen. Can't wait to see some statistics about hangtags.
6. Growing the Game Grants
The press release said, "With an additional $3 million in "Growing the Game" grants targeted for organizations that attract and engage new and returning tennis players from May to November, the USTA is moving forward with the next phase of its funding to continue rebuilding the sport of tennis." Good. I'm all for funds that actually arrive where they are needed. Grassroots. Pros. Clubs. Organizations. I applaud the USTA for this effort. Much better than nonsense initiatives like "One Tree Planted."
I am happy with all the material Mickey Maule shared. It will help us get the ball rolling with more focused advocacy initiatives throughout the country. It is my opinion that we shouldn't leave advocacy to the USTA in the sections alone but work with them and use the combined powers to make sure tennis goes to and stays at the forefront of community plans.
Please share your comments and ideas and tell us how you want to be part of the solution when it comes to tennis advocacy.
More to come from one USTA section: Florida. Please scroll down.
USTA Florida Masters Advocating for Tennis
Ever since my time working on the USTA Tennislink Team have I admired how the Florida section is able to consistently grow tennis and come across as one of the most innovative tennis organizations. One of the reasons for that is their accomplished and professional staff. The other reason: When I came to Florida (their previous office in Daytona) for training league coordinators, former ED Doug Booth was one of only two leaders who ever participated in those trainings. (Kelly Gaines in North Carolina was the other one.)
The idea of a Tennis Management department was, of course, born under Doug's guidance starting with the Ft. Walton Beach Tennis Center. The department is now headed by Frank Swope whom we featured in our April 2019 issue. USTA Florida currently partners with three municipalities to directly manage their public tennis centers.
I recently spoke with Doug Booth's successor, USTA Florida's Executive Director Laura Bowen.
Before she was appointed ED in 2018, Laura was the section's Director of Marketing, Membership, Sponsorship, and Communications for 8 years. She says, "I worked in Advocacy in Washington, D.C. for 13 years. Advocacy starts with the local community. We have to partner with them. We have a strong foundation for advocacy in Florida because all Board members and the local staff are engaged in it."
I had originally contacted Laura when I read that her TSR Molly Zimmer made a case for tennis at a virtual City Hall meeting regarding the expansion project for the Palm Coast Tennis Center. That project was approved.
Laura says, "Most of the advocacy legwork has been done long before the final meeting. Often the key is to find influential council members in towns and cities who like tennis." Asked about the advances pickleball is making all over the country, Laura says, "Don't let pickleball box out tennis! Go to the Parks & Rec Manager and talk to them. Ask them how you can help them. Having a close relationship with those managers is vital for the success of your advocacy efforts."
Play Tennis License Plate
I have always regarded the USTA Florida's 'Play Tennis!' license plate as a very effective promotional tool for tennis. But, of course, it's also a great fundraising tool for the USTA Florida Section Foundation. Their website states, 'With a mission of “Changing Lives through Tennis”, the USTA Florida Section Foundation provides financial support to organizations that help people of all ages and abilities improve their health and quality of life through the great game of tennis.'
Here is a nice video where both Laura Bowen and Foundation ED Alexis Johnson give us an idea of the great work being doen in Florida communities.
So I contacted Alexis Johnson to get the inside scoop on that license plate. Scroll down for her reply.
"The Play Tennis! license plate is the driving force making the grant program available to grassroots programs in need across the state. Since 2010 it has provided over $745,000, of the $1,750,000+ total, in funding for community tennis programs focused on youth, adaptive, and wheelchair players.
The Play Tennis! specialty license plate was approved back in 2008 and became available across the state of Florida in 2010. To this day it continues to serve as the primary revenue source for the grant offerings. There are just over 3,700 Play Tennis! plates currently on the road but the new specialty license plate legislation has it in jeopardy of being eliminated in coming years if more tennis lovers don’t get a plate of their own.
Reaching 4,000 plates on the road would allow up to $95,000 to be granted yearly to local community organizations needing assistance to launch or expand tennis programs in the priority areas serving youth, adaptive, or wheelchair players.
MaliVai Washington promoting his Play Tennis! plate
95% of each and every Play Tennis! license plate on the road returns back to the community through those grants. It takes 5% to maintain them in accordance with the state’s specialty license plate program.
Funds generated from the Play Tennis! license plates have also covered the restoration and refurbishment of quality public tennis facilities across the state of Florida. They have made it possible to also provide additional assistance to locations that have been affected by hurricanes and even those in need during 2019 for assistance to reopen amid COVID protocols."
I wonder why no other USTA section has so far copied that model. Or just about any other tennis organization. But I do hope we can post some more good content from USTA Florida in upcoming issues.
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