THE TENNIS LANDSCAPE IN 2025
Predicting the Future of Tennis for the USTA
By Rich Neher
CONTEXT: THE TENNIS LANDSCAPE IS CHANGING FOR THE USTA AND THE PANDEMIC IS NOT THE ONLY REASON
For me, there are a ton of really significant revelations as a result of the 2020 Pandemic. Here are my most important ones:
Sports Safety: Tennis is a safe sport compared to most other recreational sports.
Insufficient Advocacy: The USTA and their sections were totally unprepared to deal with the fallout of Covid-19 and thus caused a huge delay in response to city, county, and state authorities.
Tennis Boom: Tennis enjoyed a couple of millions of new players and the USTA had no hand in that windfall. Those people joined without any help or involvement by the USTA.
Runaway Train: A national governing body of any sport should have huge financial reserves and insurance to get through a catastrophic event unscathed.
I want to comment on each of those revelations and findings separately, and add my predictions for 2025.
Will the USTA survive the next 3 years and carry on with
business as usual?
The status of tennis as the number one safest sport has been established and that is a good thing. Late in the game (see below) but better late than never. I was shaking my head at some of the reactions by state and local authorities around the world. Like in Germany where tennis at one point was allowed in indoor facilities but only 2 people could be indoors playing regardless of the number of courts. Many of the regulations just didn’t make sense. We need to carefully document what worked and what not so we will be ready for the next pandemic.
MY PREDICTION FOR 2025
If we aren’t vigilant in documenting what happened in 2020 and why tennis needs to stay open, a potentially new generation of over-zealous administrators will try to exert their power over everyone and we’ll have to start from scratch. See also below.
Remember the chaos at the beginning of the pandemic last year? USTA National and their sections were obviously hit totally by surprise (who wasn’t?) and Mike Dowse tried to reign in that galloping horse and created Tennis Industry United. He did a good job delivering information to everyone in the tennis ecosystem. Unfortunately, many sections had absolutely no clue that a concerted effort toward informing authorities about the safety of tennis was needed. Having been involved in very half-baked and almost useless advocacy activities in my section (SoCal) many years ago, I kind of knew that would happen.
While many USTA sections still haven’t ramped up their advocacy programs vis-à-vis city and state authorities like parks & rec departments, USTA National has hired a very capable guy to do just that: Mickey Maule. I don’t know why tennis advocacy is not mentioned anywhere in his LinkedIn profile and I’m not sure if his message gets through to the sections. As a matter of fact, I kind of doubt it. I have a feeling the topic is not very high on anyone’s priority list although in my opinion, it should be NUMBER ONE! Just because of repelling pickleball Ambassadors and their very effective mission of turning tennis courts into pickleball courts it should be numero uno!
MY PREDICTION FOR 2025
If the USTA sections don’t get on board and make tennis advocacy their number one priority, even before leagues and tournaments and “Sip ‘N Serve” they will become irrelevant in their region. As a matter of fact, I predict people will turn against them blaming them for the loss of tennis courts to pickleball. A section that will not focus on tennis advocacy with ALL their staff, will be out of business within 5 years.
It was great to learn from Tennis Industry United that a lot of new people were attracted to playing tennis by the realization of how safe our sport is. I assume many of those newcomers were people listed by the TIA as “latent demand” and that would make sense.
Everyone with a brain found out soon enough that the USTA had no hand in that newfound tennis boom. The pandemic created the demand and people started to realize that tennis as an outdoor sport is safer than going to the gym or sitting at home and getting on the family’s nerves.
However, the USTA is now challenged in presenting ways to keep those people playing. As I see it, the tennis newcomers basically have two choices:
A. Stay in the sport
B. Leave and do whatever they did before the pandemic
Now, if we want them to stay in the sport, we have to give them good reasons. I don’t think the USTA and their old legacy programs will be able to keep them involved. New ideas are needed. Ideas that make it more fun, welcoming, and exciting for people to play tennis. The USTA, as we all know by now, is not able to create such an exciting environment and they certainly will not listen to me, Javier Palenque, or anyone else for advice.
On the other hand, if they decide to continue playing tennis and don’t find a welcoming, exciting network of players, guess what? They’ll move over to pickleball where they find that exact environment already.
MY PREDICTION FOR 2025
Since we cannot rely on the USTA to become fun and exciting overnight, we’ll have to create that atmosphere and those programs ourselves. Lots of new and existing organizations are doing that right now. I predict by 2025 the USTA will have lost half of its membership. By then their flagship programs have become almost irrelevant and the sections have had to cut their staff accordingly. Only sections that are open to drastic change will be able to stay in business at all. That means they are working with all other organizations and not necessarily too closely with USTA national anymore. That also means a total change in leadership where good ol’ boys thinking and Board of Directors stacked with lawyers instead of tennis professionals, players, and club owners are a bygone era.
Our friend Javier Palenque has pointed out the dire financial situation the USTA finds itself in for quite some time now. Instead of listening to him and maybe even learning something, they have succeeded in shutting him out completely. Are you proud of that, Mr. Dowse? I guess you only listen to consultants that charge millions of dollars, like Deloitte. No?
We know now that the USTA has lost money in most of the last 10 years. It’s really heartbreaking to see an organization with almost half a Billion in revenue lose almost $10 Mio. Javier, as we all know, has some choice words for this kind of business failure. I am just wondering why the Chief Financial Officer, who makes more than $1.1 Mio a year still has his job. How can that be, Mike?
The fact that the US Open had no pandemic insurance is just an oversight, right? Who could possibly think about something like that? Oh, right, Wimbledon did. Oops. They had paid $2 Mio a year for the last 17 years and collected a cool £250 as reported by The Action Network in September. $2 Mio a year? That’s the combined salary for 3 average USTA executives. Or half a million less than the CEO and the COO make together. Yep!
It is widely believed that no sports organization will enjoy pandemic insurance for such a low rate ever again.
So, doesn’t it seem logical that the USTA has to do everything in its power to drastically increase its financial reserves instead of hemorrhaging money like crazy? However, after speaking with Javier about that, I realize that this is easier said than done. Let’s look at some big ticket items.
Player Development – Yes, scrapping that program would save them around $20 Mio annually. The Board would probably argue what to do with all the courts PD is occupying at Lake Nona. If I was a shareholder or a creditor of the money pit called USTA, I would say so what? Who gives a hoot about The Home of American Tennis? I want to see $20 Mio in annual expenses cut! Don't you, Ed?
Lake Nona – The facility is losing about $3 Mio a year. However, whoever had the boneheaded idea of building it and getting the USTA so much in debt with a 30-year lease instead of buying the land, had no clue what kind of a burden that facility would become. And the two guys responsible for that disaster are not even there anymore. Bravo. What's that special kind of rodent that's always leaving a sinking ship?
The media, the Tennis Channel, and all those tennis professionals making a living off the USTA are falling over themselves talking about the National Campus but no one sees the ludicrous situation that facility has created in an area oversaturated with tennis courts while 99% of the country doesn’t have enough courts. There is a persistent rumor that USTA executives needed nice offices in a warmer climate and tennis courts galore was a welcome perk for their own game. I can't believe that to be true.
Salaries – Cutting the USTA down to just essential staff that would run the US Open and help the sections grow tennis would probably save another $10 -15 Mio. That would completely change the entire business model of keeping the status quo, top-down decisions, and increasing salaries year after year. What are the chances?
Section Support – From a financial point of view, it would make absolute sense to reduce the funds the sections receive from mother USTA every year. But that wouldn’t go over very well. Naturally. And those sections have just last month decided they want MORE money! Ouch. Would a partial decoupling of the USTA from its 17 sections be the answer?
Net Generation – Sigh! I cannot see that program making money for the USTA. In fact, scrapping it would probably save them at least $3-4 Mio annually. So, why keep it?
Do you see what's going on? And to make matters worse, a note for $83 Mio ($71 Mio principle and interest) is due next year. More notes are due in the following years. I have to ask in all honesty, is the organization salvageable at all? Will someone come forward and bail them out? How about it, George?
Pray for the USTA and what it stands for (or what it should stand for) in case another pandemic will come upon us. Thanks to their dwindled-down reserves, and their unwillingness to make real drastic cuts, they cannot possibly survive another year without full US Open profits.
But even if we’ll get back to pre-pandemic levels, there are certain facts that will make the USTA look like the Titanic and the icebergs are closing in…
… The US Open ratings are down
... The US Open was losing money
… The 2022 balloon payment of $83 Mio is not going away
… The 17 sections demand more money
… The 4 million new players may look elsewhere for something more exciting to do
That looks very much like a runaway train to me. The USTA needs a leader with cojones who can make painful cuts and is able to survive the Deep State. Good luck finding someone like this. Would he/she even have the support of the full Board?
MY PREDICTION FOR 2025
I think Mike Dowse will ultimately find a way to close the money pit and convince the Deep State, various consultants, and all executives that the times of waste and looting the organization are over. That means scrapping the entire PD, letting all coaches and support staff go, shrinking the staff overall, and rolling out pay cuts for all executives including himself. How about everyone making over $400,000 gets only $1 in 2022? That should save you about 5 million. No?
I predict that the US Open will shrink more because no one but a handful of die-hard senior tennis players is willing to shell out their monthly social security payment for two tickets, a water and a Honey Deuce. ESPN will reduce their payments each year and eventually they won’t renew the contract altogether. The Tennis Channel will get the contract for free since they’re unable to pay one dime for it. Most of the big-time advertisers and sponsors will rethink their commitment and many will stay away completely.
The USTA sections, already devastated by my predictions under TENNIS BOOM above, seeing that mother U has no more money, will let the rest of their executives and some staff go. Since most of them are not used to being self-sufficient, and since their legacy programs and the players are being decimated by competition, they have no other choice than either becoming Community Tennis Associations or changing over to pickleball.
Mike Dowse will also hire Javier Palenque as Managing Director Development & Outreach and new organizational mastermind.
I would advice all tennis professionals and club owners to do their business without relying on the USTA too much. You think my predictions are too far-fetched because you haven't heard anything of that nature from Mother U?
Remember? There was no panic on the Titanic, either...
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