Mitch Kutner is currently President of The International POP Tennis Association, a member of the Association Board of Directors & has been involved in the “POP movement” since it began in 2015. Kutner has been a lifelong POP player, still competing in National Pro Tournaments. He is a three-time National Men's doubles finalist (2000, 2003, 2018) and a 2017 POP US Open Mixed doubles finalist. Born and raised in Brooklyn, NY, Mitch has spent time in the music industry (Arista Records), in TV syndication, and over 20 years in the corporate media barter business.
QUESTIONS FOR MITCH KUTNER
TCB: Mitch, where are you from and do you have a history in playing tennis?
MK: Born and raised in Brooklyn NY and still living in NY. I grew up playing Tennis as a child with my dad in a big Beachclub in Brighton Beach and played a lot through High School and College.
TCB: You have a long history of working in broadcasting and media. And then, February of 2015, you find yourself involved in POP Tennis, a rebranding of Paddle Tennis. How did this come about?
MK: As a child, I also played a ton of POP Tennis fka Paddle Tennis. The Beachclub I referenced above had 22 POP courts which were always crowded. That gave me a chance to play with my parents and all of my friends for years growing up. POP was easy to learn, easy to play. The smaller court, underhand serve and slower, lower compression tennis ball allowed players of different ages, athleticism and ability levels to all get on the same court and
have a lot of fun. The fast pace & aggressive style of charging the net always created fun exchanges. Thats where I developed the love of the game which continues to this day. Back in late 2014/early 2015, another longtime family friend, Ken Lindner, former #1 player & Captain of the Harvard Varsity Tennis team, who had also grown up playing POP at the same beachclub, asked me and a few others if we’d be interested in putting in time & making a commitment to be a part of a rebranding to grow the game of Paddle Tennis. Our sport had been stagnant in its growth for many years due to name brand confusion with sports like Platform Tennis & Padel(both also commonly referred to as Paddle or Paddle Tennis), lack of uniform professional organization and a few other reasons. Around that time, we had also started to see Pickleballs rapid growth and it gave us hope and the drive to do it for the sport we loved and believed in. We’ve always had amazing ambassadors in places like SoCal, Florida and NY but things weren't working to grow the sport on a larger scale and we needed to try a different approach.
TCB: Is the POP Tennis office in New York City? Do you have staff there?
MK: Our Non-Profit Association is based in Los Angeles. We have a core group of Director’s around the country and over 100 trusted ambassadors around the world who all volunteer their time to promote, introduce the sport to new players and help grow the sport.
TCB: What does your daily workload consist of?
MK: As it relates to POP Tennis, I spend a lot of time working on POPs social media on both Facebook & Instagram. We have almost 25,000 followers combined on those 2 platforms. Fans and players love watching videos, seeing pics and keeping up on POP news from around the globe there. We also get inquiries through social media and email from players and facilities looking to onboard POP, organize socials, build courts, buy equipment, ask questions about the sport etc. I spend a lot of time communicating back and having great phone conversations with fans of the sport. I’m always focused and looking for opportunities to expand our reach, do event socials/intro demo's, secure sponsorships, build brand partnerships and driving programs & initiatives at locations like the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, where we have done 7 or 8 large POP events including 2 National Pro tournaments. USTA Executive Whitney Kraft at the Tennis Center is a huge POP fan and has always been incredibly supportive.
TCB: How many U.S. facilities offer POP Tennis?
MK: I currently estimate almost 300 different facilities in 24 states have done some type of POP programming over the last 18 months. This includes open play, court rental offerings, leagues, weekly or monthly socials, clinics, demos and POP parties. Florida & Arizona have seen the most recent growth with new locations. Southern California is also always a hot spot for us with plenty of locations in public parks and private beach clubs. But that only covers a portion of growth and activity. Certified Court builders are starting to build more & more POP courts in players backyards and many players also create makeshift courts to play on driveways, streets and in parks. You can play POP anywhere if you want! All you need is a portable net and temporary lines can be done with tape, chalk or throw down hashmark lines. We saw a ton of these temp courts this year because many players had no place to play since clubs/facilities were closed due to the virus.
TCB: Why would a tennis director of club owner add POP Tennis to their programs?
MK: First, POP is an amazing sport in its own right that is loved by our die-hard lifelong players! That covers beginner to Pro level. It can be played indoor or outdoor, all year-round, on all surfaces (Hard court, Grass/turf, clay/Har-Tru, modular tile and hard sand on the beach). From a business standpoint....Additional Revenue!! Players who play POP spend money on court time, lessons, socials, clinics and annual POP programs. Those players also spend money within the facility buying Paddles, balls, sneakers, clothes or food/drink at the clubs bar & restaurant. Clubs need to offer options. POP is also the closest alternative sport to regular tennis. Its just an easier version and more people can play it athletically. You're still using a tennis ball (green dot for adults, orange for kids). Smaller court, solid paddle, underhand serve, slower ball and tennis rules/scoring. We all love Tennis and it will always be Number 1. But not everyone can physically play it. Some can’t due to lack of athleticism, age or injuries. Tennis is also hard for children so POP is a great feeder for kids into Tennis. Helps give kids confidence since the solid paddle and slower ball makes it easier to make square contact much more frequently. Its also a keeper sport for those who may soon stop playing Tennis for the reasons I mentioned above. It keeps members in the club, spending money, socializing with friends and coming back! But POP is just a great, fun, fast sport for anyone and an incredible workout whether you’re playing singles or doubles. A lot of good exciting volley to volley exchanges. It creates a different exciting dynamic since you’re closer to your opponent as compared to tennis.
TCB: How do you currently market POP Tennis? Is the USTA supporting you financially or otherwise?
MK: Social media on Facebook and Instagram has been a huge part of marketing & spreading the word all over the world. We also have other organized POP groups in different places like Venice Beach, Michigan, Italy that have formed that are doing the same great work to market. Incredible communities of players! We all work together to help promote and create sport awareness. Videos and pics of a fun sport always helps to market and create enthusiasm. The buzz about POP led to The Tennis Channel doing a great Feature story about us last year that ran during the 2019 US Open and then they did another news piece about one of our tourneys. In addition, NBC’s “The Today Show” did a Feature on POP. In a normal year, we are out traveling a lot introducing the sport to clubs, facilities and at large industry conventions and conferences. All of that exposure leads to inquiries, discussions and media coverage. That all leads to relationships & partnerships which further spreads the word to new audiences and starts to create an ecosystem that pushes brands to want to get involved. Major Supporters like Adidas, Babolat, Dunlop, Wilson, Drop Shot, Sport Court, OnCourt OffCourt, the USTA & the USPTA have been there for us. Even entrepreneurs like Reflex, Tiga and XTP are involved. You can now also find POP merchandise at many places on the web including Amazon and Walmart. Those relationships have created over 30,000 new USTA approved POP courts around the country and growth in 12 other countries. The USTA has been incredibly supportive of POP over the last 3-4 years in many ways. We were fortunate to receive a USTA grant a few years ago which helped us build momentum & create solid traction and name recognition within the International Tennis community. It also allowed us to produce a few great marketing/promo videos and present the game at dozens of Tennis industry events. Either doing business presentations in front of large audiences or doing fun Pro demos for the attendees. One of those promo vids was filmed at the USTA National Campus in Lake Nona. The Grant also allowed our POP team to travel to visit many facilities and introduce the game to a ton of new players. The POP team was invited to many USTA local and/or regional events to show our game to those who didn’t know about it. We also did many intro clinics including a lot with children. One in particular with the Andy Roddick Foundation gave us a chance to introduce the sport to over 200 children. Some other demo events and intro socials had over 250 people in attendance in one day. The USTA also has supported us on a few occasions with marketing to the 17 USTA sections to create additional awareness. But as you know, with the challenges in the tennis industry over the last few years leading into the pandemic and recent executive changes, the USTA is completely focused on Tennis right now which is very understandable. So we are thrilled with any type of assistance we got from them in the past and may get in the future.
TCB: What are your biggest challenges in regards to marketing POP Tennis?
MK: There aren’t many people that have experience growing a sport in recent decades. So a lot of what we do we learn on the fly. Some things work great, some don’t. Although POP has been embraced by many, it hasn't succeeded everywhere. Much of this is exploring uncharted waters. We learn a lot from watching other sports like Pickleball. They have done amazing work to grow their game over the past decade. A few years ago, the biggest challenge was that Tennis facilities simply did not want to add other paddle or racquet sports. Some Facility owners/managers and many teaching pros didn't take other alternative paddle/racquet sports seriously or felt those sports weren’t a fit or were a threat to tennis. We completely understood that hesitancy and respected it. Thats why we never pushed too hard. We wanted our sport to grow organically. For many facilities, it was Tennis or nothing at that time. That has changed dramatically over the last 2 years. Now, many job titles in the industry have changed from Director or Tennis to Director of Racquet Sports. Clubs understand they need to add options to cater to more people, to keep revenue coming in and keep their members happy. I love tennis as much as anyone and we don't want to replace tennis with POP. We just want our sport as a part of the equation to help strengthen the industry.
TCB: Is Pickleball the biggest competitor to POP Tennis? How are you fighting that competitor?
MK: I wouldn’t really consider Pickleball a competitor. Pickleball is a great, fun sport but its dramatically different than POP in many ways in terms of equipment, in-game strategies, speed and the athleticism needed to play. I actually feel that many of the great alternative paddle sports like Padel, Pickleball, Platform Tennis and POP aka “The Four P’s” are all like cousins of Tennis. They are similar in some ways but each sport is very unique and involves different skill sets. POP and Pickle have a lot of common ground since both are played at many tennis facilities around the country. There is also a large player overlap in those 2 sports. Although POP’s classic & traditional game is on our standard 20’ x 50’ court, POP also uses the 60’ 10U junior tennis blended lines which are located at over 2,500 facilities nationwide. Another interesting trend that has developed the last year or so is seeing court builders construct POP-Pickle combo courts with adjustable net posts residentially and in some parks or clubs. We’ve seen at least a few hundred combo courts like this over the past 18 months.
TCB: What are your plans for 2021? What's on your wish list for next year?
MK: The most important thing in the big picture is we want good health and safety for everyone. Hoping things get back to some type of normalcy next year with events and group gatherings. That means POP can go back to our usual full schedule of doing intro demos & socials, POP parties, industry events and running our 3 major annual National POP Tournaments in St Augustine Florida, NY (Billie Jean King National Tennis Center) and Venice Beach California. Our major Pro events usually attract 150-200 players. Main priority overall is to continue to grow the player base by creating sport awareness & pushing for development/construction of new courts residentially, in schools, at public parks & recreational facilities. Wish list and goal is to hit 250,000 players by the end of 2021. We are almost 75% there but there’s still much work to do to get there. Its not just about building the base. Its about maintaining that base. We never take it for granted! We feel good about where we are right now but we’re nowhere near where we think our sport should be. Luckily, there are many others out there who love the game as much I do.
TCB: Thank you, Mitch.
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