Rod Heckelman's career
started in 1966 when he began his five-year role as a teacher at John Gardiner’s Tennis Ranch in Carmel Valley, California Later he opened as the resident pro for Gardiner’s Tennis Ranch on Camelback in Scottsdale, Arizona. In 1976 he took over as head pro/tennis director at the Mt. Tam Racquet Club in
Larkspur, California, and added the title and responsibilities of general manager in 1982. In 2010 he was awarded “Manager of the Year” for the USPTA NorCal Division and the “Manager of the Year” at the USPTA World Conference.
He has written several books including, “Down Your Alley” in 1993, “Playing Into the Sunset” in 2013 and most recently, “250 Ways to Play Tennis.” He also produced the “Facility Manager’s Manual” and the “Business Handbook for Tennis Pros,” which is distributed by the TIA.
Where and What Do We Grow?
By Rod Heckelman
Talk to anyone who grows basically anything, and they will tell you that choosing the right items and picking the right location to grow is essential. You would think that such a game plan would apply to just about anything, of which tennis is probably included. So, with that criteria, let’s look at the tennis industry. In respect to the right items, tennis should be the perfect item to grow. Let’s just look at the big picture.
It’s safe to say that the pro players have never been more athletic and capable of producing some high-quality entertainment. And the same progress could be said about coaching. More than ever, coaches have great access to teaching tools, information and can share ideas with the best coaches in the world.
Add to that, the equipment being state of the art in every area…balls, shoes, tennis rackets, strings, and it would appear that we definitely have the right item to grow. As far as location, the fact is, court time, for the most part, is not an issue and is available just about anywhere. Given all these wonderful factors, tennis should be able to grow in leaps and bounds. So, what’s the issue?
If it’s not the product or the supply, maybe it’s the demand, and if it is the demand, who’s responsible for driving that demand? The answer: the entire industry. But for the entire industry to have direction and a defined mission, there needs to be leadership. Leadership is a fundamental need for any industry to grow and become successful. In the case of the tennis industry, that responsibility falls on the governing body…the United States Tennis Association. So, the question is, do they have the insight and understanding to make the right decisions concerning location and picking the right venues that will grow?
So far, looking at the numbers, they have proven to be poor farmers when it comes to growing the game. But rather than just being critical, let’s be more analytical. Their struggles are understandable when you see how the organization is structured. The USTA is made up of 17 sections, each has an elected board of directors and each has a hired administration, also true at the national level. These local boards are usually populated by tennis enthusiast that become interested in having their input or say in the policies and rules. The normal process is for those people focusing on their political journey and then, if successful, try to get their agendas met. The administrators are focused on helping guide these people through the process and then accommodating them by putting in to play their agendas. Often this process is broken down even more when new or current programs are being scrutinized. That step leads to the need to establish committees to review and possibly implement. Remember, all of this is done at the local level and then is duplicated at the national level…the elected participants try to have their agendas put in place within their short terms, while in the background, the hired and more permanent administration tries to both follow and guide these elected officials in the right direction. To make this even a more complex and difficult task, there are several different organizations that must be dealt with because of their influence and position in the industry, i.e. ATP, ITF, USPTA, PTR, just to name a few. So, going back to the earlier questions of whether they have the insight and understanding to make the right decisions concerning location and picking the right venues that will grow the game…the real question is, with this much bureaucracy, can they actually perform that task? Have we gotten to a point where there are just too many people in the growing field to unite and actually focus on the task at hand…growing? Remember, this is a non-profit organization that must abide by non-profit rules and requirements.
They are not a business that can be motivated and focused on growth for profit. Or are they? That’s where having two entities, the administrators and the elected officials may cause issues. The elected volunteers realize they have limited time and for that reason, limited influence.
On the other hand, the administrators are hired and paid a salary, so one would think that they would be incentivized by growing the game to increase the profits and in turn increase they paychecks? They certainly made making money a priority in the case with the U.S. Open. Making money and making it profitable has been a mission for many years. That effort helps raise the prize money, which raises the crowds, which sells more to advertisers and so on. But does the U.S. Open help grow the game? Also, there is the profitable league play, but again, is it helping to grow the game? Tournament play makes money, does tournament play help grow the game? For sure, all of these sectors play a role in the growth of the game, but they also seem only to focus on the competitive side of tennis. Even in the NextGen ads on T.V., the message seemed to be about having the children embrace the sport, become competitive to make their mark. Maybe some parents see value in that, but there must be a strong contingent of parents that would love to see their children take part in fun social events. If history teaches us anything, the massive growth in tennis took place in the early ’70s, when Forrest Hills was just large enough venue to only hold several thousand people, there was no league play or ratings, and tournament play was limited to a very small percentage of the tennis population. It’s fair to say, probably over 90% of the growth was happening under the demand of the social and recreational interaction as well as people looking for a healthy exercise that the game of tennis provided. Another supporting factor to this concept of growth is Cardio Tennis, the fastest-growing part of the industry in the last decade, was there any competition associated with that?
This may be the major issue impacting the growth in our game. The recreation, fun and social tennis mostly took place in clubs and other types of tennis facilities in the ’70s. The result was a financial windfall and expansion of facilities throughout the country. On the other hand, those in the administration of the USTA, saw very little direct financial benefits from social or recreational play, and to top it off, they also got very little financial returns from these clubs or other facilities that provided those venues. With that type of financial relationship, what would be the motivation for those two sectors to work together? If you are reviewing our overall industry structure, does this sound like the right combination of groups and organizations, that can put together a game plan to grow the game? I think if you took this business model to the tv show Shark Tank, they would be “Out” in minutes.
Back to the beginning, where do we grow? Given the areas of growth that are most ready and capable of growth, many believe this can best take place at the club and recreational park levels. As to what do we grow, recreational tennis and social events…essentially making the sport fun again for everyone and more open to new players. Remember that our greatest barrier in recent years has been finding an optimum way of connecting tennis players. The USTA has got down the competition, do you think they will be able to have the same success with the social and recreational fronts? More importantly, will they be motivated and willing to take on this task to help grow the game? Will they provide funding to clubs to help make this happen, at least the same amount of funding that they provide for junior development of league play and tournament play? If we really want to grow the game, we can only hope.