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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 professional/tennis director at the Mt. Tam Racquet Club in Larkspur, California, and added the title and responsibilities of general manager in 1982. 

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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. Rod 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.

TENNIS POPULARITY AT A CROSSROAD

Unfortunately, the USA has multiple sports venues with multiple sports heroes

By Rod Heckelman

Sports have become the premier venue for entertainment.  Add to that the attraction of gambling, and we may just be seeing the beginning of an already huge market becoming even bigger than anyone ever imagined.  It’s safe to say that sports now consume more T.V. and internet time than ever before, and with that more people are becoming fans of watching several sports.  Another barometer is seen in the advertisement.  Celebrities have always had a front seat in advertising opportunities, but now that most top athletes are also celebrities, they too are becoming a regular source of promotion for many advertisements.  So for us long-time tennis enthusiasts, how will our game fair in this new world of sports? Can tennis jump on the bandwagon and get its fair share of the market?  Does it have the structure for being a part of this booming industry?

First, tennis will need its top players to become more familiar to the entire general public.  There is, and will be, a love affair for most fans to support and relate to their own country’s heroes.  The tennis industry has tried to have Americans embrace foreign players, and they have had some success, but nothing near the bonding that happens between American fans and their American tennis heroes.  There is an emotional attachment that just doesn’t happen once players from another part of the world take the spotlight.  This becomes very evident during the U.S. Open when an American makes it through to the finals, they instantly become household names. 

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The main reason this marketing challenge is so important is the fact the USA has the biggest market in the world.  The only problem for tennis is that the USA has multiple sports venues with multiple sports heroes.  Most other countries find their heroes in soccer (football), bicycling, car racing, tennis, and the Olympics.  For that reason, these countries have far fewer sports heroes and as a result do not have to share as our country for the popularity contest/marketing revenue.  No matter how large this growing market gets, it will have to always be carved up for a multitude of clients.

This all means that the tennis organizations are in for a very big challenge.  If this country's tennis is going to ride the wave of sporting popularity, they have quite an uphill battle.  They will need to develop a collective effort on the part of everyone in the industry.  For years, top young athletes with great potential were drawn to other sports for both access and economic ease.  The tennis powers that be in this country tried and are still trying to entice more talent through diversity and access and that challenge has been fairly successful, but taking this task on will require some real star power and great promotional efforts.

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Just examine the impact of Pickleball.  This one additional racket sport has earned the headlines and television time, including the Tennis Channel.  It is well deserved and a good example of a sporting organization taking advantage of a new sport's popularity.

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With this sudden burst in all sports wanting to get the headlines, that effort to find and develop new top players is very important.  They need the charisma and the personality to be able to interview and be in front of the camera, which also needs coaching in many cases.  In the past, most top players were the result of families dedicating their entire lives to the sport.  Parents made tremendous sacrifices, but as seen with Coco, could only go so far and need the help of a couple of seasoned tour coaches to take her to the next step.  With that process being best suited for the development of top players, the tennis industry needs to find ways to support this process.  It’s important to note, it’s not just the money, it’s the time invested 24/7 by these families.  No organization can create this journey.  It is also important to note, that there is almost always solid coaching from day one, coaches that fully understand and can pass on proper stroke production for each individual child.  Remember, we are up against the “ova” tour.  Countries where families will do anything to make their children successful and able to make a living with tennis.  

  

The other issue tennis faces is scheduling for television.  Tennis by design has a major flaw in programming…there is often no set start time and definitely, no set ending time.  Most sports have a fixed start time, and some have a flexible ending time, but not to the degree of tennis.  When a match lasts five hours, it might be exciting to the avid tennis fan, but it is a nightmare for the producers and advertising groups.  Other than the majors, adjustments to fix this issue need to be addressed, with apologies to the loyal historical tennis lovers.

If these issues can be addressed successfully, they will be first recognized when we start seeing more and more tennis personalities doing commercials.  But even more of an indicator, the time when you see tennis players doing fast food commercials, instead of the usual healthy product promotion, then you can say that the tennis scene has made it big.  Somewhat of a sad reality, but think about how many fast food chains use basketball, baseball, and football to promote a product that probably is not really best for the nutritional support, but definitely good for their bank and the sports recognition.

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