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.

HEAD Gravity Tennis Racquet

OUR ECONOMIC CONUNDRUM

Not such a rosy forecast, except with the exception that is soon to become apparent…

for those who are qualified, this is your arena to make it big 

By Rod Heckelman

The tennis industry is about to get a rude awakening when the basic economic principle of supply and demand doesn’t work. Let’s explain. Over the last few years, the popularity of tennis has doubled during the pandemic. Now the prediction is that over the next two years racket sales, balls, tennis equipment, and generally anything that has to do with the tennis world, will again double. This will result in a rapid and expansive demand for these products. We’ve already been struggling to get tennis supplies, and now it's going to double! What this should mean, based on the fundamentals of supply and demand, anyone producing those products and being successful in getting those products into the hands of the consumers, should be rolling in dough. Not quite, and here is where we fall short.

The problem is not the supply chain, the products themselves, or even the industry’s ability to create the goods. The problem is that the above-mentioned products are all dependent on one common denominator: people. Tennis is fundamentally a service industry, so if you don’t have the people, all the physical equipment in the world, is destined for a long shelf-live. It should be pointed out, the people needed are not just tennis teachers, they are club or facility managers, court maintenance staff, pro shop operators, stringers…again, any person that is part of the service industry of tennis. And therein lies the problem, because, without people in the industry available, the supply might increase, but the demand will not be met, not even with the normal adjustments of cost to help meet those demands. So how did this come to be and how do we get out of this hole.

First, we know that many fled the industry due to the pandemic. In the beginning clubs or facilities were forced to shut down, and work was just not available. This resulted in very qualified people seeking employment in other industries. These are people that are not likely to come back. But some of the industry's main leaders…those who controlled the major tennis organizations, may have made some poor calculations.

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The direction the industry has taken over the last several decades focused more on keeping the status quo, instead of attracting and integrating younger minds and talents into tennis. Some organizations were married to the idea that anyone within the system, would work their way up the ladder by starting off at an entry-level, become an officer, then run up the ladder of VPs, and if they played their cards right, after ten years or so, become the president. By nature, or essentially evolution, this approach goes against any long-term development of durability and sustaining growth. This practice does not provide entry into organizations at the higher levels where key decisions are made.

 

But it gets worse. Keeping the same people, or at least the same group of people with the same goals has a strong tendency not to recognize failing programs. More important, any statistical failures are reputed or ignored. The often-ugly fact, these surviving executives are simply good politicians that have learned to surf through the system to get to the top. Once there, their ambition morphs from being productive to being protective. If the fear of losing control or not maintaining a position of being relevant is too prevalent, the doors will close to new minds, especially the young ones. Given time, this is the poison in any industry and the result is a strong influence on the attrition rate and at the same time, a negative influence on a healthy recruiting rate. In fairness, there have been exceptions, but they have tended to take place at the more local/lower industry levels where position, pay, and power are less rewarding.

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Second, unlike the automobile industry that is trying to meet the demand for computer chips, it takes much longer to develop skilled tennis teachers and club managers. Most seasoned tennis pros have spent a couple of decades honing their skills. They’ve had much more time to share their knowledge with others, but more important and often overlooked, they have had the time to collect the feedback of the successes or failures of their prior students. Every year that passes provides them with more understanding of how to teach each student their tennis, not just teach tennis or teach a style of tennis. This is true in all teaching venues but is particularly true in tennis. Tennis is a complex sport to coach due to the various athletic skills of all players. It also requires a tremendous amount of time invested to best perform at any desired level. If you factor all this in, the tennis teacher may be perceived by some as part of the service industry, but they are also part of the teaching industry as well, and teachers cannot be developed as fast as tennis equipment.

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Third, and this will be a tough pill to swallow, the ownership and management part of the industry must up the rewards for the younger entrants. Like it or not, much of the tennis industry is in high-income areas. For younger people, they just can’t afford the cost of living in those areas. For years, those that held the payroll wallet saw these people in this service industry as easily replaceable. The shoe is on the other foot, time to untie the laces and come to the realization that the cost of operation is going to be much higher…not in a few years, but right now.

As for those in the industry, just because you’re near the end of your career, don’t walk away so quickly. Take the time to mentor a few new entries into the game. Also, take the time to talk to those who control payroll and let them know that you deserve more. Not just because you ARE worth more, but because if you take that step, you change the standards for everyone that follows.

So as far as the economic rule of supply and demand…with the tennis industry, the demand may become greater, but the ability to output supply will trail far behind. This will be the direct result of not being able to find qualified people. Not such a rosy forecast, except with the exception that is soon to become apparent…for those who are qualified, this is your arena to make it big.

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