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.

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The Challenge of League Play

Are the organizers up for change post-Covid?

By Rod Heckelman

We are in the business of creating an experience for tennis players.  Keep that thought in mind as we evaluate the very popular program of league play.  First, those who were behind league play got a wake-up call from the Covid experience.  During the lockdown, tennis grew like never before, and all without league play.  That doesn’t necessarily mean league play won’t again be popular, but it does point out that league play may not have been the golden ticket for the growth of the game.

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Photo by Michelle Moody on Unsplash

It’s been more than a whisper in the industry, that many people that had played in leagues are just not coming back to that activity.  Is it still popular for many?  Well, the USTA has announced that “many” want league play to return.  Probably safe to say yes, but “many” may not be enough to make bringing back leagues a high priority among tennis pros and clubs. Also, to state that there are still “many” that want league play to come back is statistically misleading. 

 

That level of demand may not be enough, and here is the reason why.  That fact is that the newest players to the game over the last year and a half are mostly those who either are coming back into the game or have just gotten into the sport.  This group seems to have little or no interest in league play, or for that matter competition.  They are having fun, meeting new people in a great atmosphere, and getting healthy as they participate.  Their introduction to the sport has been focused on recreational fun play.  So, if you add their numbers to the overall pool of players, the fact is, having “many” will simply fall short. 

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Of course, all this depends on whether or not league play tries to return to its old format. Remember, we began this review by pointing out how important it is to create a positive experience to help both sustain and attract participants.  Sadly, for “many” league play did not provide an emotionally healthy atmosphere.  Quite a few participants went so far as to leave the game completely. The patrons of the game have grown weary of having a program that dictated when, where and who you would play.  Add to that the immense pressure of ratings, recruiting and the failure to provide revenue-sharing with the hosting clubs and the end result for many was the league play was a bad experience.

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Photo by Miguel Teirlinck on Unsplash

Once again to put this into context, remember when there was only one pro shop in your community and the process of buying a racket was “what you see is what you get.”  Then along came the internet that added demo rackets, free returns and made a customer feel like it was their choice.  Again, they provided for the full experience, and that was from only an internet connection. This is the format we need to embrace as we take advantage of the growth in tennis for our league play, and for that matter, any other type of program that gathers tennis players.  We have to do whatever it takes to get people together in ways that will not require intense competition.   

The good news for the tennis industry is that this approach has been strongly adopted in several sectors of our sport.  Take for instance the instructional segment of tennis.  Both USPTA and PTR made an exceptional move prior to Covid to help educate and create new learning pathways.  Pros shared ideas and methods in greater abundance than ever.  These organizations recognized the value of helping their teachers optimize their performance and learn marketing and promotional skills to complement their teaching skills.  They saw the value of helping their members in creating the best possible experience for their students that could be provided.  

In comparison, the area of competitive play fell noticeably short.  Too much emphasis was put on ratings, rankings, winning, and losing.  The idea of fun recreational play with competition was poorly promoted.  Our sport was on a downward spiral due to this focus, and unfortunately, the powers that be were stuck on the profits created more than the player’s experience.  Participation dropped dramatically and voices that were shouting out solutions or alternatives were either silenced or ignored.

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Then the pandemic came along.  This terrible experience ironically opened the door for two new insights.  First, recognition of those in the industry that produced the right product.  ALTA from the Atlanta area was, and is a great example.  The most popular league program of any city in the country… it has been a stand-out performer.  It provided participation, and yes, you guessed it, a great experience for the participants. Fun, social, easy to organize and take part in, yet still providing some competition.

The second new insight is the new alternative of the UTR league program.  It too is providing a fun, flexible, and enjoyable platform.  Still in its early stages of development, it has already shown great promise with schools, junior events, and tournament formats for all levels.  They are now stepping into league play with one goal in mind, create the best experience possible and listen to those who both run and participate in the program.  Another insight the UTR people realize is that taking too much court time away for the host clubs will have an extremely negative impact on the quality of that club’s tennis program.  Fewer courts mean less organized fun activities, fewer junior programs, and maybe most important, fewer opportunities for a club to develop the culture dictated by the entire membership.  We all know that there is a place at the table for competition, but when they are eating all the food and taking all the chairs, the rest will eventually give up and leave.

It seems common sense would tell you that those who can create the very thing we in the industry are always seeking to provide…a great experience, would get the message. But unfortunately, common sense has never been the direction taken by those seeking profits first and who also have an unhealthy need to be in total control.  So, we close with that thought, will the organizers of league play be up for this new challenge?   

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