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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.

WE CAN IMPROVE OUR MESSAGING

It’s time to pursue some long-overdue changes.

By Rod Heckelman

Tradition is a double edge sword.  It can be a strong foundation for consistency, but also a barrier to creative innovation.   Tennis struggles with that conflict at every turn.  This conflict is likely the reason tennis is fighting for its status and position in relation to other mainstream sports.  Look closely, and you will note that almost every other mainstream sport has adjusted to being more broadcast friendly, thus sending a new message to their fans proving they want their attention and loyalty.  

To get back our loyal fans and tennis enthusiast, we also need to reevaluate our messaging.  As an example, note that when Wimbledon took place if you wanted to stay in touch/interest in that major event, it was a struggle.  As an example, if you used your Comcast sports info button, you would first get all the sporting events that were currently being broadcasted, or you could scroll across and get information about any particular sport.  There was MLB, NBA, NFL, WBA, Ice Hockey, Soccer, Car Racing, Golf, and even Horse Racing, but no tennis.  Or when listening to the radio, if you turned on a news station to hear their sports brief, there were seldom any tennis results included. Even printed sports sections posted the results from Wimbledon on the 4th or 5th page.  It doesn’t make sense, especially because viewership was up 26%...so what are we missing in our messaging, and when and why did tennis become a third-level sport when reporting results?

One of the issues, and another age-old tradition, is that scheduling has always been difficult, especially for the big overseas events.  Less we forget, often the starting times, and obviously, the ending times, cannot be scheduled, another difficult exclusive trait of our sport.  Also, the evenings are the best times for the avid tennis fan to enjoy telecasted live tennis, not during the day when they are playing.  That is just not the case in most other sports.  Note that football found evening slots that have become very popular. Baseball, basketball, and even some overseas events are all televised mostly in the evening.  If you remember, tennis grew in leaps and bounds during the early part of the 70s.  One of the reasons is that during the summer season of tennis, when many tournaments were played in the U.S., the finals of each event were played on Monday evenings. That was a smart move and especially fun for viewers when announcers like Vic Braden hosted.  His great commentating included fantastic insight into how a match was being played, coupled with some very witty humor.   

We also have the traditional issue of needing national tennis heroes.  During the last couple of decades, many of the U.S.A. tennis icons seem to have disappeared.  Not so much from other countries, but our country still seems to be on the hunt for someone to bring more attention to the sport.  Maybe we need to rethink this and start creating more interest in top-performing players, no matter where they are from. It always helped to have big personalities and interesting characters in the sport, and yes, some controversial ones.  

But they don’t need to be Americans to meet that criterion.  Again, note the record-setting number of viewers during the men’s finals at Wimbledon.  In fact, the tradition of putting a player’s country flag next to their name when they are playing should be dropped.  Short of special team events, it’s another tradition that has no place in what should be appreciated as a global sport.

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Another tradition that needs to be addressed, is the need to provide tennis statistics during a match.  Does the common fan, or tennis viewer, seldom, if ever care about this data?  There are obviously some that have interest, but for the common tennis viewer, especially those who are not avid tennis players, we don’t need a heavy dose of this info during a match.  What we need is more intrigue and incites into the art of the sport. 

Might be time to hire a highly experienced and qualified person, not so much to be the voice on the mike, but maybe behind the scenes to help with understanding the cause and effect of what is taking place during a match. It seems that most other sports have realized how important it is to have such people on the scene.  This would include having someone who can better relate to the common tennis player, players with 3.0 or 4.0 skills. This too is part of an old tradition, only hiring announcers that were former players or coaches that have worked with the top players to call the matches, then put them with a sidekick who is a pro announcer, so they can be hand-fed questions.  It’s not so much that this format is wrong, it is more about finding better ways to relate with the common tennis spectator.

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A great example of a poor broadcasting relationship with the common tennis player happened years ago.  Remember how often viewers were reminded how important it was for both players to get to the net?  Meanwhile, the recreational player, following that advice, experienced great frustration watching lob after lob go over their heads because that advice was not applicable to their physical skills.  The problem was compounded by the fact that teaching pros had to pass this information on during their lessons in order to be in step with the influence of these perceived experts on television.  At the end of the day, tennis broadcasters must appreciate the real fact that probably less than 1% of the tennis population can hit, move and execute like the pros on the tour.

          The fact is, we can do better with our messaging, we have the talent and the ability, we just must cast aside much of our traditional methods and embrace the challenge of updating our messaging.  It’s time to pursue some long-overdue changes.  Many years ago, we added the tiebreaker, and more recently a time restraint in between points, proof that changes to enhance our broadcasting, and in turn messaging of the game can be done and will be beneficial.

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