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.
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.
LOOK WHO'S WINNING THE RACE
By Rod Heckelman
We operate in a competitive industry. Not just the competition of tennis, but the competition among clubs to capture and recruit as many members as possible. With the recent growth in the industry, the pie did get bigger, but the appetite of those coming out of the Covid era is extremely high along with a new element called survival.
Wasn’t that long ago that most tennis clubs were either membership-owned or public facilities. Tennis took off in the early ’70s and investors saw the sport as a great investment, especially indoor clubs. Little by little these private investors and corporations expanded their facilities to include complete fitness venues, making them top dogs in any community. They also took advantage of the new demand for tennis that the member-owned clubs back in those days could not meet. Their restrictions and tendency to be exclusive did not bode well for growth.
Once these new privatively owned clubs became established, they invested in improvements, upgrades and expanded their facilities quickly to adjust to any new trends. They hired people who could focus on sales and growth. As a result, they could raise the dues easily without too much resistance from their members. The traditional focus of tennis clubs changed from providing a comfortable cozy, friendly membership-only club, to these new privately owned facilities that focused on upgrading constantly and catering to a generation that demanded constant improvements and more supervision. For many of the membership-owned tennis clubs, they could only stand by and watch the inevitable trend.
Finally, tired of watching their members gradually disappear and dwindle, many of the membership-owned clubs started to change and began to organize methods of raising funds from their loyal members. Now they were back in the race. They had the three golden qualities…improved facilities, retention from loyal members, and the ability to raise their rates. Many of them also followed the trend of adding fitness programs to their agenda.
As a result, the race was on. There was competition between the members as well as the clubs. The USTA watched on with great satisfaction as competitive programs like league play fueled their enrollment. Then Covid hit.
Privately owned clubs get clobbered, while membership-owned clubs both survived and in some cases prospered. This dramatic shift seemed to go unnoticed by many in the industry. This can happen when changes are the result of a natural set of circumstances that are initiated and then accelerated due to an overriding concern and attention given to the pandemic.
With the privately owned business, they only had PPP to help them get through, but many lost a significant number of members as well as having a very difficult time communicating with their membership as circumstances changed month to month.
Photo by Ivan Pergasi on Unsplash
They often were left with ambiguous answers and solutions that further alienated many of their members. Do we charge dues, do we deactivate the membership or some hybrid of those options? Without having a loyal relationship and a culture of sharing with their members, the administrators were often at a loss for what direction to take.
So here we are, on track to a full recovery and hopefully returning to those days we knew were predictable and enjoyable. So, are we going to see another major shift in the industry being created by the private club investors? Will the corporations and privately owned clubs reclaim their stake in the industry? What about all the non-profit organizations like the YMCA or Jewish Community Center, what direction will they take? Will public courts and facilities find needed funding? These are big questions to be answered in the coming year, here are some ideas.
Tennis was the saving sport and sector of the private industry that shined during Covid. It will continue to be that way, so it’s only a matter of time before many of these multi-purpose clubs realize that and look at the new possibilities that tennis and those players can bring to a club. Second, there is a lot of new money out there looking for investments, it’s very likely that many of them will see tennis facilities as a good target, especially with so many of them financially stressed. Expect those in the world of acquisition to step up their game.
The non-profits should also do well. But not universally since many of them never saw tennis as a sport that could contribute to their mission in their community. Public facilities are without question at great risk. The key to their success will be capturing all these new players that took up tennis or those who migrated from the expensive privately owned clubs. Programming will be key to their mission. Those that don’t want to provide a full-service program including instruction, drop-in supervised tennis, and special events, will likely lose their players over time to the privately owned clubs.
And as to the membership-owned clubs, as long as they can continue to convince their members to invest in improvements and growth…or in other words, if they can get them to believe that being a member does not mean never having an increase in cost, they will do fine.
So as to who is winning the race…first, it must be recognized as a race, and probably more important, it needs to recognize who the referee is in this contest. If it is the USTA, there remains a great deal of negotiating and need to unite these organizations. That will not be easy for the USTA, they are not likely to take sides. Again, we are all in this race, many would like you to think that all the tennis clubs are all in it together, but at the end of the day, numbers don’t lie…who has the most members paying the maximum amount of money at their respective club is most likely to break the ribbon.
Photo by Nicolas Hoizey on Unsplash
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