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.
TO THE VICTOR GO THE SPOILS
Adult League Program: Contest between USTA and UTR
By Rod Heckelman
In this case, the spoils could be millions of dollars. Because the victor will have ownership of most of the competitive tennis venues. Among those venues, the treasure chest has to be the adult league program. This contest is between the established USTA and the new competition in town, the UTR. Although this is going to be a real war, it’s interesting that the top representatives and organizers of these two groups seem to be taking a low-key approach. At least outwardly, they either don’t recognize this battle or want to pretend they don’t recognize their opponents. It’s a good strategy, by not recognizing the opposition, it minimizes their importance and viability to be a formidable opponent. The fact is, this is a fight to the finish. If you think that this market sector will be shared, think again. Or better yet, just take a look at the two contenders. Do they in any way appear to be organizations that would like to share the spoils? So now the battle takes to the courts, of course, this is in reference to the tennis courts, but don’t be surprised if there’s not a few legal entanglements to be had in the court of law.
We all know what weapons they garnish. The USTA has the history and a vast database. They have an enormous level of influence and connections. And although their market share was radically reduced due to Covid, they still carry the big stick. They also will have to reverse some prior mistakes that were discovered in the last few years. The horrors of the Covid pandemic ironically unveiled that life without league play is actually pretty nice. Players found that chasing the rating rabbit was not so fun, and maybe most important, winning didn’t really seem to be that rewarding. This was especially true for those who tried to organize or recruit to have the best team possible. They found an empty feeling when winning seem to come from how a team was organized rather than how a team performed. For many tennis facilities, at first, there was a fear that participation might drop, but the absolute reverse took place. More people got into tennis than ever before. Without leagues, tennis participation grew to record numbers and tennis organizations reaped the benefits. Nonetheless, even with these new realizations, the USTA and its many sections are determined to regain this program and the income/jobs it provided.
With the UTR, it has the great advantage of being a fresh new face to the market. They have 360 views of the issues that have troubled league play, along with a rating system that is preferred by many different tennis groups, such as colleges, junior programs, and many tournament formats at all levels. They also have put together a full software program to help address the organization of competition, not just for planning and operating competitive play, but more importantly, providing a tool that administrators can harness to enhance better interaction and communication with the participants. The depth in which their software and the collected data can discover will open many new doors and pathways for all levels of play. But maybe their ace in the game is the ability to curtail recruitment, sandbagging, and stacking the lineups.
The truth is, USTA leagues had an issue with recruitment, stacking lineups, and sandbagging. We would like to believe that the USTA league program accidentally created an upside-down culture for competition, but there had to be someone overseeing the program and looking the other way in hopes of not impacting the golden goose. Think about this, who joins a competitive program wanting to be better to begin with so they can win? Most players spend their entire tennis career seeking better competition, few want to enter a season of matchups as the favored expecting to win. That’s the definition of upside down, but sadly, this approach never was challenged and might even have been fostered. The goal of winning, or the elusive national championship, provided and promoted false goals and empty realizations. The fact is, if you won, at best your team met expectations and then was broken up and could not play as a team again. All those teammates you shared this great journey with, just disappeared. All too often players were then forced to play at a higher level than they might not be ready for and very soon watched their prior success fade in nothing more than a memory, coupled with the reality that they will never reach that goal again. The unintentional motto for league play went from, “Grow the Game,” to “Grow Out of the Game.”
Maybe this is why the USTA’s has also jumped into the new rating software arena. There have been some bumps in the road but give credit that at least being aware that if they intend to compete with the UTR, they need a better rating system. A system that is more dynamic and provides daily updates for the level of any player. Or maybe this move was not so much to fix a broken league program, but just a desperate move to keep up with the competition.
They have also adopted the old sales program of hallmarking participants of the past who had noteworthy accomplishments and dedication to league play, especially, those many players that volunteered to captain a team. This may be too little too late. There’s a lot of players who have only had bad experiences as captains, they are not likely to ever take on that role again. This is very damaging because these captains were basically the engine behind league play. There is also an ironic twist with those captains who enjoyed the recruitment and aggressive process of building a dream team, taking that ingredient away and they may feel less motivated. As the end result, it’s very feasible that the combination of both a terrible experience and the loss of manipulation to create a super team will make it tough to get many captains back into the scene.
The other hurdles for both organizations, one that may make a big difference, is having a sign-up procedure that includes a waiver, much like they have in tournament play. For some reason that process got eliminated, putting all the legal exposure and insurance burden on the hosting club or facility. Not sure whether that was intentional or not, but the message sent was “We take the profits, and you take the risk.” This goes hand-and-hand with not providing revenue sharing with the host tennis facilities. There was revenue sharing with tennis tournaments, why not leagues? The cost of hosting may be minor, but the supervision, organizing, and scheduling can be brutal for many facilities. Remember that promise that league play would help build a club’s membership and loyalty? Really? Burn out, rating anxiety, excessive competition leading to injuries, along with the loyalty shifting to a team and not the location or host, tells a different story.
It’s a good bet that the organization that can navigate these issues will greatly endear itself with most of the clubs and facilities. This battle will be won by the organization that creates the most loyal followers, it would seem prudent to make sure that includes more than just the players, it should definitely include those working at the ground level, such as the host, the club pros, and anyone who takes the time to provide a great league experience.
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