The Commish is not just one single person, it is a real and true thought experiment of many different entities. That's also why the Commish has no preferred pronouns and you
can call the Commish anything and anyway you want. Makes no difference to the Commish. The Commish lives in the minds of all tennis professionals, tennis players, tennis organizers, everyone with a clear and logical thought pocess.
THE COMMISH FIXES TENNIS - LET THE GROWTH BEGIN!
By The Commish
Last month the Commish presented a scathing assessment of the current state of tennis and projected that at the current rate the sport will move from niche sport to a novelty. The Commish is back, this time with a recipe to get tennis back on track, get it growing again, and continue to be a beloved sport enjoyed by millions in this country.
The Commish will begin with a James Carville retort. “Tennis, it’s the schools, stupid.” Reenergizing the game of tennis begins with the schools, primarily the elementary schools. Back in the day, the USTA paid pros to go into elementary schools and conduct tennis assemblies. Lots of pros presented these programs and offered enrichment programs as follow-ups. The USTA created a clever original script, including the exploding ball trick, and hitting with the principal who used a frying pan as a racquet. The kids sat on the floor of the gym, which surrounded a makeshift tennis court. The shows were fast-paced and exciting, and the best had lots of student participation. Relay races, ball skills, physical challenges and lots and lots of prizes. The follow up classes generated upwards of 100 kids in a low-cost or free program. A large percentage of the kids continued with additional lessons. They were hooked.
The USTA also had a group of experienced instructors who would contract with school districts and provide in-service days for P.E. teachers, who would learn to conduct P.E. units for tennis. The schools would receive free tennis racquets, balls and nets to continue programs. The Commish remembers a USPTA pro named Martha Downing who was exquisite at conducting these in-service programs in California. They were many more like her across the country. Pros would connect with P.E. teachers on their own, who were eager for new ideas for their P.E. classes. The pros would bring in 40 racquets and balls and worked their magic in gyms. Kids hitting against the wall and having mini tennis rallies and short court tennis games. Now the Commish sees pickleball P.E. units taking over. He also knows schools are tough to get into now with pandemic rules governing, but the schools have been great at dispensing general distribution flyers to students. Where else can you get 300-600 flyers in mom’s hands for 3 cents a copy. After-school programs are viable for 36-foot court leagues and lesson programs. Middle schools are ripe for high school prep classes and teams. The Commish speaks – let’s get tennis back in the schools, especially elementary schools.
Next, as you will see, the Commish believes in the pyramid approach to growth. Build a huge base and let the players funnel to the top. So, in that model, pros focus on beginning players. Using the TIA’s numbers about 0.5 percent of the US population plays tennis. You’re a businessman/woman, do you go after 0.5 percent of the market (17.84 million) or 95% of the market or 332 million people? Year after year the TIA report mentions latent interest (people who have interest but have not yet started playing) at over 16 million Americans. And 14 million who say they are players but haven’t touched their racquets in over 2 years. Now the Commish is no math major, but those two groups combined would almost double the participation numbers. And that’s the lowest of low-hanging fruit. Here are the Commish’s top 10 ways to grow the beginner market.
At tennis clubs - offer a once a month free “intro to tennis day/night.” Target non-members and use your best instructor.
At recreation departments – start Intro to Tennis and Beginner’s classes. Lots of them.
Tennis Pros- market beginner’s classes. Ask your current customers to bring a friend or refer one. Offer to learn to play in one day (or one weekend) or other fast-track learning program. Offer coupons to local business (like hair/nail salons) owners. Give the business owners a free “try tennis” coupon that they can use as an enticement to their customer base.
Offer cardio tennis class - this gets mostly beginner or non-players. Make it affordable and a “lost leader” to fill all your other programs
Directors/Managers- work the ‘ladies society’ clubs, service clubs (Rotary, Lions, Chamber)
Use networking groups, like Young Entrepreneurs, American Marketing Assoc or SCORE
USTA – focus on beginner group classes – preferably free classes (more on USTA later)
Schools, Churches, and other institutions- contact them let them know that you offer beginner classes.
Offer Learn/Play League- get non-players playing right away who are more inclined to play rather than to take lessons.
Go to YMCA and ask to start a program in their gym. Those gyms sit vacant a good portion of the day.
Beginning players come to tennis with great enthusiasm and most of their friends don’t play so they will help you grow the numbers. Treat them like gold and they’ll be worth their weight in it. Now the Commish turns to the next item on the grow tennis agenda, the USTA.
Getting the USTA back on track and accomplishing its mission, to grow the game of tennis, would make this initiative much easier. The USTA has morphed into a monolithic organization, and by that, the Commish means an organization that does not consider the ideas or feelings of the people it affects. It seems most interested in the US Open and the money the tournament generates, and perpetuating the jobs it’s created for its executives. Its initiatives seem more interested in producing cash to feed the beast (i.e., USTA adult leagues) than growing the grassroots, which is beginning tennis and youth tournaments. The USTA used to be volunteer-centered, now it's self-centered. Used to be service-focused, now it builds giant monuments to honor itself. (National Tennis Campus). It used to support tennis pros, now it competes with them by buying tennis clubs and conducting tennis programs at recreation centers. But above all else, the Commish is a realist, not an idealist. So here are some initiatives the USTA could consider to get back on the growth path.
Let's start with some easy ones - Make the USTA more resemble the AAA. Been to the Automobile Association of America lately? You walk in through double-wide doors and are greeted warmly. USTA offices are in locked bunkers you cannot enter. You have to buzz at the USTA’s locked doors and a few minutes later someone will open the door and ask you what business you have there. The AAA will give you free maps and tour books and offer you discounts on anything travel-related. They can answer any question and are super helpful. How about if the USTA had open doors in accessible locations and has every public tennis court, club, and tennis shop on a map for you to take with you. It has every rec center and tennis professional’s business card and info and a listing of all tournaments and events in the next few months. They can offer free intro classes for you or your children, have free sample products, like grips and dampeners. Hats and t-shirts at below market value. Coupons for pro tennis tournaments and schedules for college tennis matches in the area. Cost of every club membership in the section and who is waiving their joining fees. And if you sign up for a USTA membership you get a whole host of other benefits and goodies. Just imagine the reaction great customer service can have.
USTA and Tennis Pros – Focus on the 4 to 5-year-old tennis market. For a whole host of reasons, the youngest youth market is the key to growing tennis. The Commish remembers a program long ago out of San Diego called the Tennis Buddies. Each kid got a racquet and t-shirt and these cute caps that the brims folded up on their heads. They had mini-nets and a whole booklet detailing the curriculum. Then came USPTA Pee Wee Tennis, then Little Tennis. All great programs and guess what happened. The kids and parents loved the programs. They got hooked and stayed with tennis. They were way ahead of their peers athletically. They became the last great American generation of top world-class tennis players. All those players started at 3 or 4. But just imagine the TIA’s participation numbers if they included 3 to 6-year-olds. But more importantly, the younger that kids start playing tennis, the longer they continue. They are dynamos when they get into high school and we’d have a chance to compete again for the top 10 US tennis professionals in the world rankings. Granted the Commish knows it takes a special person to teach 4-5-year-olds, and a lot of what they do is not so tennis-related. It's fun and learning how to socialize and wait your turn and how to hold your attention. But these are great skills. Tennis is the best for young kids to learn life lessons that will pay big dividends in the future. Listen to the Commish and focus on the 4-5-year-old market.
Public Parks, you were key in the boom are you are the key again – Public parks are free to play tennis. People like free and they like going to parks. Wise rec department leaders should see tennis as a great recreation opportunity for their constituents and great for the budget. The USTA needs to take a step back here and let the tennis teaching pros take the lead here. The USTA can work in partnership with the Rec Dept and the pros and offer a free series of intro classes. And then the next series is conducted by the pros. This is where the beginning classes and the 4-5-year-old market explode the game. And it leads the people who start in these programs to the clubs, high school tennis, and to USTA tournaments. This is where the USTA and pros can work together. The USTA TSR’s can help with play-days and offer USTA junior tournaments. Plus, all the other fun programs like cardio tennis, 36-foot quick start leagues, and Junior Team Tennis. The parks environment is a great family setting, moms bring the littlest one to play on the swings while brother and sister take a lesson. And that little one can’t wait to get started. The Commish shows how all these elements work together to grow the game.
USTA, add 8 & Under Division - Another principle the Commish believes in is synergy. If the USTA would add a competitive 8 and under division, with rankings, it would be a bonanza. Because of the mandates the USTA created surrounding the 10 & under division with its stars program, racquet-size limitation, and colored ball restrictions, the Commish is surprised there is any junior tennis at all. Besides, the 60-foot court limitation for 10 and under kids is hindering development. Those kids run like deer. However, if a new younger division is added for 8 & under, it would be natural to have orange ball and green-dot tournaments and red-felt on 36-foot courts for the newest players. Here’s the synergy part. If a lot of focus was placed on 4 to 5-year-old tennis, in three or four years of development, these kids are ready to compete. Give them a taste of the game; for some kids, that’s all it takes. Give them one whiff and they want to smell the sweet scent of victory. And don’t try to sell the Commish on excuses from the USTA that they are too busy and over-worked and stretched too thin. The USTA staff are over-paid and under-produced compared to private sector companies. They are not the government. If the USTA was successful at achieving its mission this wouldn’t be a conversation. The US players would not be falling behind their competitors. The game’s growth would not be stagnant and the sport would be like it is in other countries, the second or third most popular sport. The Commish has spoken, add an 8 & under junior division.
While we are on the subject of the pro game, another belief the Commish holds dear is that you don’t have to reinvent the wheel. The wheel was invented 10,000 years ago and it’s just as round now as it was then. There are a couple of models of player/country development that are working. Namely the French and the Spanish. The French model is a one-ranking system, from the top pro player in the country down to the last person who plays local tournaments. And just as important they have a robust league-based program that brings top competitive players who play for prize money down to recreation leagues for local-level players.
Leagues are offered through clubs and sponsored through community organizations. The end result is players are placed in highly competitive league teams and the best players vie to get into these coveted leagues. And the next league down is equally competitive and on down the line. The USTA could arrange such a system or perhaps an ingenious private enterprise. But one thing that does not seem to be working is USTA Player Development. Private coaching and some academy programs are producing results but how about if the USTA adopts a “French” model of competitive leagues with prize money at the top. And takes the money it is spending on player development and moves that over to 4 to 5 programs, 8 & under rankings, beefed-up local and national tournaments for 10 to 18-year-olds, and more $15,000 to $25,000 futures and challenger pro events. Remember the Commish’s words, don’t reinvent the wheel, just get new rims and a fresh set of tires, and let’s get this thing rolling.
The Commish knows he’s in for a long match and up against long odds in this battle, so it’s time to throw a couple of haymakers and see if we can come out on top.
The Commish’s Moonshot Idea
The time has come for the Commish to ask a few of his close personal friends to help a fellow out. One way to get the interest of Americans is to have a number 1 player suiting up in the Red, White, and Blue. So, your beloved host in this adventure is reaching out to Larry Ellison, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, and Jeff Bezos. We are proposing $10,000,000 to the American male or female who becomes #1 in the world and $5,000,000 to the coach.
A Commissioner in Tennis
The Commish is not available for this job, but hopefully, we can find a suitable candidate who can: 1) Bring the four major championships under one mega organization. Sponsorships through the roof, broadcasting rights explode and facilities improve. 2) Prize money gets more equitable. 3) Unite the silos of the USTA, ITF, ATP, WTA, Davis Cup, Fed Cup, USPTA, USPTR, and more. 4) Actually grow the sport
The Pied Pipers of Tennis – The USTA and other allied organizations are looking for 50 Pied Pipers of Tennis (one for each state).100 Promoters, spread evenly throughout the country based on population.500 Agents, working for the Pied Pipers and Promoters and 1000 Advocates, working at the local level to help start programs, fix courts and recruit players.
Pros to Owners Program – Loosely modeled after the Andre Agassi initiative when he builds the schools and then sells them to teachers/operators.Same for pros to owners’ program. The consortium builds the club and then first leases to the pro who operates and purchases the club in a year or two with help of an SBA loan. Puts the right people in the vanguard for growth.
Well, the Commish has spoken and the people have listened. Will anything change? Remember the Commish is a realist, and change is hard. People are entrenched and have a vested interest in the status quo. In a lot of ways, tennis is fine. Lots of clubs are thriving, pros are doing extremely well, manufacturers are selling, and the fat cats are getting fatter. But tennis is mired in a slump, pickleball is nipping at its heels, the mid-level pros can’t make a living and the public is getting apathetic and distracted. It’s kind of like a toothache, it kind of hurts but you ignore it. Soon it’s a root canal. Tennis is great but could become irrelevant. Tennis is a treasure, but it could soon be buried under a weight of a society preoccupied. Tennis could be the best thing for kids, bar none. It can be a great profession to work in again with the right leadership. Tennis can thrive and we can pass this great game on to future generations, or we can ignore it and let all this greatness go to waste. Remember the Commish’s words and save this great game before it is too late.
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